Friday, January 25, 2008

Then and Now . . .

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.


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about how some books just live on through time. Like you, I will pick up old books that I read and then wonder about their structure, plot and characters. When my kids, who are now teens, were young, I exposed them to Peggy Parrish's AMELIA BEDILIA, the story of a family maid whose life is full of metaphors and idioms, like "dress the turkey." Even when my kids read it, it was so outdated I had to explain most of what was meant. BUT to this day, the books are still around, still thumbed through, and we all laugh about how silly they are. Good old Amelia may be dated, but also timeless. Mary Beth

Sandra Parshall said...

Shirley Jackson's writing is truly timeless. I'll always love everything she wrote, including the humorous pieces about family life that contrast so sharply with the portrayal of families in her novels. Agatha Christie, though, seems very outdated to me. Good puzzles, but I prefer modern crime fiction that digs deeper into the psychological causes and effects of crime. Christie was my introduction to mysteries, though, so I owe her a debt. I went straight from her to Ruth Rendell, with nothing in between.

Anonymous said...

I reread at least two Sayers every year. They ground and inspire me in a way no other Golden Age writer can.

Marta Stephens said...

Hi Lonnie!

Great article. I imagine 50 years from now someone will probably wonder the same thing about our writing. :)

gs said...

Speaking of series that have withstood the test of time, I'd like to mention Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series, which endures not only for the characters and (some of) the plots, but for the window each story opens into the time in which it is set. The stories span the period from the thirties to the seventies. Stout wrote quickly, and each story is set in the moment in which it was written. And each is peppered with the technology, culture, and happenings of the moment. Reading them in sequence, we see a progression through the middle of the last century. For example, we follow the trail from having to use a switchboard operator to place a long distance call, and needing a reservation for an overseas call, to being able to direct-dial first the one and then the other. We share Archie's admiration, in Where There's a Will, at how quickly a radio car arrives at the scene of the murder; radio cars were just hitting the streets at the time, and we are reminded how marvelous they must have seemed to people used to waiting for a cop to come from the precinct house, or the beat cop to check in with the precinct from a call box.

We shake our heads at the enormous stenography pool in Too Many Women, typical of large companies in those days. In one story -- I don't remember which -- we are told that the then-rising evangelist Billy Graham was about to preach for the first time at Madison Square Garden, and in Gambit the chess club has turned out to watch the child prodigy Bobby Fischer play. At the time Stout wrote those stories, he could not have known that one day Graham's and Fischer's names would be household words. (And not every real person Stout mentions became immortal. For example, in Might As Well Be Dead Wolfe mentions Senator Paul Douglas, a real-life war hero and champion of integrity who is pretty much forgotten today.)

In another of the stories -- again, I don't remember which -- I was moved by the atmosphere of gloom: Although it hasn't been officially announced, everyone knows that the beloved Dodgers will be leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

Over the span of the stories, we travel in time from lever-controlled elevators operated by elevator men to "self service models," as Archie calls them. From segregation (Too Many Cooks) to the Civil Rights Movement (A Right to Die). And we see the boundaries of propriety between men and women shift.

Stout wasn't stuck in a milieu. He was always keenly aware of the moment, he wrote his stories in the moment, and he gave us a small picture of each of those moments, of what it was like to live in them. And that makes them fascinating to me, today.

Great post! Thank you.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Thanks, everybody! I enjoyed your comments.