Fiction Frustrations

How are you with short stories? I know that many people love them, but I have to say it is not a form that has ever really done it for me. I have tried on numerous occasions but there are very few authors who have managed to thrill me in that short form writing. There was a terrific collection called ‘City of Boys’ by Beth Nugent that I read many years ago that I really enjoyed, although I accept that memory might be affected by the fact that the cover featured one of my favourite photographs by Bruce Davidson, from his peerless ‘Brooklyn Gang’ book. Another edition used the photograph from the opposite page in the spread, which is a neat touch. I’m sure that I have also found pleasure in collections by the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Carver and Cheever, but I’d honestly struggle to remember any of them and they are not things I would turn back to for pleasure (except perhaps for ‘Big Two-Hearted River’). This doubtless says much, much more about me than it does about the stories of course, but there we are. I’m conscious also of the fact that all of those names already mentioned are from Across The Pond, so what of my own blighted shores of Blighty? Well, yes, there are those glorious collections by Shena Mackay, and Jane Gardam’s delicious ‘Sidmouth Letters’, yet the immense pleasure gained from both those authors feels like it belongs to a past I cannot quite recognise. I’m not sure I could find the time or, more pertinently, the motivation to revisit them again now, although reading Hilary Mantel’s comments about Gardam’s ‘The Tribute’ this morning is sowing a seed of temptation.

My deep seated ambivalence about the short story form then might explain why none of the British Library Crime Classics’ collections have ever held much appeal. I have plodded through many of them more from a sense of duty as anything else. But duty to what? To ‘the label’? To the acknowledgement of the short story’s importance in the history of the crime/detective fiction genre? Respect must be given. Whatever. In truth I am not sure I have ever read one of those collections all the way through without at least skipping one of the authors. Usually Conan Doyle, which will sound like sacrilege, but there we are. Doyle, and by association Sherlock Holmes have never held the appeal for me that they seem to do for so many others. Perhaps this is because I never read him when I was young and so never forged those emotional ties. Nothing against those who did, of course, for we all have those deep roots that bind us to something, somewhere. Doyle and Holmes are not in mine, however, and when I chance upon them now Holmes more often than not comes across as an insufferable know-it-all. Perhaps this is intentional but I have limited interest in finding out. I recall I quite enjoyed that film about Doyle/Holmes as an old man with his bees a number of years back, but again, I am likely misremembering that.

So I admit that I skipped the Doyle/Holmes story (‘The Field Bazaar’) in ‘The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales Of Scottish Crime’ and then quickly gave up on Robert Louis Stevenson, Baroness Orczy (whose story gives title to the collection), Storer Clouston and, well almost all of the rest. It is possible that in so doing I have missed some treasure, but frankly I am sceptical and in any case, one person’s treasure is another’s trash so I can live with that. I did read the Josephine Tey and Cyril Hare stories however and they are as fine as one might expect. Nevertheless, both ably flag up my chief objection to the short story: when they are good they are too short, and when they are bad they are much too long. In other words, if the author is good, I’d much rather get stuck in and read a long(er) form novel. If not, well, put that book back on the shelf because you don’t get that time back. I’ve done that with ‘The Edinburgh Mystery’ where it joins all the other British Library Crime Classics as part of a multi-coloured wall of words.

Whilst the short story collections then have left me cold, the British Library Crime Classics’ series of long form novel reprints has seldom failed to bring enormous pleasure. Certainly there are some which shine brighter than others (step forward E.C.R. Lorac, John Bude and George Bellairs – or at least their spectral manifestations) but only Charles Warren Adams’ ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’ has had me giving up entirely (I struggle generally with pre-20th Century literature) until Sebastian Farr’s ‘Death On The Down Beat’ landed. Farr’s attempt shares a similarity with ‘Notting Hill’ in that it uses the form of letters as its structure, so perhaps there is something in that epistolary technique that doesn’t work for me in the context of detective fiction (although Sarah Caudwell would give lie to that theory), whilst the levels of detail about music/orchestra shenanigans just left me colder than a cold thing in a decidedly cold place. Apparently Sebastian Farr was a pseudonym for Eric Blom, a distinguished (it says here) musicologist and music critic, so I can only imagine he thought it would be a bit of a wheeze to combine musical criticism/theory with detective fiction. On this evidence it’s an idea that should have stayed inside his head. I’m afraid that I quickly found myself skipping sentences, then paragraphs and then entire letters until I finally just Skipped To The End to discover that the murderer was someone I’d (hardly surprisingly) only vaguely noticed. Any frustration at this is, however, far outweighed by the relief in putting the book back in that wall of colour. Perhaps then the series is reaching the end of its functional life? How many more rare and passed-over gems can there be in the bowels of the collection? Are we now scraping the bottom of the barrel?

On the evidence of the Not Yet Reissued As Far As I Can Tell books being posted to the lovely Dean Street Press ‘Facebook’ community the barrel is vast and the bottom far from visible, which has to be A Good Thing. Certainly, as previously noted, DSP is doing as fine a job as ever of uncovering some quirky gems. I’m looking at the titles by the likes of Robin Forsythe, Ianthe Jerrold, Joan Cowdray, Edwin and Rona Radford and Francis Vivian on my shelves and being tempted to revisit at least some of them in order to wash away the distaste left by Mr Farr/Blom. Indeed I rather wish I had done so rather than picking up Annie Haynes ‘The Bungalow Mystery’. Written in 1923, ‘The Bungalow Mystery’ is sadly one of those books that hastens me to raise a questioning eyebrow as to whether the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction was really any such thing. For me (and let’s face it, this is the Only Thing That Matters in our devoutly libertarian times) too many of these early 1920s detective stories are in debt to the kind of nineteenth century melodrama that I care so little for. I think that I understand something of the lineage which leads into the 1920s’ books, and goodness knows I have read (end enjoyed, honestly!) the likes of Gaston Laroux’s ‘Yellow Room’ and (enjoyed to a much lesser extent) Poe’s ‘Murders in The Rue Morgue’ but still… I find that there is a certain clumsiness to a book like ‘The Bungalow Murder’ that I struggle to get beyond. For sure in 1923 we are still some years from the formation of ‘the rules’ so that the feeling that Haynes does not quite ‘play fair’ with her clues can perhaps be overlooked, but perhaps too it is true that I only missed the importance of said clues because I really didn’t care much either way. I’ve said it before that there are lots of people who do love that whole nineteenth century thing and who will doubtless also dig these early ’20s efforts, and that is fair enough. Increasingly though, I’m finding that beyond the core of (some) Christie, Sayers and Allingham (the latter questionable in any case since the first Campion novel does not surface until the decade is almost over) there is little that compares to the post WW2 output in the genre and THAT is more accurately the truly Golden Age.

Annie Haynes, then, goes back on the shelf marked Not My Cup Of Tea and I wonder once more if it is time to give fiction a rest for a while.

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