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?

11/12/2008

A Review of a Review

One Jeff Turrentine, reviewing Kate Atkinson's pseudo-mystery Case Histories:

"In taking on detective fiction -- a genre whose circumscribed rules don't typically allow for too much character development -- Atkinson, whose inclinations are more literary, is taking a risk. No one ever wanted to know what Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade were "feeling." What's supposed to matter is plot, plot, plot."

Sure. Raymond Chandler never displayed any interest in Marlowe's feelings, and characterization in his works is sketchy at best, not to mention his notoriously crude writing. The author of such plot-driven books as The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye was in there just for the whodunit and in this department he could draw circles around Agatha Christie. John Dickson Carr repeatedly praised the fairness and cleverness of his plots, and rumours have it that the Detection Club was seriously considering his induction by the time he died. As to detective fiction, it indeed leaves no room for characterization, or just one as tiny as the argument of Case Histories. Edmund Wilson demonstrated it seventy years ago and we all know he was a trustable source and the genre didn't change at all ever since...

Having raised the bar high, Turrentine then proceeds to raise it even higher:

"Breaking detective-thriller form, Case Histories is told from multiple points of view"

I hate to break it to our enthusiastic reviewer, but multiple points of view have been used in mystery fiction for a long time. P.D. James, hardly a newcomer or an innovator, even made this technique one of her trademarks. Atkinson doesn't break any new ground here - except if you think, like Mr. Turrentine seems to, that the genre started with Chandler and Hammett and that authors coming after them followed their path to a fault. Mmmm, not quite.

How would Jeff Turrentine and his readers feel about a mystery critic reviewing John Updike's latest mainstream novel and telling us that Charles Dickens was a pseudonym for eighteen-century French playwright Fidor Dostoevsky, best known for his epic poem Don Quixote? I guess they'd be quite upset, and the local groceries would soon run out of tomatoes. But mainstream reviewers dabbling into genre fare - well, literary genre fare - are allowed to pout similar nonsense and get a free pass, as evidenced by the fact that this four-year old review seems not to have elicited any comment or response. I myself wouldn't have heard of it had I not recently read Case Histories and found it so nothing special despite the hype that I rounded all reviews available on the web, hoping they'd eventually provide me with keys to the alleged greatness of that book. They didn't, but Mr. Turrentine's article at least gave me the stimuli to write this post, and is thus somewhat redeemed for that. Somewhat.

UPDATE: Jeff Turrentine sent me a reply which you can read here.