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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

re: Reginald Hill

I've never read him, don't care for mysteries myself, and frankly don't trust the stability of people who do enjoy them, but I relate to much of what you say.

I think the essential problem with today's hack fiction is that it's OVERWRITTEN.

There are several reasons.

It's easier to be verbose when composing on a word processor then when you have to type it out manually. Droning is also much easier than getting to the point.

I'm sure many authors also think their writing is more polished that the hackwork of yesteryear - which admittedly is quite creaky but far more readable - by virtue of being padded. But I think this pursuit of a fake, synthetic style is wearying (and a bore to read) and I can't even begin to imagine how these current authors will read decades from now - not that anybody will read, let alone remember them.

I'm also sure writers nowadays overwrite because they've studied too much technique and have lost any semblence of common sense, i.e. keep the reader turning the pages, keep the story going. Instead, they want to flesh out the fictional world is some misbegotten attempt at appearing serious or realistic. Heaven forbid that an entertainment should be just that.

Last, I think that by editing their novels to proper length, it only draws attention to the paucity of their works. If you can't write something substantial then by all means blow it up several times so that it sinks under its own weight and will seem deep and important. I'm amazed - and more than a little sickened - by all those readers of popular fiction who can slog through - and enjoy! - massively overwritten and bloated tomes but will turn their noses up at anything concise. It's like they love overwritten prose.

Finally on the subject of British authors attempting the American vernacular. This current mid-Atlantic style popular with British writers of all genres (even literary) has really turned me off British fiction. If I want to read an American author, then I'll read a genuine American author. British authors should write like they're British. I love that traditional, fussy British writing style. Even the so-called lower class British writing style had charm and personality. Not so this indistinct mid-Atlantic prose style. Almost like they're afraid of being British.

I'm sure I have more to say on the subject but had better sign off.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Doug Bassett said...

Hi, Anonymous:

Yes, a lot of popular fiction is overwritten nowadays and there's a host of reasons for that -- from the technological differences between writing on a word processor vs writing on a typewriter to market demands to a sense of self-importance with the authors themselve. We are stuck with the first two, probably, but I don't see any reason why the third can't be challenged.

Everyone wants to be a star; of course everyone can't be. Your comments makes me wonder if there's a certain humility in past hackwork that's missing today, and if we're the worse for it. I am no expert on Erle Stanley Gardner, but I've read a fair share of his stuff and seriously doubt he was swinging for the fences, as it were. And it may be this modest urge to settle for a base hit into the left field hole that makes his work more approachable than a guy like Hill, who's just sitting on home plate striking out.

As it were.

I think there's also a workshop mentality with popular fiction, as well as more selfconscious "highbrow" stuff, and Hill is an example of what results. Another subject for another day, perhaps.


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