Sunday, May 8, 2016

Delving in the Mines: Golden Age Prospecting, Part One

I've told the general outline of this story in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, but since I presume a lot of the readers of this blog haven't read Masters I trust I'm not repeating myself for most people!

the art of storytelling
One of the charming things about Michael Dirda's both charming and illuminating book On Conan Doyle (2011) is his discussion of his childhood mystery reading.  I had touched on this subject in my own case in the introduction to Masters, which came out a few months after Dirda's book.

I started reading Agatha Christie when I was eight years old. We were living in Mexico City and while shopping at Sanborns Department Store (I loved two things most of all about Sanborns, the bookstalls and the milkshakes) my mother had bought, for eight pesos apiece I believe, four Pocket Christies: Easy to Kill (Murder Is Easy), Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral), And Then There Were None and The ABC Murders.

I read all these on a love seat in our third-floor apartment under a big window from which streamed in a wash of afternoon rays from the sun.  I also remember reading a story in one of my Mom's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines which I recall as being titled "The Machete Murderer," but I don't believe I have the title quite right.  However I do definitely recall it as quite horrifying. (I think there was a drawing over the title of a machete and various detached arms and legs).

on the rack at Sanborns in 1974
I liked the Christies but, kids being quite easily distracted, I didn't read another again until, a couple of years later, we were returning from a year in Mexico at the very end of 1976 and at a Sears bookstall in southern Texas my mother bought the first American paperback edition of Curtain, Hercule Poirot's last case. Then later on, in 1977, I read the first American paperback edition of Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple's last (published) case.

By this time I was hooked on Agatha Christie and wanting to get her books myself, without waiting for Mom to pick up some copies.  Over 1978-79 I ordered a number of Christies through the mail, with those order slips which there used to be in the backs of paperback books.  I probably read about two-thirds of her books at that time.  I also discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories at this time and read all those in a boxed gift set from Bantam, I believe, which my parents got me for Christmas, in 1978 I think.

Later on in the mid-1980s, when I started college, my interest in mystery fiction attenuated, but it revived in 1989, when I was in law school and visiting a friend in Chicago.  At a bookstore there I came across the Mysterious Press reprint of English professor and mystery writer Robert Barnard's critical study of Christie, A Talent to Deceive, and IPL paperback editions of John Dickson Carr, a writer I had never heard of, some of them with introductions by Douglas G. Greene, a fellow whom I had never heard of then either.

Doug Greene and Robert Barnard

Spurred by Doug's incisive introductions, I was instantly captured by Carr's spell and set out to read everything by him I could find, as I had done with Christie and Doyle back in the 1970s.  Just as important, I was also intrigued by Barnard's theories about detective fiction.  It was Barnard who introduced me to the mystery criticism of Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) and Julian Symons (1912-1994) and the great dialectic they had engaged in for nearly two decades concerning the nature of crime and detective fiction.

Briefly, Barzun was the great advocate for the detective story, wherein the focus is on detection and ratiocination, Symons the renowned spokesman for the "crime novel," essentially a novel where the focus is on the depiction of crime in a psychologically and procedurally credible manner, unbound by strict "rules" concerning "fair play" clueing and such plot devices.  This lively debate continued into the 1990s and partisans of both sides often could be quite dismissive of each other's favored form of genre fiction.

Jacques Barzun

I considered myself a Barzunian and rather dogmatically I only wanted to read true detective fiction, the stuff with clues and startling though deducible revelations at the end of the novel.  Besides Carr, I read Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer, Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare, Edmund Crispin and other older writers who were still in print or reasonably available at used bookstores, as well as modern authors like Robert Barnard, Peter Lovesey, PD James and Ruth Rendell.

You can see I gravitated toward British crime fiction!  I also read classic short story collections published by Doug Greene's then new imprint, Crippen & Landru, and further mystery criticism by Doug (firstly his great Carr biography) and people like Barry Pike and Bill Pronzini.

In graduate school at the LSU library I read Armchair Detective--a great fanzine, started by Allen J. Hubin, that was published for three decades, from 1967 to 1997--and learned about other "new" old writers, but often they were hard, or impossible seemingly, to find. (These were the days before the internet, kids.)  This was true as well of writers highly praised by Jacques Barzun in his and his colleague Wendell Hertig Taylor's magisterial A Catalogue of Crime, which for years became my detective fiction Bible.

Julian Symons

Where did one find John Rhode (who also was Miles Burton) or J. J. Connington (Alfred Walter Stewart) or Henry Wade (Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher), for example?  Why were these writers, dismissed as Humdrums by Julian Symons, not available? Why, damn it, weren't publishers listening to Jacques Barzun?

The arrival and rise to world hegemony of this thing called the internet ultimately was to change everything, however. More on this soon.

Note: You will find much more about this time, touching upon a lot of people and entities not mentioned above, in Marvin Lachman's The Heirs of Anthony Boucher: A History of Mystery Fandom (Poisoned Pen Press, 2005).  Magazines like CADS and Mystery Scene, which go back three decades now, and the more recent Give Me That Old Time Detection, and groups like Malice Domestic and the Dorothy L. Sayers Society and the Margery Allingham Society and, of course, the Bouchercon mystery conferences.  You'll find out about them all in detail in Marvin's book.


  1. A great post, as always, but you made me feel miserably nostalgic and miss the late Appie Baantjer, whose books were my gateway drug to the Golden Age detective story.

    It always felt a bit like Christmas when one of his books came out and once even had to store open several boxes of newly arrived books to fish out the latest Inspector De Cock novel, before they had time to properly shelve them. I think they weren't even suppose to sell them for another day or so. But why wait, right? And from their point of view, it might have been better to lob the book in the direction of that obsessive looking kid before he could scare away other paying customers.

    By the way, a few years ago, I slapped together a post about the Renaissance Era of the Detective story and how the internet played a vital role in putting all these forgotten gems and writers back into the hands of ordinary readers.

    1. I bought several of his books on your recommendation, I need to track them down again. They are a bit steep on Amazon for Kindle. Will check your link.

      The 1990s for me was almost like a second birth, really, as far as detective fiction, for I had rather dropped out of it. But who can forget their earliest reading? I went practically straight from the Baum's Oz books to Agatha Christie. I was quite tickled to learn that Doug, in addition to being the Carr man was also a great expert on Oz!

    2. I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I have, when I was discovering the genre through them, and look forward to your take on them, but keep in mind that the translator took some liberties with the texts. John was very perceptive in spotting them, when he reviewed DeKok and Murder in Seance, which I found impressive since he was not Dutch nor read the original editions.

      I sort of know that feeling of a second birth: I learned from Baantjer that I liked detective stories, but going from him and watching TV series such Midsomer Murders, Morse and Columbo to picking up my first Agatha Christie felt like coming into a (new) world all over again.

  2. I really enjoyed this post (very nostalgic, in part, because our entries into reading Christie were so similar), and I also loved TomCat's post, so thanks for linking. This has been a tough year for me as a teacher because, at the risk of sounding like the crotchety old man I fear I'm becoming, I see a true shift in our society to a negative, "in the moment" existential, classics-averse, shallow thinking society. I feel like those of us who enjoy these classic mysteries cling to hope that problems will be solved and that our community can remain intact, even after catastrophe hits it. We are as much intellectuals as we are emotional because we like to have a problem that is challenging but solvable. Perhaps it is a sign of our point of view being considered statistically insignificant that makes us see ourselves as the great hope of society, but I think your efforts (and Doug's, Martin's, and the rest) are important. I hope they expand and that I can help!

    1. I like the idea of classic mystery as a source of hope and inspiration in a tarnished world. I am sure our mystery-loving forebears back in the 1920s and 1930s must have found solace in these books too. A point to ponder as our modern world seems increasingly set on replicating certain ugly patterns from that earlier time.

  3. This blog continues to be one of THE best ever. Great information, wonderful image support, well written....just plain well done. Thank you.....again.