19/11/2009

Our Job

Les Blatt over at GAdetection mourns the loss of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, John Rhode, Emma Lathen and others whose works have been out of print for eons, with no better future in sight:

This thread hits on a very sore point for me - the fact that so many classic authors are completely (or nearly so) out of print, at least in the US. As far as I know, all of Sayers's, nearly all Christie's and a fair percentage of Marsh's books are still in print. Allingham, as you say, is being reprinted by Felony & Mayhem, who also has been reissuing most of Crispin (curiously excluding The Moving Toyshop) and Elizabeth Daly. So much for the good news. Once you get past Rue Morgue Press and, of course, Crippen & Landru, however most of the other publishers seem to have only a very limited assortment available, particularly of GAD authors. Poisoned Pen Press in Arizona has some available; ditto Merion Press, and I've found some Leo Bruce books published by Academy Chicago Press. I guess I should note that the Mystery Guild does have a handful of classics (usually multiple-novel volumes) available, amid the usual "blockbuster-hits-only" lists. I suspect that the problem too often is orphan rights. It seems criminal (pun, I suppose, intended) to me that Carr and Queen are totally out of print, not to mention Arthur Upfield, John Rhode and even later authors, including Emma Lathen and Patricia Moyes. I'm not sure I can offer an easy solution - but I do think that today's readers are being cheated. And I'm grateful to Doug Greene and to Tom and Enid Schantz, among others, for their work in trying to bring some excellent authors back.

The distressing gap between the huge popularity of the genre and the widespread ignorance of whole strati of its past is a familiar topic of this blog. It is not helped by classics going extinct. How can you fault someone for not knowing John Dickson Carr, or having never read anything by him, when the only way to do is to dig in the dusty shelves of some back-alley used book store? Availability is the first condition of notability.

The big question of course is why those once well-regarded authors fell off the train whereas their companions continued their travel more or less comfortably. Some will say it's estate's fault, others will insist that it's publishers'; still others will say that it's just because their works have not stood the test of time. They all have a point. Some estates are indifferent at best, provided that you can locate them. Publishing is a notoriously risk-averse industry and it's no coincidence that Rue Morgue, C&L and others are independents. Finally, times have changed and so have readers and their expectations, which to me is the most important factor.

Like it or not and for better or worse (no need to tell you which side I'm on) readers nowadays have a wholly different attitude to mystery fiction than they had back in the first half of the last century. Golden Age and later authors whose works have not faded into oblivion are those who satisfy the new standards or just provide a not-too-guilty pleasure.

Christie admittedly owes a great deal of her popularity to her amazing plotting skills and the legendary figures of Poirot and Marple, but an even larger part of her enduring appeal lies in what has come to be called "Christie-land", that quiet and gentle rural England with its retired majors and inquisitive spinsters. It is of course an oversimplification of her work and one of the reasons why she still fails in some quarters to be taken as seriously as she should, but this oversimplification is what makes the brand survive and the books sell.

The appeal of the other Crime Queens - Allingham, Marsh, Sayers and Tey - is of a different, more highbrow sort. While Christie is often (unfairly) chided for that modern capital sin, poor characterization, her sisters in crime are essentially lauded for their literary merits, in keeping with the contemporary liking for mysteries that "transcend the genre". Hardly anyone reads Tey or Allingham for the puzzles; their appeal lies in the elegant writing and the comedy of manners; Marsh and Sayers are stronger plotters but the dynamics are the same with, in the latter's case, a phenomenal plus in the person of Lord Peter Wimsey.

The forgotten men (and women) of mystery have none of all those advantages. John Dickson Carr for instance also wrote about rural England, but in a decidedly unquiet way no bound to please the cozy reader. Ellery Queen built several of their stories on psychology and the characterization in the Wrightsville books is superior but their plots (nor Carr's) had the deceitful linearity of Christie's - it takes much more attention and concentration to read Ten Days' Wonder or The Mad Hatter Mystery than And Then They Were None. Their books sometimes pushed the envelope but they didn't transcend the genre; they weren't character-driven, were scant on direct social comment and worse of all to a modern audience, they were doggedly unrealistic.

This is not to say that any revival is impossible; fortune may sometimes have happy reversals. But it will take time as the potential audience will not be easily won. Time being money, it is something big publishers are not readily prodigal of so don't expect them to lead the way in the rescue of the lost classics of mystery fiction; and while the aforementioned independent presses do a marvelous job, the bulk of the work is up to fans - it's up to us. Fans don't have money, they don't have power, but they have a plenty of that thing that move mountains: enthusiasm. Let's use it to enhance the visibility of our favorite writers, either by promoting them to our friends and relations or using the new tool we have been given or any other venue we can find. I can't say for sure it will result in the reprint of E.R. Punshon's complete works, but every travel begins with a single step.

1 commentaire:

Anonyme a dit…

X,

Fan activity is more important than one would initially think. The Nero Wolfe (Wolfepack) fanbase is one of the things that keep the Stout books in print. A TV series every 30 years or so doesn't hurt either. Queen just doesn't have a unified,connected, well organized fanbase as Stout does. Why not, that's a subject for another posting.

Bob Schneider