Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Scattered Thoughts

I know, I know, not Ira Levin. What can I say? Would you believe that it's actually somewhat hard to find his lesser known titles in the used bookstores in Philadelphia? I finally found most of ‘em, although I still can’t find A KISS BEFORE DYING, which annoys me as it’s one I particularly want to revisit and I know it was reissued in a bullshit movie tie-in edition during the mid-Nineties sometime.

I know, I know, I could order 'em online – but part of the point of this project is that I don't want to go to extremes for them. They should be easy to pick up. Well, I'm making a big pass through the Philly/Main Line bookstores, we'll see if I can't pick KISS up somewhere.

So instead, a few brief thoughts on what I've been reading. All mysteries, most of them fairly recent, at least by my lights. After this will definitely be Herman Wouk, and the next more self-consciously “literary” guy will probably be John O’Hara. I’m not sure what will be the more self-consciously “genre” stuff, although I definitely do want to intersperse something; we’ll see.

Peter Dickinson – THE GLASS-SIDED ANTS NEST and THE POISON ORACLE. Very idea driven books – these are essentially explorations of linguistics in a mystery setting, and while well written, the both of them, what they reminded me of more than anything was the kind of idea-driven science fiction that you used to be able to spot in Analog magazine and the like. Which makes the books strangely unsatisfying – they feel like thought experiments, sort of, and while you might just maybe accept that in sf (I'm not at all sure you would or should there, either, but at least there's an argument to be made that methodology is a lynchpin of the genre) here it just feels odd, like I'm reading a story but really there's something else going on the whole time – that I'm being conned in some way, basically. Another way to say it -- are you really interested in having your mind expanded by serious linguistic inquiry? If you’re not, I’m not sure Dickinson is the way to go.

Reginald Hill – RECALLED TO LIFE. This is the first Hill I've ever read, bought I think on recommendation from Nick Fuller, who has a good website up on classic mystery authors here (http://www.geocities.com/hacklehorn/index.htm). I really disliked this, though, and won't be trying another. It suffers from three cardinal sins of mystery writers nowadays.

It's too long. For perceived market reasons most modern mysteries are too long, and could be profitably cut by a third. Certainly the case here, the book reeks of overpadding.

It's written in a very glib, overly-workshopped/overly-massaged sort of prose that one sees a lot of, when one reads a lot. Basically pulp/hack writing for the present day, although at least the pulp writers of the past had some distinctiveness. I would call it very mediocre thin gruel stylistically. It won't wear well. (One of the signs of our illiterate age is that the mainstream gruel of the past just reads better than the mainstream gruel of today. Erle Stanley Gardner was no great shakes as a stylist either, but even the lamest Perry Mason just reads better than the shuck and jive of today. Why? Because Gardner came out of a different, more word-conscious age, and the mediocre of that age was just better than the mediocre of today. )

Finally, this is true only of British writers, but there's nothing more lamentable than when a British writer tries to write hardboiled prose. I know of very few British writers who've been able to handle that type of thing successfully and Hill is not one of them. What do tough guy neologisms sound like in the mouth of a Brit? Typically? Cute. They sound cute. And unbelievable.

Easily one of the most overrated mystery writers now on the scene today – though I suspect the TV version of these characters is not too bad – this reads like something that would transfer better to film.

Gladys Mitchell – WATSON'S CHOICE My second attempt at Ms. Mitchell and I plead surrender, I can't get into her.

There was in the past (not sure if there still is) a mini school of British mystery writing that was highly literate, took to mysteries as a kind of refined intellectual game, and wrote very erudite examples of the genre. That sounds great, I know, but I don't like anybody I've encountered from this school – Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Ms. Mitchell – as all of their books seem to me nervous twittery things, all fussbudgetty and the wringing of hands and the coining of the subtle joke, to the detriment of what we're all presumably here for. I actually have not been able to finish a novel by any of these three writers.

Peter Lovesey – THE LAST DETECTIVE. And finally this, which I just finished today. As a good example of how bad the Hill is, stack this book up against the Hill and tell me which is just the better, more ably written thing.

My problem here is that while it's far subtler in it's contrivances and manufactured thingness, it is still essentially a contrived, makework piece of product. Far better and more ably written, but it feels like a British psychological drama to which an unlikable, and rather unbelievable, detective is thrust. They're almost two different things, the elements of the book do not go together and end up pulling the thing apart. The very best classic traditional mysteries have a sort of inevitably about them – only this detective could solve this case at this time, that all were inextricably intertwined. Only Wimsey could solve MURDER MUST ADVERTISE; only Dr. Gideon Fell could handle THE THREE COFFINS. Etc. That's the great pleasure of the traditional mystery – not the puzzle itself (for if so Ellery Queen would be the great traditional American mystery writer and he's clearly not, he's already starting to be forgotten, mainly because it all seemed like an excuse for the puzzle) but the puzzle as an outgrowth of a world (excepting Carr, who's really unique in all sorts of ways, the great traditional American mystery writer is probably Rex Stout and why do we read the Nero Wolfes? Not for the puzzle so much as the puzzle as a reflection of and aspect of Wolfe's world.)

This sense of union, of belief, is just not here. I actually suspect strongly that the thriller plot came first, and then, when it was decided to make it a traditional mystery, the annoying detective character came later. The domestic drama parts just feel more real to me, more believable. There's not enough weight in the lead character to get me to care about his predicament.