Monday, October 13, 2008

“I’m Happy On The Shelf” #2

At various points in my life I’ve immersed myself in mystery novels. I’ll admit, I do go for the sort of high-falutin’ folks: during my days in Charlottesville & San Fran I read lots of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler (even wrote a poem while in ‘Frisco called “The Big Sleep”—warning: if you check it out, it is a two-pager), James Cain, Jim Thompson; later, I had an Arthur Conan Doyle & Chesterton’s “Father Brown,”& Wilkie Collins phase. Lately, it’s been Agatha Christie & Dorothy Sayers.

I’ve had a long-standing fascination with so-called genre writers—for one thing, writers like Chandler & Sayers & Edgar Rice Burroughs & Zane Gray & even Conan Doyle exist outside of the literary canon—by virtue of writing in a genre, they are not “literature.” This strikes me as both wrong-headed in terms of the literary establishment, & also a fact that immediately makes these writers interesting. As far as Christie & Sayers go, at their best they are each as good as any “genre” writer gets. I’ve often thought while reading Christie that if the literary establishment valued intricate plots as much as some stylistic or thematic considerations, a novel like The Secret of Chimneys, for instance, would rank very high in the canon.

Christie & Sayers are of course the two major writers from the British “Golden Age” of mystery novels. Though neither has received much attention as “serious literature,” they’re both very widely read—Christie’s books are among the very best selling ever, & the works of both writers have been successfully adapted for both television & screen (Christie’s have also appeared on stage, as she also wrote dramas). There are, to my mind, however, significant differences between the two writers.

Christie’s strength is plot. Her stories can keep you awake at night because you have to know how they end. Even readers who are familiar with her extensive & impressive bag of plot tricks are fooled by the red herrings that criss-cross thru her novels—the plots are a sort of M.C. Escher pattern of red herrings. She excelled at writing dialogue, & at her best her characters can be vivid—Tommy & Tuppence, whom she follows from youth to old age in several works are always intriguing, as is Superintendent Battle, & Bobby Jones & Frankie Derwent of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?; of course, also at their best, Miss Marple & Hercule Poirot are captivating. There is a sense sometimes with Christie that these major characters, especially Hercule Poirot, can become a bit two-dimensional, particularly in some of the later stories (as an example I’d single out Poirot in 1972’s Elephants Can Remember). It can seem as though Christie, having laid so much groundwork in earlier stories, relies on the Marple or Poirot “franchise” to stand in for characterization; of course, while Christie apparently liked the Miss Marple character, she actually came to despise Poirot, describing him in her diary as “insufferable.” Also, thematically, Christie’s stories don’t tend to have much depth—she is interested in cultural changes occurring in Great Britain, & her writing about the transformation from Edwardian to modern culture is interesting, though her viewpoint tends toward the conservative.

Sayers was an Oxford educated classicist who became a mystery writer for economic reasons. While her mysteries were popular in her lifetime, she herself believed her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her most important work; the Sayers’ verse translation is still available & respected, though it has the reputation of sometimes departing a good ways from the original. Sayers also published two books of her own poetry, & wrote both non-fiction books & essays, particularly on Christian doctrines—Sayers was a devout Anglican. She also wrote about feminist issues, particularly in Are Women Human?

For our purposes here, though, Sayers’ great creation was Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic detective hero of a dozen novels & three short story collections. For my money, Wimsey is one of the great creations of mystery fiction, & on a par with Sherlock Holmes. Lord Peter is very fully realized—his shell shock, his foppishness, his athleticism, his musical talent & passion, & his keen wit are all articulated to fashion a compelling & fascinating character. The character of Harriet Vane, paired with Wimsey in four wonderful novels (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, & Busman’s Holiday) is also vivid—an intellectual, a feminist, a “fallen woman” of sorts, who alternates between her career as a mystery writer & her longing to again be a part of academia studying Sheridan LeFanu. Secondary characters such as Wimsey’s butler (& ex-World War I comrade) Bunter, & Chief Inspector Parker (also eventually Wimsey’s brother-in-law) are also developed strongly.

There is a depth to Sayers’ writing that extends beyond her talent for characterization & her ability to effectively illustrate “local color,” whether that’s a Scottish village or an advertising agency or a woman’s college at Oxford. Some (most notably Edmund Wilson) have attacked Sayers as over-rated & as having pretensions to make the detective novel more literary. For myself I find it revealing that in Wilson’s attack, he repeatedly states he skipped large passages in The Nine Tailors (which I find one of Sayers’ best works); it does make me wonder if Wilson had come to his conclusions beforehand. Critic Sean Latham argued that Wilson “chooses arrogant condescension over serious critical consideration,” & went on to suggest that Sayers’ detractors simply had the prejudice that detective fiction can’t really be “literature”; of course, one wonders if Edmund Wilson & his ilk would extend that to include, for example, Wilkie Collins.

If you’re just getting started with either Sayers or Christie, I’d recommend the following:

Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Christie often excels with first person narration—the first Poirot story); Why Didn’t They Ask Evans (brutally suspenseful); N or M? (a Tommy & Tuppence story set during World War II); The Moving Finger (a Miss Marple story, again with a first person narrator)
Sayers: Nine Tailors (this book has been compared favorably with Dickens’ Bleak House); Murder Must Advertise (a fascinating look at the advertising profession in the 30s); & any of the Harriet Vane books – Strong Poison; Have His Carcase; Gaudy Night; or Busman’s Holiday. These books are best read in order, & all are very good, but Gaudy Night especially stands out as a serious examination of feminist issues.

1 comment:

  1. I'm happy to find one more reader who thinks not considering genre fiction, especially detective stories, literature is unfortunate.

    I'm a Wilson fan but disagree with him on the question of whether detective or mystery fiction is literature. It is if you consider good plots or good storytelling literature along with good writing.

    I am more of a Sayers fan than a Christie fan but both are in my canon of mystery of detective fiction.


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