|the art of storytelling|
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|
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.
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.
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.