By Lonnie Cruse
Every so often I read a book review about a mystery novel written many years ago. A book long out of print, available only on dusty antique store bookshelves or on the Internet, unless the author is popular enough to be reprinted in our time. Sometimes I'm curious enough (if the book is cheap enough) to buy a copy and read it. My, how things have changed, how writing is different now. Plots are different. Character development is different. Sometimes I'm disappointed because the mystery isn't as intricate as most mysteries today. But there are a lot of authors long gone whose work endures well beyond their passing. Authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many others whose books seem to be timeless.
Agatha Christie's modern day critics sometimes claim she didn't "flesh out" her characters enough, that her books are all about the plot. Hmmm. Maybe, but I've read most of them and I haven't had any trouble picturing her characters as real. Particularly Poirot with his egg shaped head and carefully groomed mustache. Have you? Or Miss Marple, knitting and solving crime? Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter, and his great love, Harriett, aren't hard for me to imagine as real. And it was actually Sayers who inspired this post after I watched GAUDY NIGHT on DVD. I loved all of her books.
Every writer I know would love to not only have readers here and now, but somehow know that our books would be read twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years from now and still be considered well written despite any change in styles. So how did these writers do it? How did they manage to write books that would be read and loved long after they died? I haven't a clue. It's like art, I suppose, I know it when I see it, or in this case when I read it, and I suspect you do as well.
One author in particular comes to mind, Shirley Jackson. Jackson died in the mid-sixties, yet her book, WE SHALL ALWAYS LIVE IN THE CASTLE is still widely read and talked about. I read it twice, something I rarely do because there are "so many books, so little time" as most book lovers complain. Jackson's short story, THE LOTTERY still shocks readers just as much as it did when it appeared in a major magazine decades ago. Back then, many of the magazine's readers loved it while as many others unsubscribed in protest. Wow! And today, THE LOTTERY is still used in many college classes as an example of great writing. THAT is longevity. Having read most of her works, I'd have to say Jackson accomplished timelessness by the way she always surprises the reader at the end. No matter how much I've read her work, I can never guess the ending. She always catches me off guard.
As for the others, like Christie or Sayers? How did they do it? I'd have to say by creating characters the reader cares about, no matter what time period they lived in or were created in. Characters that stick with us. And story or plot lines that while common to any age (after all, there's nothing new on the earth, according to Solomon, and he said that quite a while back) today they still sound new when we read them. And last but not least, creating a place and time that we'd all like to visit or live in, no matter how long ago the book was written.
There are writers today whose works will be read and loved a hundred years from now, and boy howdy would I like to be one of them. But I'll settle for readers today.