31/12/2008

Hooked on Oldies

Sarah Weinman feels contrite:
 
Hillary Waugh died earlier this month and I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never heard of him. That's entirely my fault, but considering he wrote LAST SEEN WEARING (1952), which is considered to be one of the earliest examples of the modern police procedural, and kept up a prolific pace from the late 1940s until the late 1980s, I'm at a loss as to how he wasn't on my reading radar. It's like when Julius Fast, who won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Novel, passed away: I had some dim awareness but it was completely out of proportion to the significance of Fast's work in the mystery realm.
 
Neither Fast or Waugh are bedside authors of mine - I read only one book from each, none being a groundbreaking experience to say the least. Of the former's amnesia-themed thriller THE BRIGHT FACE OF DANGER, I wrote in 2003: "One of the numerous freudian mysteries that cropped up after World War II,  [it] hasn't aged well. Penny-rate psychology takes too much place to the detriment of a plot verging on mere pretext." On re-reading this review I realize that I omitted the good things about the book, namely that it was well-crafted (within its limitations) and quite readable. Still, there was nothing there to suggest Mr. Fast's eventual significance is other than historical. I may be wrong of course, and I haven't read his Edgar-winner, but if asked about a significant mystery writer going by the name of Fast, I'd rather pick his brother Howard (check the Women books he wrote under the pseudonym E.V. Cunningham, they're terrific)
 
I'll refrain from commenting about Waugh's stature on the evidence of the sole book of his that I read since it's hardly typical. A far cry from the police procedurals that made him famous, A BRIDE FOR HAMPTON HOUSE is a gothic. When reading it in 2002, I thought Waugh was "not really at home with that kind of books. "Bride" could have been a good, if not great, book, but it never goes beyond a decent standard level. Story, while a solid one, is predictable and characters are wooden. Waugh, though, remains a great storyteller, and you have to know what happens - even if it's something you had guessed already." I have another Waugh on my shelves, the earlier and more typical A RAG AND A BONE, which I haven't read yet.
 
Maybe you think this post aims at boasting my colossal erudition and sneer at Ms. Weinman's ignorance, in which case you'd be quite mistaken. The reason why Fast and Waugh ring a bell here is that my reading diet leans heavily to the antediluvian. My two favorites for this year (I still can't decide which one is the very best) were written more than fifty years ago - which is quite recent in comparison with my best book for 2007. I'm not opposed to contemporary mystery fiction as such and I appreciate it when it's good, but I am definetely "hooked on oldies".
 
Reading older books, apart from exposing you to lots of wonderful stuff (and, sometimes, godawful crap) you'd never hear of otherwise, has an invaluable virtue: it provides you with a perspective. One of the reasons why so many critically-acclaimed modern mysteries said to "break new ground" and "transcend the genre" leave me cold is that all too often they don't break any new ground nor actually transcend anything; their path has been crossed before, sometimes with a lighter foot. Genuine innovation and progress in mystery fiction is most definetely an illusion.
 
Exploring the dusty shelves, however, is a solitary job. Most people don't know the books you read and in return you don't know the books most people read. A balance has to be achieved. My good resolution for 2009?

3 commentaires:

Kerrie a dit…

Hello Xavier
Would you be interested in participating in anactivity running on my blog?
http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/2008/12/your-best-crime-fiction-reads-in-2008.html

Steve Lewis a dit…

Xavier

You are of course not alone in reading older books. The problem is that there are so many of them, and all are worth reading for one reason or another. (Well, most of them.)

The result is that you and I could spend the rest of our lives reading old detective stories, and we still might not end up with each of us reading the same book.

Most assuredly we'd read the same authors and the same type of books, but unless it's a classic, like Roger Ackroyd, oh so seldom the same book.

--- Steve

Janet Rudolph a dit…

Our book group that has been meeting weekly for over 30 years decided to read 'older' mysteries this winter. We read a lot of new mysteries this fall, so we decided to revisit some of the writers we remembered fondly. I agree with you that the older books (wonderful stuff) does provide a perspective. For our reading list go to Mystery Fanfare: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2008/11/revisiting-older-mystery-authorsmystery.html

Love your Blog.