Wednesday, March 7, 2012

John Updike on Mystery Fiction

Perusing Due Considerations (2007), the recent essay collection by the late, great American writer John Updike (1932-2009), I spotted a few nuggets on the mystery/detective novel/thriller that I hope are of interest to mystery fans (they were to me!).

In a piece on his childhood reading that he wrote for the New York Times in 1965, Updike reflected on what he calls his "inability to read bravely as a boy":

My reading as a child was lazy and cowardly, as it is yet.  I was afraid of encountering, in any book, something I didn't want to know....O. Henry was the only recommended author unreal enough for me to read with pleasure.  Having deduced that "good books" depict a world in which horror may intrude, I read all through my adolescence for escape.  From the age of twelve I had my own user's card to the Reading (Pennsylvania) Public Library, a beautiful, palatial haven....I read all the books the library had by Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr, in that order....Also humorists....Fifty books by P. G. Wodehouse I must have consumed....Science fiction just barely escaped being too alarming; I read of it copiously until its implications--of time and space so vast that the individual life is as nothing--began to sink in.

John Updike

Reading Public Library: "a beautiful, palatial haven"

The young Updike saw the mystery genre as the great genre of escape and thus he embraced it wholeheartedly.  "With such books," he writes, "I dissipated my youth, while my contemporaries were feasting on classics."  Updike recalls at age fifteen experiencing his "last vivid boyhood fright from books" when he visited his uncle and aunt in Greenwich, Connecticut and discovered their copy of James Joyce's Ulysses:

The whiff of death, God's death, that came off those remorseless, closely written pages overwhelmed me.

So back the young Updike went to "soluble mysteries, as in mystery novels...."

the "whiff of death, God's death" in the
"remorseless" pages of James Joyce's Ulysses 
gave the young Updike a genuine "fright"

John Updike

In a review forty years later of a spy thriller, Robert Littell's Legends (2005), Updike recalled being

a fourteen year old boy lying on a red caneback sofa in Pennsylvania eating peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches (a site-specific ethnic treat) and reading one mystery novel after another.  Not just mysteries--Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Erle Stanley Gardner--but an occasional international thriller, like Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Demetrios and Graham Greene's The Third Man.  The idea of reading a non-genre novel, with its stodgy domestic realism and sissy fuss over female heartbreak, repelled me then, but I could lose myself all morning and afternoon in narratives of skullduggery, detection and eventual triumphant justice.  And, so, to judge from the best-seller lists, can millions still.  Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract...The reader's essential safety, as he reclines on his red sofa, will not be breached.

Gardner evidently goes down great with
 peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches

Updike goes on to note that modern crime writers  like P. D. James "give signs of wanting to be 'real' novelists, free to follow character where it takes them and to display their knowledge of the world without the obligation to provide what William Dean Howells disapprovingly called 'a complicated plot, spiced with perils, surprises and suspenses'."

American realist author William Dean Howells
wrote disapprovingly of complicated plots
"spiced with perils, surprises and suspenses"

So, is Updike condemning his childhood mystery reading as the dissipated escapism of youth?  As a great literary eminence, did Updike feel contempt for the classical mystery genre?  Not so, I would argue.  He seems finally to have regarded the books with genuine warmth and affection.

Updike admired Christie's
"brilliantly compact, stylized and efficient mysteries"

Considering Agatha Christie specifically, Updike writes of the Crime Queen's "brilliantly compact, stylized and efficient mysteries."  He adds that "the genre in its lean classic English form fit [Christie] like a cat burglar's thin black glove."

credibility over ingenuity?

Updike sounds much more respectful of Agatha Christie than many modern journalists and crime writers!  Judging from the above I am not altogether certain Updike believed that P. D. James necessarily got the better of Christie when in her mysteries she traded ingenuity for credibility (as James herself has put it). Updike seems to recognize that there is a respectable place in the world of literature for the classical detective novel of the sort associated with Christie, Carr, Queen, Gardner, Marsh and others.

I suspect those of us who devoured classical mystery at a young age, like John Updike and Michael Dirda, never forget the youthful pleasure of it, even if we "outgrow" it.  And, for better or worse (personally, I'm in the better camp), many of us, like the great intellectual Jacques Barzun (age 104), never outgrow it.

Jacques Barzun
mystery reader of nine decades standing

Addendum: Here's a great 2004 interview with Updike where he refers to his childhood love of classical detection--The Passing Tramp

I loved Agatha Christie, of course. And also, an American team called Ellery Queen. I read a lot of Ellery Queen. Erle Stanley Gardner. I must have read 40 books by Erle Stanley Gardner before I was 15 or so. 


  1. Interesting post. I'm a big fan of John Updike and read a all his 'Rabbit' books last year. He's right about PD James. I've noticed in her most recent books that she's been moving towards the slim mystery to discussion of her outlook on life with a slight moralising tone. I also like his point about the slim Agatha Christie books. It was the diet of my early crime thriller reading.
    Are the essays worth a read in general?

  2. Curt, a wonderful post. I've never read a John Updike novel, but I was delighted to read a "serious" author who discussed Agatha Christie with not just respect, but also a sort of admiration for her particular skill set and her craft. It almost restores my faith in humanity.

    As for Jacques Barzun... the man is a true warrior! I just love him! An of course, he gave us the classic retort "Do I look like a couch?"

    And darn it all, I really need to get that Dirda book. I figure the Kindle price is too high, though. For that kind of money I'd rather just upgrade and get the physical book.

    Incidentally, my wallet isn't at all happy about my readership of this blog.

  3. How odd that Howells who edited an anthology of ghost stories (SHAPES THAT HAUNT THE DUSK) disdained "complicated plots spiced with perils, surprises and suspenses." Seems a bit hypocritical.

    I enjoyed reading Updike's reminisces of his boyhood reading. His essays are so different from his fiction. Looks like a lot of us dissipated our youth in the pages of detective and crime fiction. I wouldn't trade it for all the peanut butter and raisin sandwiches in the world!

  4. John, I'll have to look up that anthology. I would liek to see the original context of the Updike quotation from Howells.

    Patrick, I agree, hooray for Updike and Barzun. We should never let anyone to talk the genre down without challenge.

    Sarah, it's a huge collection of essays! I've read interesting pieces on Scott Fitzgerald. Mark Twain, Frank Baum....