Saturday, January 07, 2017

Guest Post: Jeanne on "My Own Golden Age Mysteries"

Please welcome back Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Library as she explains how her Mom influenced her early reading choices….

My Own Golden Age Mysteries

Growing up with a mother who was an avid reader in all genres, but especially mysteries, I was introduced to many of her favorite authors. I didn’t know then that they were largely Golden Age or Silver Age writers, but I did have the dim realization that not many of my peers were reading them.  I’m sad to say that nowadays the names of these idols of my youth aren’t often recognized among the contemporary mystery readers (to be referred to hereafter as “The Young People.”)

As one year ends and another begins, I tend to wax nostalgic.  (And trust me, I don’t wax anything else!) This year someone asked for books by some of the “old mystery writers” and that started me thinking about some of my favorite authors I read growing up.  In no particular order:

·        Agatha Christie: I soon learned that Dame Agatha loved to plant clues in casual conversations.  If someone was chatting about a distant relative in Australia, it was even money that the relative might pop up (perhaps in disguise). Characterization was not one of her strong suits, however; when a story really hinged on character, it remained vivid in my mind (The Hollow, for example). I am partial to series with continuing characters, so of course my favorites were Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, though I really loved her collection of stories about Harley Quinn.  Some of those are my favorites. While she tended to play fair with the reader,   I do remember being terribly frustrated at the clues which hinged on Victorian Flower Language.   

   Ngaio Marsh: Oh, how I enjoyed Inspector Alleyn! He was very much the Gentleman Detective and as an added bonus, some of the books were set in exotic locales, such as New Zealand. Also, I liked that he was married to Agatha Troy, who was an artist with a career of her own.

·        Dorothy L. Sayers: Lord Peter Wimsey was the perfect model of the gifted amateur detective, an aristocrat whose restless intelligence drove him to solve mysteries.  As a member of the upper classes, he often posed as a dimwit in order to gain information.  He changed, though, after falling in love with Harriet Vane and we saw a more serious side of Lord Peter.

·        Ellery Queen: Written originally by cousins Dannay and Lee using the pseudonym Ellery Queen, the character Ellery was the American version of the Gentleman Detective, a gifted amateur who was at times a bit of a snob.  Like Lord Peter, he later mellowed.  The books were also a bit like Christie’s in that all or most of the clues were presented to the reader.  I particularly liked the cases in which his father, a policeman, appeared.  I did notice that the books were sometimes a bit uneven.  One case was downright peculiar (And on the Eighth Day) and seemed almost like a science fiction novel.  Later, I learned that other writers were working on the series, not just the cousins.

·        Josephine Tey:  Being a series fan, I started reading her Alan Grant series.  My mother was particularly attached to Daughter of Time, the famous fictional defense of Richard the Third.  It was certainly a unique book, at least at the time; Tey had Grant laid up with a broken leg, and to pass the time he began to research Richard.  This allowed Tey to make a very convincing and emotional case for Richard as a greatly misunderstood, greatly wronged man.  Even though I am a series fan, I finally read two of Tey’s non-series books and discovered I liked those even better. In fact, Brat Farrar turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time, and The Franchise Affair was riveting.  The irony is that I can no longer remember much of anything about Alan Grant except for the title above.
·        Robert van Gulik: I was fascinated by Asia in my youth, probably from having read so many Pearl S. Buck novels, so I dove into the van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries with gusto. I was almost as curious about the story behind the story as I was the books themselves.  According to the sources I read, van Gulik was attempting to bridge the gap between Chinese and Western mystery story tradition in his translations of the Judge Dee stories by not revealing the culprit at the beginning nor relying on helpful spirits to deliver clues, but keeping some of the Chinese sensibilities and legal system.  For example, torture was an acceptable method of getting information, but the judge who ordered torture could be held responsible in case of death or lasting damage to an innocent person.  There was a TV movie made of one of the books that made a very favorable impression on me, but alas! I can’t find that it’s available on DVD and the old VHS tape I have is of much trimmed version.  Nicholas Meyer (Seven-Per-Cent Solution ) directed with a cast of mostly Asian actors, including Mako, Keye Luke, James Hong, and Soon-Tek Oh.  Dee was played by Khigh Dhiegh, best known as Wo Fat on the original Hawaii Five-O. Dhiegh was an American of Egyptian-Sudanese-Anglo descent. 

·        Erle Stanley Gardner: I was an avid fan of the Perry Mason series, then in syndicated re-runs every weekday, and I devoured all the books I could get my hands on.  There was never a lot in terms of character development but the plots were always good and the courtroom scenes were riveting.  Of course, I always hoped that Della and Perry would get together but the closest I remember them coming was that they were going to take a cruise and promenade about the deck.  I don’t think I dreamed that. I definitely remember that almost every celebratory dinner consisted of steak, potatoes, and a salad—the big question being, were the potatoes going to be baked with lots of butter and sour cream, or would they be in fry form?
·        Rex Stout: At first I was unimpressed with Archie and Nero, mainly because of my amazing ability to choose exactly the wrong books:  I started with Black Mountain and Some Buried Caesar.  I remember complaining that everyone kept saying that Wolfe never left his brownstone, but from what I could see he left at least once every book, sometimes on very long journeys. Pfui! I persevered, however, and soon learned just how atypical those books were. I became a lifelong fan and have copies of all the Wolfe books as well as the Nero Wolfe Cookbook and Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street. The combination of fast-talking, slang-speaking Archie and the very formal, very particular Nero Wolfe has continued to delight me to this day. It was an American version of Holmes and Watson, except that Archie had a much higher opinion of himself. 
·        Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:  I almost didn’t list him simply because it was such a non-brainer—is there any detective more iconic that Sherlock?—but I realized his absence would cause more comment than anything else. So, Sir Arthur, you had me from “The Speckled Band.”

I’m sure I’m leaving people out, but these were my first thoughts.  So who are your classic mystery favorites?


Jacqueline Seewald said...


An excellent article. Like you, I had a mother who enjoyed reading. My mother introduced me at an early age to the joys of the library. I still borrow all sorts of books from the library. I also worked as a librarian for many years and found the job very satisfying.

Sylvia said...

Great post, Jeanne,
I've been a lifelong fan of the 'classic,' 'Golden Age,' whatever, of mysteries. You hit most of my favorites. We were very poor so few books in our home, but all five girls and one of the three boys became avid readers. I lived for the library (bookmobiles, anyone?) since grade school. Through books, I could live in many different worlds, and very often I chose the world of mystery. Now I try to create my own mystery worlds.

BPL Ref said...

Thanks, Sylvia and Jacqueline, for the kind words! They are appreciated.