Tour’s Books Blog

September 7, 2015

Introducing Readers to New Old Authors and Different Genres

There is something fundamentally very satisfying about getting readers out of a rut. People who ‘only read romance’, ‘only read fantasy’, ‘only read mystery’. I should know. I fall into ruts myself. But I tend to explore more simply because I always did.  Even though both my parents worked, we never had a lot of money for extras.  I might not have worn the latest fashion, but I could always buy books.  My mother was surprisingly liberal in her in what she’d let me read.  She herself was a devout fan of Earl Stanley Gardner, Victoria Holt, Agatha Christie, and Daphne du Maurier.  She read most of the other mysteries as well, but not all.  And lots, and lots of non-fiction history.  Well, she was a history teacher, so that was inevitable.

Somewhere early in my grade school years,  many classic mystery authors from the 20’s 30’s and 40’s were republished, not just the famous ones  like Hammett and Chandler, but many of the so-called ‘pulp fiction’ mystery writers – Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Ngaio Marsh, Clayton Rawson,  Earl Der Biggers, and many more.  Also Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books were fashionable again, so his Tarzan, John Carter of Mars (Barsoom series), and Pellucidar books were reprinted.  And Mary Renault’s brilliant 3 book series based on the legend of Theseus came out.  I read them all and many more while also reading things like The Longest Day and Thomas Costain’s history of the Plantagenets, biographies of various Russian Czars and Napoleon ……… and tons of books on archeology.  Yes, I once thought I wanted to do that for a living.  Luckily sanity prevailed when I decided I wanted a paying job instead.  But if you ever want to get your pre-teens interested in ancient history, try Leonard Cottrell’s books on Egyptian, Greek, and Minoan history and archeology.

My wildly eclectic taste in reading means I can often encourage people to try new things.  I kept a lending library at work and people would ask for suggestions.  I had books shelved by genre for mystery/thriller fans, si-fi/fantasy fans, romance fans, historical Fic Fans could all check their interests.  I had people I didn’t know ask what they should read and I’d ask who they liked reading and make suggestions.  I had everyone from hourlies to Directors using those books and every 6 moths or so I clear them out and gave them to a man who took them to a veterans home.

On paperback swap I’ve gotten a number of people to try new genres and authors.  Several blame me for their ever expanding wishlists and growing piles on books.  My doctor complains I get her off on tangents.  I was so proud I was actually able to get her to read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time!  And what’s more, she enjoyed it!!!!!  She did not go easily into the mystery genre.  I lured her in using Jana Deleon’s Miss Fortune books, Leslie Langtry’s Bombay Assassins and Merry Wrath books,  and moved her up to Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series.  (BUWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!)

OK, I cheated.  I did name what I consider on of the BEST mysteries ever written (as does the Crime Writers of America and many other groups that publish a top 100 list), and I played to her love of history, but lets face it, if you’re going to get people into a genre, you hit them with a sure win.  Tey is a great writer and her plotting, pacing, and research are dead on.  But back then, writers were much better than they are today.  Read early Ellery Queen, even Hammett or Sayers and you’ll find the vocabulary is far more extensive than you’ll find in their modern equivalent.  It is also utterly devoid of the swear words that we all take for granted these days.

I’ve gotten cozy fans into romantic suspense and some of the better paranormal romance and UF.  I’ve watched Amish romance lovers start adding humorous erotica to their wish lists.  I’ve hooked folks on humorous mystery and mystery lovers on some of the better romance and hardcore police procedural and PI lovers on historical mysteries.  When someone likes what I suggest, I am pleased, and when they don’t I always say, “Don’t force yourself.”  There are too many authors and books to try and we don’t all like the same ones.

I like assassin books that my brother would hate.  He likes some non-fiction I’d be bored to tears with.  We both read many mysteries and I’ve slowly gotten my SIL, a talented artist, into mysteries as well.  Of course all these variations play merry hell with my wish list on PBS, where I’m sure some psychologist is convinced I have some sort of multiple personality disorder with a strong violent streak and a bizarre preoccupation with shifters and vampires.

With all this in mind, I will do an occasional entry that lists some favorite books or series, their genre, and why I like them.  Many will be older books, not ones showing up in my reviews.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey – I’ve read this book several times in my life and marveled at how brilliantly Tey wove an historical mystery into the life the of a (then) modern police detective.  It’s short, especially my today’s standards, yet the spare plot is complex and beautifully woven by prose I can only wish modern authors had.  A Classic and deserving of the frequent first place or top 5 best mysteries of all time.  An absolute must read for even a casual mystery fan.

Dance Hall of the Dead, A Thief of Time, Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman – Many authors have tried their hand at creating authentic ethnic characters and cultures, but few have equaled Tony Hillerman and his Navajo mysteries with two very different lead characters, the ‘modern’ Lt Joe Leaphorn, and the traditional Sgt. Jim Chee.  Both had separate series and later, several books had the two characters together.  All are steeped in an atmosphere so rich and textured you can almost feel it.  Hillerman was respectful and accurate in his portrayal of the Navajo and was honored by them for his authenticity.  His later books grew weaker as cancer took its toll on him, but the three named here are possibly 3 of the best he wrote.  Each has Navajo religious and cultural traditions woven into the fabric of what is modern police procedural and the struggle to maintain a culture against a rising tide of the modern world, its comforts, and its seemingly endless opportunities.  An education and a great mystery all in one.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashielle Hammett is often considered the first great hard-boiled PI novel.  Most people know it from the movie starring Humphry Bogart, so the novel’s Sam Spade will be a shock to some.  Tall, blond, built, a little sly, full of mischief, but still tough, conniving, and shrewd.  In many ways, Sam Spade is an anti-hero.  He’s not the dazzling problem solver like Sherlock Holmes, or Dr Fell, or Ellery Queen.  He quips, fights, insults, schmoozes, and dances with the devil, and has very flexible ethics, but maintains a code he lives by – and was the prototype for Jake Gittes in Chinatown played by Jack Nicolson.  Like most detective fiction of its time, it was classified as ‘pulp fiction’ – largely because many books were serialized in pulp magazines for mysteries.  He is also a one-off.  Sam Spade was not a series, just a single novel by Hammett.  Read it.  And while you’re at it, read his The Thin Man and The Glass Key books too, but remember,  The Thin Man is NOT the hero!

Raymond Chandler took the hard-boiled PI genre and gave it its second most famous archetype, Phillip Marlowe.  (Curious footnote: Humphry Bogart was the only actor who play BOTH Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, one of the main reasons his syle influenced Jack Nickerson’s Jake Gittes character in Chinatown.)  The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and The Lady in the Lake are three most famous and given his very limited output, that’s amazing 50% of his published novels.  Brisk, spare prose and quick, snappy dialog are the hallmarks of his style.  Razor sharp without spare words, lightning quick, yet conveying all needed nuance and character.  Marlowe is a study in the flawed hero, but the mysteries all carry the theme of justice will be served, one way of another.

“Last night I deamt I went to Manderley again.”  Possibly one of the most famous opening lines of a novel since “Call me Ismael.”  And for a novel a lot more entertaining than Moby Dick!  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier became the archetype for modern romantic suspense.  It twisted the mind and played with reality as seen and narrated by the nameless lead character who is the second wife of wealthy Max de Winter.  The book’s title and overwhelming central character is the dead Rebecca, his first wife.  A psychological suspense thriller, it is crafted using traditions laid down by the Bröntes, yet departs those simpler plots for a more taut and twisted tale that pulls the reader into life of a young wife struggling to fit into her wealthy husband’s much more refined and established life while being constantly told how lacking she compared to Rebecca by Mrs Danvers, Max’s head housekeeper.

And speaking of psychological suspense that goes off the charts, I would be remiss to not include Thomas Harris and possibly two of the scariest suspense novels ever written, Red Dragon and its more famous sequel, The Silence of the Lambs.  I read them both and I can tell you without any shame that I slept with the lights on for over a week after reading them.  Twisted, brilliant, almost unputdownable, and utterly terrifying.  You literally find yourself holding your breath in places and almost afraid to turn a page.  The characters are so damn believable, the story so well done, and the intensity so extreme, these are not for the faint of heart.  Anthony Hopkins did such a brilliant job with Lecter that I will forever see the character and here Hopkins’ voice.  The sheer believability of the characters is what makes these books scary beyond words.  A stunning tour de force in psychological terror.  Not for everyone, and certainly not something I’d read twice, they remain some of the most intense thrillers ever written.

At the opposite end of the spectrum sits Agatha Christie, author of many original mysteries.  Several of her books were made into movies and the BBC and actor David Suchet have made Hercule Poirot a familiar name.  It’s hard to single out her best books, but two always leap to the top – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Ten Little Indians (US publication title And Then There Were None).  That would be followed by Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.  Of all of them, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is possibly one of the finest pieces of detective fiction written.  A low-key approach to crime solving that is a lesson for all mystery writers.  While Christie would eventually come to hate her little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, here he is at his earliest and best.  In Murder on the Orient Express, he solves a crime then tells authorities that he has no solution as he believes justice was already served.  In Death on the Nile, you again have all the usual suspects gathered as he expounds how the crime was committed, but again, justice is delivered by the perpetrators themselves.  In And Then There Were None, everyone dies – or so it would seem.  Read it to learn the end.  It involves no detectives at all and is unlike any other book Christie or any other author wrote.

I’ll do another installment on historical fiction for my next entry in this occasional series.

 

 

 

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