Posts Tagged ‘Ed McBain’

Nothing new under the sun…

November 20, 2017

When are our tastes in literature shaped and formed?

I wrote recently about the phenomenon of older men reading less fiction, and the other day found myself discussing with my daughter the fact that I was not really that interested in much of what was being written now, or indeed films that were being released now, whereas in my student days I had been an avid reader of fiction and an avid film-goer. And we got on to thinking about how early on in life our tastes seem to be shaped and formed. It was interesting to find someone of a different generation in broad agreement with me, and I pondered things further…

I first met Sherlock Holmes, in print and on the wireless, at age seven. I’ve liked detective fiction – or a certain range of it – ever since; I’ve written else where in this blog about my enjoyment of Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters, Josef Skvorecky and others, too, no doubt.

I also first came across science fiction in my younger years, in the junior section of Stamford Public Library when I found the Lost Planet series, by Angus MacVicar. The premise was bonkers, as I recall, visiting a planet that had an orbit somewhat resembling that of a comet so that eventually it would be unreachable from earth, but the notion that there could be life elsewhere, and reachable from earth, stuck with me. As a student I became aware of science fiction with a political and social message, read lots and ended up researching and writing both an MA dissertation and an MPhil thesis on it. And I still keep an eye on what’s being written now, though I read very little of it.

About ten or fifteen years ago, there was a major shift in my reading habits as I began to explore all kinds of travel writing, and you don’t have to look very far in this blog to see how often I’ve written about it. I though this might be an example of a new direction in my reading, until I recall the voraciousness with which I tracked down and read every single book in the Young Traveller series in the local library. Again, a simple and repetitive premise which appeals to younger readers: a family travels – using some vague and largely irrelevant excuse – to a country, meets and converses with people, experiences local customs and food, visits important tourist attractions, all suitably sanitised for a readership of children.

I’ve always read a lot of fiction from other countries, mainly European, but do cast my net more widely. And I remembered friends at boarding school who pointed me at writers like Sartre and Günter Grass, and realised that here was yet another shaping of my literary tastes. Obviously when at university studying French Literature, my outlook broadened further.

So I have found myself wondering – is there anything I’ve acquired a taste for more recently, as in, since my student days of forty years ago? If there is, when I remember, I’ll let you know. But until then, I’m struck by just how much the tastes and interests of one’s life are laid down at a pretty early stage…

Ed McBain: Mischief

July 20, 2014

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct mysteries have always been on my list of enjoyable detective stories: this one, however, disappointed, for the first time…

I’d collected a large number of these novels about thirty years ago, but foolishly got rid of them when I needed to have a clear-out: there’s a message there! I’ve been gradually re-acquiring some, and have realised that the earlier ones are much better; this one is a relatively late one, and not helped by the feeling that the author seems to have felt the need gratuitously to up the level of sex and bad language in order to keep up with the pack, whereas he has an interesting enough setting and group of characters to keep his readers hooked.

Continued character development always helps retain interest in a series of such stories, but there is none in this novel; they could be any detectives rather than the personalities that were built up in earlier novels, and McBain does have some interesting characters among his precinct detectives. The plots are bitty and rather haphazard; there are two main ones running in parallel, one gratuitously racist and in rather poor taste, I thought, and the other verging on the ridiculous; neither was properly clued or investigated, and one was left hanging at the end so that the character could perhaps be used again: I know Conan Doyle did this with Moriarty, but the Deaf Man had already been used once before…

I shall now be concentrating on the earlier books in the series as I trawl second-hand bookshops.

Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice

February 20, 2014

61o3TNR3byL._AA160_I was going to call this post ‘Comfort Reading’, as detective fiction is one of the kinds of reading I automatically turn to when I’m not feeling well; it’s an easy read, not too demanding, yet satisfying. I got to thinking about the Brother Cadfael series of mediaeval whodunnits, and read up on their author. My initial attraction to the books was their Shrewsbury setting.

If you’re not familiar with them, they are a series of twenty novels set in the Shrewsbury area in the mid-twelfth century, focused on an elderly monk as the detective, working in collaboration with the deputy sheriff of the town. The timing is interesting: less than a century after the Norman Conquest, so still plenty of resentment towards the invaders, a remote setting in the disputed borderlands between England and Wales, and at a time of civil war between Stephen and Matilda.

There’s a genre similarity, if you compare these stories with the archetype, ie Sherlock Holmes. There you have the late Victorian era, very settled rather than tumultuous, and the setting of the great metropolis, London being the largest and most important city on the planet at the time. Cadfael’s is a religious, Holmes’ a secular age.

There are also character similarities and differences: Cadfael is freelance, like Holmes, in the sense that he is a monk who is unofficially allowed by his superior to engage in detective work from time to time. He is a mature and wise monk who experienced life in the wide world before taking to the cloister, and he works with Hugh Berengar the deputy sheriff, a secular official, and less of a side-kick than Holmes’ Watson, who nevertheless has professional expertise as a doctor, which at times is useful. The Cadfael/ Berengar pairing feels more equal; the collaboration works; the Watson as author trick is unnecessary.

One of the keys to success in the genre does seem to be the accretive approach over time: as one reads the twenty novels, time passes, historical events unfold, develop and affect different stories in different ways; our knowledge of places develops too, as does our understanding of and sympathy with the characters. The same is obviously true of Holmes and Watson as we follow their developing friendship through a period of some twenty or thirty years, Watson’s marriages as well as their shared lives in Baker Street. And the same is true of the characters and places in Ed McBain‘s 87th Precinct mysteries.

There is a major difference, clearly: Conan Doyle set his stories and characters more or less in his own time, as did McBain, whereas Peters (real name Edith Pargeter) deliberately moved back in time eight and a half centuries. Her research seems very thorough and convincing; she is reckoned to be the originator of the genre of historical detective fiction, now imitated by dozens of writers. Did Umberto Eco and she have their inspirations almost simultaneously?

One thing which doesn’t change over time is crime: theft, greed, murder are pretty much the same through the ages; methods of killing may be a little more ‘advanced’ nowadays and science a little more helpful, but careful observation and reflection have always been needed to get to the bottom, and justice is not always done…

Ed McBain

November 25, 2013

I’ve always enjoyed detective stories: I was brought up on Sherlock Holmes, who is still my all-time favourite, but over the years have grown to appreciate Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters and Ed McBain, all for different reasons. I used to have, may years ago, an extensive collection of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, and at some point, eager to clear out and reduce the mountins of books overwhelming the house, got rid of them. I’m kicking myself now, as I hunt out cheap second-hand copies again, to fuel my re-discovered pleasure. Let this be a lesson to everyone…

Detective stories work in a number of different ways: the earlier development seems to have been the sleuth and the side-kick (Holmes and Watson, Brother Cadfael and Hugh Berengar the Sheriff); later on there are the lone heroes such as Philip Marlowe, and then there are the groups of detectives working together, such as McBain’s 87th Precinct crowd.

His city seems to be based on New York (I think) and he develops the feel of a tough and hectic city and overworked police and detectives swamped by a wide range of crimes. Mainly he offers murders, and gritty realism in sixties style. The detection, clues and reader participation in the mystery-solving are par for the course; the detectives are well-characterised and individualised, and their interplay is part of what makes the novels work. Some are better than others, and some are pot-boilers. In the end, I like them because they are different from the others I’ve mentioned earlier, and, as with all detective stories in my experience, the details of the plots are soon forgotten, allowing me to re-read and still enjoy them…

In a somewhat superior way, perhaps, I’ve always classed detective fiction as light reading, for days when I want a rest from more serious reading, but I’m coming to realise that I’ve been unfair: there is serious craft involved in devising the plots and sowing the clues to satisfy the reader, and then slowly bringing matters to a satisfactory and convincing conclusion. For me the best, in literary terms, has to be Chandler… and it may be time to revisit him soon.

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