Abandoned Books

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

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Well, what I've been doing lately


Yeah, I know it's been a long time. But hey, I have the time now, y'know? And I'm getting tired of seeing all these spam comments on the blog.

I'm not sure if I really have time anymore to do full-on considerations of authors, but I do like the idea of this blog as a place where I can work out my thoughts on other writers. So I may shift to more of a diary approach – for the ten of you who read this thing, I know, dry your tears. Life is all about change, eh? Isn't that what DEAD POET'S SOCIETY all taught us?

Anyhow, start out with a recommendation. This blog:


Probably the best of the New Criterion boys, I stumbled on this blog recently and have been gratefully reading through it ever since. The pieces on the evident Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish mishmash and a very funny evisceration of a take on Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop that posits it's all a big homoerotic love story are worth the effort to pull the damn thing up on your computer by itself.

Professor Myers is not perfect. I admire Charles McCarry as much as anyone and more than most, but I do find curious any appreciation that names the good-but-at-times shrill Shelley's Heart as his best book; I suspect this is a (for the good Professor, thankfully quite rare) instance of his political inclinations overwhelming his aesthetic sense. To my mind the best, by far, of McCarry's books is The Last Supper, although here's a good instance where it helps to read widely both within the author and within the genre. To take the last one first, spy novelists have taken cracks at the “big historical novel that tries to tell America's (or the UK's) story through the story of it's spies” for a good while, this I think is easily the best/most persuasive of the batch, if only because it doesn't have, say, the agenda of Le Carre's A Perfect Spy. As for McCarry's own oeuvre, it's hard not to read The Miernik Dossier and especially The Secret Lovers and not feel like these were test runs for The Last Supper, Supper feels like the culmination of something, and I'm very interested in seeing an author's career as the pursuit of a vision.

Still, decide for yourself. I could be full of crap, who knows. And I am the proud owner of a hb first edition of Shelley's Heart.


He also seems to have, well, not exactly a wrong take on George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman, but not exactly the right take, either. He is, I think, correct in positing Flashman here as an antihero who's presence is meant to show up the virtue of others around him. Although I don't know if it's always as complex as that, remember Flashman came out in the late Sixties and a lot of this “war is hell and cowards are heroes” stuff was just in the air, it's what makes so much of that era's work so campy.

I don't think it's any slight to Fraser's memory to posit that he was writing for market, particuarly remember that a straight up swashbuckler in that era probably couldn't have seen light any other way. Again, it's useful to take a writer's work as a whole, it helps you avoid these kind of pitfalls, and by the second volume, Royal Flash (an amusing knockoff of The Prisoner of Zenda) it becomes quite clear that Fraser was just interested in writing classic swashbucklers with a slightly modern touch. Most fans of the series will concede, I think, that Flashy's character softens significantly as the books go on – actually all to the good, I'd say, as I'd get tired of all the heavy-handed “critique” after a bit.

It's not exactly that Fraser wasn't interested in social critiques after Flashman, just that he did them more subtly – better. An interesting volume for instance is Flash for Freedom!, where Fraser very cunningly inserts Flashman in all aspects of the slave trade, from slaver to slave. It's Flashy's resoundingly immoral-but-in-really-a-kind-of-jovial-way nature after the first book that makes the critique work, it's all implication. Actually, as I type this, it occurs to me that's the secret, all reflected light. Compare the superb opening section of Flashman at the Charge (deals with Balaclava) to anything in Flashman and tell me what works best.

Anyhow, here's Myers's take:


I actually have been trying to read through Fraser's work complete, right now I'd venture to say the best Flashman novel is either Flashman at the Great Game or Flashman's Lady.

What else have I been reading? Some Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, and it's interesting to compare the two – why do we read Stout still while Gardner is almost assured of being forgotten? (Once one of the biggest bestselling authors in the world, even – ah, the vagaries of literary fame.) I think it helps that Archie and Nero Wolfe are such strong, exaggerated characters – tell me, what is Perry Mason like? I mean, as a person? Once can read a whole adventure and not know. On a general level I'd venture to say Gardner was at least as competent a storyteller as Stout, but there's a kind of distinctiveness in Stout's prose – mainly because there's distinctiveness in the characters, and most of a Stout novel is dialog – whereas Gardner is the equivalent of a fast food meal, eat it and forget it ten minutes later.

I think the big difference between them is that for Stout plots are not a big thing. Yeah, they are nominally “mysteries” but very lightly told/plotted, hell Chandler wrote more complex plots than a typical Stout. (This is one reason devotees of the classic mystery story often dislike Stout, or at least approach him warily.) Plots are a big big thing to Gardner, indeed they are the whole game. You read a Perry Mason for the plot.

But the Masons suffer from the same thing that I think Ellery Queen suffers from, a very glib superficiality. None of the books stick. You don't remember the twists and turns at all. Compare with Agatha Christie – I'm no great fan of Christie's, either, but you remember those plots. Once you read Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Ten Little Indians, you remember 'em. (This is one of the secrets of her success, she was an artist with the mystery plot, if you define “artist” as “somebody consciously manipulating stuff for an aesthetic end”.)

In general, American writers who tried to write classic mysteries (as opposed to hardboiled) failed, though, not because they weren't clever (Queen and Gardner were both quite clever) but because the other main reason we appreciate the Golden Age of Detective Stories isn't for the plot – it's because they're British. Yeah, it's that specific world of small villages, dowdy spinster-detectives, tea, Lords, cads, estates, etc. (This is why Dorothy Sayers is the important classic mystery writer, not Christie – she understood this fundamentally, which is why she signaled the ultimate direction British mystery fiction would take – the world of the social novel.) The best American writer of classic mystery stories was John Dickson Carr – all of his tales are set in Britain and are elaborate Gothics, specifically for this reason, I'd venture. He understood the central unreality of the classic mystery novel, the importance of setting, and played up on it.

But Carr was a smart cookie.

I've read some Harold Lamb, only to decide that there's really nothing there that you're not getting, better, from Robert E. Howard. (Who I am convinced is a great American writer, and thankfully widely available now, in rather expensive Del Rey editions.) And I've started reading some Peter Straub again, and while I'm not sure the generally accepted “good books” (Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon) are really all that great (I mean, I don't know, we'll like see, yo. Shadowland isn't too bad right now.) I am absolutely convinced that the later thrillers (Koko, The Throat) are genuinely awful, overwritten straining-for-profundity crap. I think in essence Straub doesn't have the temperament for the mystery genre, he is all about overwhelming Gothic bursts of effect and sweeping romanticism, which is not conducive to a good mystery tale – they are deliberately restrained, almost sentimental in their construct, when they are most effective.