Monday, July 14, 2014

Confessions of a Literary Snob in Recovery

Prior to my exposure to crime fiction novels or (if you prefer) suspense, thrillers, murder mysteries, burglar books (I love alliteration), my choice of reading material might've conformed to what Jeeves referred to as 'improving books'. Independent of the college curriculum, I gravitated toward the staples of higher learning. My literary nourishment focused on the published ideas of the great philosophers, the verse of the famous poets, and the prose of the classic novelists. If I wasn't scrambling to read everything from Socrates to Sartre, I was immersed in the epic tales of Homer, the tragedies and sonnets of Shakespeare, even sprinklings of William Blake and James Joyce when no one was looking. And if those masters weren't keeping me up nights, it was the 19th to early 20th century fiction (and diction) of Dickens, Stevenson, Wells, and Twain.

Of course even the most prudish palate occasionally indulges in a hot dog and a bag of chips. I read a number of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes short stories in my 20s, a random Agatha Christie novel (Ten Little Indians) in my 30s, and, don't ask when (my notes don't say), Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon in a dayI recognize this is nothing compared to the murder mystery aficionados who were still teething when they read The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. But when you begin your reading career with Kafka's rich metaphors, Tennyson's lofty verse, and Nabokov's linguistic flourishes, a good deal of murder mystery, in contrast, reads like glorified telegrams.

What's more, and I suppose it's the outlier in me, when I think of Mystery, my mind doesn't swing toward the boot print on the herringbone parquet or the hair fiber on the escritoire. Instead, I think of the wonders of the universe, lost civilizations, the supernatural, that curious, sometimes sublime, body of knowledge that appeals to the more esoteric among us – existentialism, God, whether the light in my refrigerator truly goes out when I close the door. 

No, the term Mystery doesn't work for me. I prefer the moniker Crime Fiction, but I won't press the point. Most find the controversy pointless. In fact, I'm reminded of a similar frustration I suffered a quarter century ago. My crusade to delineate fairy tale, folk tale, fantasy fiction, legend, and escapism from that broad, seemingly all-encompassing category known as science fiction fizzled in the first gust. Today I no longer care whether people pair Peter Pan and pixie dust with the brutal accounts in Beowulf. Still, I empathize with the devotee's objective. As a lover of words, I, too, recognize the importance of proper classification. Just remember, most can't be bothered.

It took me many years to learn that not all books can be about cultivating the mind or edifying the soul. To paraphrase Mark Twain, while the books of the great geniuses are like wine, Twain regarded his own work as water, and, he added, everybody drinks water. For too many reasons to list here, much of what I balked at nearly 20 years ago I gladly indulge in today approaching 50. In short, my interests have changed. For the past month, I've been devouring murder mysteries, or what the literary world would probably refer to as transient trash. Light reading. Fluff. Which is fine, since even Harlequin romance novels kick television's ass. Or so I'm told. As a rule, I don't watch TV. And I've read only a few romance novels. Pinkie swears.

So for my next few posts I'll compare the plots and styles of murder mystery novelists (or whatever moniker the connoisseurs prefer) and decide what to recommend and what to renounce. After all, who says writing isn't a contest?

Our local library has an entire shelf devoted to James Patterson. So last month I grabbed 7th Heaven, which, according to the title list following the flyleaf, is book one in a series of seven. Only it isn't. The list is inverted: the last title on the list (the book at the bottom) is both the first novel chronologically and the first published in the series. Likewise, the title at the top is actually the last novel in the series and the most recent release. Since I couldn't have been expected to know the publishers were buffoons, I didn't bother to verify the release date of each novel. As a result, I came in late, as they say. That aside, this was a good read if not a good book. Neither the protagonist nor the prose is deplorable, and the pace never slows. Three out of five stars.

The second book in my crime fiction spree was The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. Turns out this is the second book in the Hercule Poirot series, which, incidentally, marks my first exposure to this endearing Belgian sleuth. As in the Sherlock Holmes stories narrated by Dr. Watson, Hercule Poirot's sidekick Arthur Hastings provides a first person perspective. It may be too early to compare, but so far Hastings and Watson, though both ex-military men, differ in many respects. Hastings, easily distracted by a woman's charms and somewhat absent minded, seems more human to me. I was sorry to later learn Hastings is featured in only seven of Christie's 22 Poirot novels from 1920 to 1937. Shame, that. I really enjoy their chemistry. I can't imagine Hercule going it alone. As in the case of Patterson, the prose is prosaic. But Christie has turned the matter-of-fact into an art form. And the misdirects are non-stop. Five out of five stars.

A friend recommended Tony Hillerman. At the local library, I grabbed the title that caught my fancy: The Wailing Wind. I might've cared more about the budding romance between Chee and Bernadette (Bernie) had I started with the first novel in the series. In a few scenes, Chee and Leaphorn occasionally laugh though neither says anything remotely funny. Literary characters should never have more fun than the reader, i.e. me. In contrast, the banter between Hastings and Poirot is quite amusing at times, yet neither of Christie's characters laughed for my benefit. I plan to give Hillerman another try since his setting is the Navajo Reservation circa 1970. The superstitions and religious rites of shaman juxtaposed with modern day amenities was fascinating. Three out of five stars.

Last but not the least bit least, and quite possibly my favorite author of the hour, Lilian Jackson Braun and her first book in The Cat Who series The Cat Who Could Read Backwards. If you enjoy fine writing and Wodehousian humor, check this out. The quirky characters, spot on narrative, clever dialogue, and imaginative scenes, all conveyed in a fantastic style, brought me to the last page before I realized the fun was over. And this is coming from someone who can't abide cats. I've already grabbed book two in the series. Five out of five stars.

One Patterson, Christie, Hillerman, and Braun concurrently to follow, as time allows. Meanwhile, murder mystery mavens, provide your recommendations. I'll read them if I can find them. 

1 comment:

  1. You should give Dorothy Sayers a try.


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