Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Staying Power of Classic Mysteries

Elizabeth Zelvin

While many admirable mysteries are being written today—and a fair number of the people writing them are friends of mine—few of them have the staying power of some of the classic mysteries, whether from the Golden Age of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie or the equally beloved reign of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey in the Fifties. Not only do I get great pleasure out of re-reading those I can get my hands on, but I remember memorable lines from some of these authors’ books for decades after the last time I saw them in print.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey first sees Harriet Vane during her trial for murder and saves her from the gallows after a mistrial gives him time to find the real killer. I don’t have to google or open the book to recall Harriet’s goodbye when he takes his leave after visiting her in prison:

“I am always at home,” the prisoner said gravely.

Harriet is down on men and uncomfortable with gratitude and dependence, so she leads Lord Peter a dance for several books after finally accepting his proposal at the end of Gaudy Night (with dignity and in Latin). I don’t have to look it up to tell you that Harriet says at one point, If I ever marry you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle.” Another scene that remains vivid for me, though I can’t quote it verbatim, is the one in which the unknown, malicious villain destroys the exquisite chess set that Peter has given Harriet. She’s devastated, and Peter tells her her reaction is precious to him because she says, “You gave them to me, and they were beautiful,” rather than, “They were beautiful, and you gave them to me,” valuing the giving above the gift itself. I believe the evolution of Lord Peter’s and Harriet’s relationship and the deepening of their characterizations to sustain it mark the beginning of the character-driven mystery novel. And it’s character, along with language, not puzzle or plot, that makes me savor, revisit, and never forget a book I’ve read.

I did have to google the exact wording of a line from Agatha Christie that I remembered as referring to moldy bread as “practically penicillin.” The passage, from Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, was even more delicious, so to speak, than I remembered:

“I didn’t get to that pudding in time. It had boiled dry. I think it’s really all right—just a little scorched, perhaps. In case it tasted rather nasty, I thought I would open a bottle of those raspberries I put up last summer. They seem to have a bit of mould on top but they say nowadays that that doesn’t matter. It’s really rather good for you—practically penicillin.”

Then there’s Ngaio Marsh’s Troy, her detective Roderick Alleyn’s wife, taking a river cruise in A Clutch of Constables. Troy’s impulsive decision to take this trip, sparked by an appealing ad, has made me believe in the romance of such voyages ever since I first read the passage in which she tells herself, “For five days, I step out of time.” What an evocative and unforgettable line!

Among Josephine Tey’s wonderful books, my favorite is Brat Farrar, about an appealing foundling who undertakes an impersonation and ends up falling in love with a family and finding his sense of belonging in their home and way of life. Given enough time on a desert island with nothing to read, I could probably reconstruct the whole book from memory.

This is not to deny that some current writers and their characters achieve that kind of power over our imaginations. I’ve never forgotten how moving it is when Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder speaks up in an AA meeting and says, “I’m an alcoholic” for the first time in Eight Million Ways to Die (1982). Granted, the topic of recovery is of particular interest to me as an alcoholism treatment professional and author of my own mystery series featuring a recovering alcoholic protagonist. But Block’s series, and that scene in particular, made me care so much about Scudder that I was thrilled when Block finally wrote his love letter to AA almost thirty years later, in this year’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff, set at the end of Scudder’s first year of sobriety.

Which of the mysteries you’re reading now have that kind of power over your imagination? What scenes or lines will you never forget, even ten or twenty years after the last reading?


Sheila Connolly said...

Oh, yes, I've read them all. I still have them all, including three copies of Gaudy Night.

"Placetne, domina?"

Sandra Parshall said...

Some wonderful crime fiction is being published these days, but I'm afraid readers' memories are so short (a by-product of constant internet use?) that few will be remembered 50 or 100 years from now. Dennis Lehane's Mystic River is one that has stayed with me. And Ruth Rendell's A Dark-adapted Eye.

Athanasia said...

Oh I can't remember a single line. No matter how much I enjoyed the book or how many times I have read it, things like this do not stick in my head.

Barry Ergang said...

There are a lot of memorable scenes and lines in Raymond Chandler's work.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I also adore the Golden Age of Mystery authors. In fact, I discuss Agatha Christie's works in one of my mysteries and, Josephine Tey's in another. Tey was a very unique writer. I'm with you and love BRAT FARRAR best.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

LOL, Sheila. They don't make marriage proposals the way they used to. ;)

BPL Ref said...

I'm another who adores Brat Farrar, but I haven't had much luck selling it to modern readers. I've read all the ones you mentioned and remember all fondly. Every time I come across a reference to the painter Constable, I think of Marsh. Agatha Christie I loved, but I thought I outgrew her. Yet I'm constantly being surprised at how well some of the things she wrote stuck with me. My mother was listening to one of the Christie's on tape, yet another village murder which I didn't remember until I hear one line and then the book came flooding back.

Anonymous said...

There are enough good ones now that I am busy copying lines I want to read again and noting the page #s whenever I read.

All my notes are elsewhere at the moment but a bunch were in the two Tana French's I have read thus far. Love & adore her use of language. There are others of course. Seems like I pulled at least one good one out of the Mary Roberts Rinehart I just read too.

Anonymous said...

Liz, very insightful post. i have read and enjoyed all the books you mention here - what I always remember more than the words they speak, are the characters and what I as a reader sense are their true inner thoughts and feelings. But then that is how I react to the people I know.

Anonymous said...

I, too, love the characterization of Sayers' books, as well as her attention to details. Far too many writers today get published (and even get rich) with stories full of cliches, thin characters doing truly stupid things, and a villian who practically waves a poster saying "I did it." One could count on Sayers for a story with rich sense of place, well-drawn people, and a good, logical mystery.
Llyn K.