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December 28, 2008



I personally read very, very few new books. I just prefer an older style of storytelling, I suppose. I just got back from the (used) bookstore today with a Howard Browne, a Leslie Charteris, and Doc Savage double novel, and one newish book: MURDER ON THE LEVIATHAN, by Boris Akunin, which looks backwards to the Golden Age.


I absolutely agree, though I'm very picky about the so-called classics. I've started buying some of the Sjowall-Wahloo novels recently. They are still available, at least used. And,yes, any decent novel needs more than a plot or puzzle. It needs the background, social or domestic, against which to understand the characters and their actions.
Readers buy familiar names. They operate on the assumption that, if a lot of other people love a book, they'll love it also. These days there are too many names to remember.
Sad to report, but the libraries have also cleared the shelves of the older mysteries.


You're so right to provide an institutional memory. I had the same reaction as yours when I read about Hillary Waugh. And just last night a friend told me about reading Maugham's Razor's Edge again and how fine it is. Good literature never dies -- a huge plus.

Dana King

I agree about institutional memory. Much of what makes Chandler and Macdonald resonate today is their ability to place the reader in the LA of their time. I'm afraid too much attention is paid to hitting the ground running today, and writers are discouraged from building some context for the story. Everyone claims that's not the case, that publishers and editors want character-driven stories with social contact, but the bulk of what gets published doesn't bear that out. That's not a blanket statement, of course; there are still a lot of good, context-laden books available. They're just not as prevalent as you'd think, based on industry comments.


One of the best pieces of advice about reading I ever heard is to never read a book that's not at least two years old. Have I followed it? Nope, and I'm not likely to start. What am I gonna do? NOT read a new Michael Connelly or Stephen King or, to add some more recent discoveries, Kate Atkinson or Tana French? And someone like you, Sarah, certainly isn't going to do it. Keeping up with the latest thing is your job. For the past dozen years or so I've kept a book log. Nothing elaborate, just the date finished, author, title, and a letter grade. I can look over the log now and I'm absolutely astonished at the number of books on the list that I not only remember absolutely nothing about, but don't even recall reading at all. It seems clear that what's accomplished by the two year rule is to allow the hype to die down. It's certainly not foolproof, but in two years' time most bad-to-mediocre books will be forgotten and the really good ones will be remembered.

I was fortunate enough, at least in the crime field, to have read the classics first. I started reading crime novels when I was a teenager, and went through phases. Wilkie Collins got me started, then I blew through the golden age mysteries (Christie, Carr, Queen, etc.). Spillane was my introduction to the hardboiled and I went through Hammett, Chandler,and Cain; these led me to their then still living successors Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Ross Thomas, and others. I probably didn't start keeping up with current stuff until I was in my 30s. But there are still an embarassing number of important people I've never read. To return to the subject that started your post, I'd never even heard of Julius Fast. Waugh's name was familiar, but I'd never read a word by him. I was recently dismayed to have to admit I'd never read a word by Daphne du Maurier. I wish I had a conclusion, a solution, but I don't. However,the two year rule is sounding better and better.

levi Stahl

A big part of what I have enjoyed about the growth over the past several years of the world of book blogs is the way they open literary conversation to include books that are not new, bringing in (depending on the blogger) everything from classics to ephemera. In an environment where, for obvious reasons, the official organs of book culture are forever preoccupied with the new, it's wonderful to see that a big swathe of people is perpetually reading from a wide range of eras and styles, that our shared frame of reference really is much larger than one might think at first blush.

Eric Ambler is a great example of the value of that sort of context or larger view: I enjoy Alan Furst's novels, but to move from them to Ambler is fascinating. Whereas Furst feels, rightly, that he needs to situate us very clearly and carefully, with a lot of detail, in 1930s Europe, Ambler simply assumes we know whereof he writes, because he's writing about his own time, which he can count on us to know. It makes his books far leaner and more fast-paced, which are certainly good qualities for a thriller.


I have introduced several people to Helen MacInnes recently. Some of her books are very dated but While Still We Live is still fabulous. And my eleven year old niece just read her first Agatha Christie! However, one classic I have never been able to get into is The Riddle of the Sands. It's a pity because I usually like that sort of book. I am saving it to try again some time.

I must admit I too had not heard of Hillary Waugh and for a second when I saw the obituary I got confused thinking about the mysterious Hilary in Thus Was Adonis Murdered. It is sometimes a disadvantage having read a lot but not everything! One tries constantly to make connnections and sometimes it's hit or miss...

Martin Edwards

I very much agree and I'm glad you've made these points. It is, of course, possible to write terrific crime novels without being aware of the context of the genre, and to enjoy them very much as well. But I strongly believe that an understanding of what has gone before can enrich both our writing and our reading.

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