Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Old friends

I really enjoyed Aline’s post yesterday. There are a lot of former bestselling crime writers whose literary light has dimmed over the years. Sometimes it’s for a good reason: their work has gone out of print, just wasn’t that good, or possibly their stories don’t related to the world we now live in. But for some of these writers, there’s just no explanation. They simply faded away – usually after they died or stopped writing.

I remember quite clearly when I started reading a lot of crime fiction. It was in my 18th year and I was working as the “pool attendant” at a resort in Maine. The clientele was older and many never came down to the pool. My job was to hand out towels, serve soft drinks out of one of those great, water-filled coolers that were once very popular, and take food orders which I’d phone up to the kitchen. I guess I was also supposed to be the life guard, although I didn’t have any official papers in that regard. I did have to fish out the odd youngster who got down to the deep end without sufficient swimming skills.

Needless to say, many of my days were filled with mostly nothing work-related.  Unless it was raining, I had to be there at all times from 9:00-6:00, if memory serves, and there were whole days where no one came down. (Sidebar: I wish I’d been a writer then. I probably could have written an entire novel that summer!)

Like many resorts, there was an unofficial library full of books, donated by patrons who’d finished them while vacationing. Looking for something to fill my otherwise vacant days, I raided the shelves religiously. Since I’m a fairly fast reader, this was often a daily occurrence.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of crime fiction. People tend to read it while on vacation. I remember a whole shelf of Agatha Christie. Once I’d gotten through the Poirots that were there, I moved on from her, not enjoying the Miss Marple novels.

I also found a lot of Nero Wolfe novels. I didn’t understand at the time why it happened, but I instantly fell in love with Rex Stout’s writing. In looking back at my own work, I can now see how the seed was planted for my penchant for telling stories in first person. When I first began writing seriously, I also studied Rex Stout to understand exactly how his crisp dialogue moved the story along and described the action so well. He didn’t need paragraphs of descriptive prose when he could tell you so much about surroundings using what his characters said. I also identified with the real places about which he wrote. I could “see’ Archie driving up the Saw Mill River Parkway to a weekend at Lily’s country home since I knew that road very well.

Archie Goodwin remains a character favourite with me. I never really warmed up to Wolfe, but I don’t think Stout wanted readers to necessarily do that. Kramer, Fritz, and Saul became like old friends.

That golden summer, I read every single Stout book on the resort’s shelves and bought the very few they didn’t have.

Today, Stout is not all that popular. The last time I went to a (non-mystery) bookstore up here in Canada, they didn’t have even one of his books. Many are out of print.

I’m not equipped to judge whether Stout’s day has past, because I have too much emotional investment in his novels. There are real events and things he mentions that are lost in the mists of time. Certainly a young reader would find much that wouldn’t be understood unless you undertook some research. The characters speak in a way and use vocabulary that is long out of style.

For me, though, these books remain quite delightful whenever I pick one up to reread again. Perhaps it’s because they represent a time in my life that was really wonderful. I had a very pretty girlfriend whom I loved desperately. There were long summer evenings (in Maine!) with her. I had a job that allowed me, basically, to spend almost every day reading — and I got paid for it!

Now, my question is this: Aline has Margery Allingham and I have Rex Stout. Do you have a favourite author whose books have fallen out of style or favour? Come on! Don’t be shy. Tell us all about them.

No comments: