Sunday, August 3, 2014

I Read Dead People

So as I raised myself out of the Slough of Despond that is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book One, I did not reach eagerly for Book II though evidently all true devotees of these volumes read them in a fevered frenzy, panting eagerly for the installments not yet available in America. I liked the first book well enough, but kept a cool head throughout.

In fact I did not want more of the same. I went in search of dead mystery writers and stumbled upon my copy of A Catalogue of Crime: Being A Reader’s Guide to the Literature of Mystery, Detection, and Related Genres by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor. The first edition appeared in 1971, the expanded version (which I own) in 1989. Hertig died in 1988 and Barzun in 2012 at the age of 104.

I can kill hours when I start scanning a book that recommend books. In Howard’s End is On the Landing, Susan Hill goes through her home library and identifies just 40 volumes that she cannot do without. After reading her book, my library was about 10 books larger. So I told myself as I opened the Barzun, that he talks about plenty of books that I own but have not read, and that I needn’t buy anything new. And I stuck to that…after a fashion.

I have barely opened the book and am arguing with its authors. They dismiss Earl der Biggers and the Charlie Chan novels: “Hawaiian detective, lovable perhaps, but not a commanding figure of the genre, whatever he may have on the screen.”

The Charlie Chan novels are wonderful. I read my first out of curiosity and expected it to be clichéd and filled with stereotypical characters. I was wrong. There’s a moment in one of the novels when a character asks Chan to tell the police commissioner that he is very sorry. Charlie refuses because “He’ll expect me to say velly and I won’t do that.”

He also dismisses Janwillem Van De Wettering whom I think splendid. Taylor and Barzun favor a lot of actual detection and Van De Wettering doesn’t offer enough of that.

They are annoyed by what they see as social commentary and tangents. As they say of The Mind Murders: All this Hollandaise sauce does not adequately season the dish.” I think Hollandaise sauce is always a welcome addition.

When I’m not annoyed at the editors for not noticing the books I like, I’m livid that they notice the wrong things. We all agree that Ruth Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone is brilliant, but Barzun and Taylor make no mention of the novel's arresting opening sentence: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” If ever there was a first sentence that makes you want to read the second, this is it.

But I honestly did not pick up the book with the intention of of arguing with every brief review. I found reviews of two novels (by dead writers) I own: The Black Seraphim by Michael Gilbert and Salt is Leaving by J.B. Priestly.

The Black Seraphim appeals to me because it’s really an Anthony Trollope novel with dead bodies. (Though Anthony Trollope has plenty of crime in his novels). This is a novel that highlights the less saintly aspects of a clerical calling and even includes a priest who is subtly blackmailed because he writes love letters to some of his male pupils. The editors and I both agree that this Gilbert at his best.

J.B. Priestley’s Salt is Leaving concerns a widowed MD who plans to leave his practice but not before he finds out what happened to a young female patient who has disappeared. She has a serious condition and he has impressed upon her the importance of getting her medicine on a regular basis. When he tries to locate her he finds himself in a battle with the town’s most powerful elements. The plotting and the characters are both terrific. As the editors say, “We could stand more Salt.”

But this is the review (of a book by a writer still living) that I found most amusing: “A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton. The first in a projected series (are there to be 25 more?) introducing the latest female private eye. Kinsey Millhone is only semiconvincing after being hired by the convicted and released wife of a former divorce attorney to secure rehabilitation. Kinsey likes small, compact quarters—a Volkswagen, a one-room apartment—and she packs a small gun. Kinsey has sexual relations with a brutish suspect, but no eagerness for volume “B” is generated.

B is for Burglar won Anthony and Shamus Awards in 1986. When Jacques Barzun died in 2012, Sue Grafton was up to V is for Vengeance. I’m glad his poor opinion of her first book didn’t hold her back.

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