Friday, January 22, 2016

To Suffer the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune...or Misfortune...of Having Gotten This Question

Is there a well-regarded classic mystery that you’ve read and didn’t see what all the fuss was about? Why not?

by Paul D. Marks

I want to thank Cathy Ace for citing Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as a classic mystery she had issues with. As every graph of this post except this one was written prior to her piece you’ll see why I owe her a debt of gratitude to be the first to publicly take the Christie heat. Though I guess my not seeing the fuss in Christie goes way deeper than hers. So I’m ready to start shaking in my hobnail boots.

As Susan said on Monday “This week’s question is perfectly designed to get us all on the wrong foot with readers, writers, and obsessive fans.” Well, I like a good fight as much as the next person. And I like a classic mystery as much as the next person. And I’m going to assume that when we say “classic” here we’re talking dead writers. ’Cause we sure don’t want to piss off anyone who’s still living, do we?

And instead of focusing on one book, how about one author, so get your slings and arrows ready: I don’t like reading Agatha Christie. Now, it’s been a long time since I have but I clearly don’t feel the need to go back to her. It’s not that I don’t like her stories, I do. But the style of writing is not one that I enjoy reading.

I hate to be like the person who won’t watch black and white movies because they’re old and look dated or funny to them. I love black and white movies as a whole. But there’s something about Christie’s style of writing that I just don’t spark to though, as I say, I do love her stories. And I like the movie versions of many of her stories, especially And Then There Were None (1945 and despite some changes from the novel), based on Ten Little Indians and its earlier title, which I won’t repeat here.

But, instead of dwelling on the negative and turning an army of Christie fans into haters who will then have to feel horribly guilty, go to a shrink, spend tons of money, and still feel guilty, how about I mention some classic books that I do like and end the week on a more positive note. The style I prefer is more hardboiled, gritty and urban. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s where I’d go first.

Here are some choices, all of which have been turned into movies for good or ill. And even though you might have seen the movies, maybe check out the books too or vice versa. My purpose here isn’t to analyze each novel, just to give a shout out to some I like, so if you haven’t read them you might want to give them a shot, since I know you have nothing but time on your hands and no TBR pile next to your bed:

Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player) (1956), David Goodis’ magnum opus. I’m a huge Goodis fan. Came to him through the movies, the Bogart-Bacall film, Dark Passage, based on Goodis’ book of the same name. Geoffrey O’Brien said of him, “David Goodis is the mystery man of hardboiled fiction. ... He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and smalltime thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own. ... He was a poet of the losers. ... If Jack Kerouac had written crime novels, they might have sounded a bit like this.” And I would agree. So if you’re just feeling too bubbly and happy one day, read a Goodis book. That’ll bring you down a notch. On the other hand, it might also make you appreciate all the good things in your life more. And by-the-by, I think the novel of Down There/Shoot the Piano Player is much better than the Truffaut movie based on it.


Black Money (1966). Ross MacDonald is one of my favorite mystery writers. And Black Money is one of my favorite books of his. Right now it appears that the Coen Brothers (of Blood Simple and Fargo fame) are set to write and direct an adaptation of the book. I’m not sure if I love or hate this idea, but it’ll be interesting to see the final result. You betcha. 

The Grifters (1963) by Jim Thompson. Thompson wrote a series of hard-assed noir novels and even a handful of screenplays, including The Killing and Paths of Glory for Stanley Kubrick—there’s a match made in someone’s idea of heaven. And he led one hell of an interesting life. This one’s a nice mother and son story, just the kind of family story that warms the heart and the barrel of a gun.

Double Indemnity (1936). James M. Cain practically invents noir with this book and the film that followed. Unfaithful femme fatale, shady insurance guy, trains, crutches, murder and anklets. What more could you ask for?

Build My Gallows High (1946) by Geoffrey Homes (a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring) is the basis for one of the all-time great film noirs, Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer as the most alluring of all femme fatales. The screenplay had an uncredited assist from one James M. Cain, among others—something I know oh so much about...

And just about everything by Raymond Chandler and Hammett.




14 comments:

Sam said...

Just read Black Money for the first time. It's awesome. Someone described the plot as "the Great Gatsby as a PI story."

GBPool said...

It is rare that the movie is better than the book, but in Agatha Christie's case, you are right. The movies brought the story into a more understandable era. Even Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White) is a little hard to read. I did find Anna Katherine Greene very readable. She wrote before Christie and Christie even credited her as an influence. Greene's stories are both short and novella length. Some are slightly less than a Christie mystery, but the writing is superb. Half the time I thought they were actually written much more recently rather than a hundred years ago. For one who usually likes tougher stuff, Anna Katherine Greene was so intelligent and crisp and better than much that I have read today. Go figure.

Susan C Shea said...

GBPool, I enjoyed The Woman in White much more than I thought I would, and give Collins a lot of credit for the format - the serial narrators. A couple Chistmases ago, my son gave me an early second edition of The Moonstone, which I'm saving for a rainy day. (Hey, maybe that's now, after I finish Stuart Neville's Ratlines!)

Paul D. Marks said...

Sam, I’d never heard that, but it’s a great descrption for Black Money. Glad you liked it, not that my opinion matters...

Gayle, there are occasions when the movies are better and Christie is a case in point. I’m not familiar with Anna Katherine Greene, but hopefully I’ll have time to check her out one day.

Susan, hopefully that rainy day will come soon!

Cathy Ace said...

To be fair, I really enjoyed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - it's just that it could never have lived up to the way my mum hyped it. I don't want to diss Christie's work at all - the vast majority of it is fantastic and set the broad strokes in place for the sub-genre.

Paul D. Marks said...

Okay, Cathy, we'll call of the hordes. I'll take the heat :)

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Paul --
Sorry to hear you're not a fan of Christie's (still a favorite for me), but can't argue with any of the authors you're championing instead! Still haven't read Black Money, though it's been on my TBR list forever--and haven't read Build My Gallows High, either (though love that movie, of course, and show clips of it in my lit classes when talking about noir).
Thanks for the suggestions!
Art

Paul D. Marks said...

Hey Art,

Well, I had to choose somebody... And I do like her stories, just not so much the style of writing. But that's just me. -- I'll be curious to hear what you think of Black Money and Build My Gallows High. On the latter, I think the movie is probably better because that movie is close to the perfect noir, but I liked the book too.

P

lisajohnljc123 said...

Oh my gosh, such a great post here Paul! Gotta get in here too.

If anyone's seen my goodreads list lately you know that in the last couple months I've been devouring almost every author on your list here...
I had a stack of books about 4 feet hight with Goodis, Chandler, Hammet, Cain, and Thompson all just screaming at me...The stuff nightmares are made of, but the satisfying kind that makes you want to get in there with your pencil and see what you can do to keep up...

Goodis prose reads like a straight shot punch to the gut, and then some...his characters who are so down and out and so hard headed, and so hard to forget!

And Hammet's mastery of the refined criminal in the falcon and the thin man was something special...

Cain's postman definitely rang my bell twice, and who could forget phyliss in double indemnity dragging her dead husband's body across the field only to dump it on the train tracks to get dinged up some more!

And of course there's Thompson...the master of small time thieves living on the down-low lurking in the shadows just waiting on their moment...The Grifters inspired a short story of mine about a band of traveling small time thieves...

Just too much good stuff here to read, and not enough time to read it all unfortunately!!!

Thanks much for this, Paul!

lisaljohnljc said...


Oh...I got so excited talking about all those great authors I forgot to mention, I'm not a real fan of Christie either. Her stuff is kind of fun, but a little too light weight for me.


But I did like the TV shows they had a while back...again, lightweight, but entertaining enough.

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Lisa, Thanks. And sorry for getting back to you so late. Unfortunately, I missed your response. And at least there’s one other person who feels like I do about Christie... ;)

Satisfying nightmares, I love that phrase. Goodis is known in some circles but certainly less than Chandler, Hammet, Cain and Thompson. But it sounds like you have a terrific reading list – I’m envious. But I agree, a total punch to the gut. You really feel like you’ve been through the ringer after you spend some time with his characters, even more so than with Thompson I think.

And Hammett, Cain and Thompson. Definitely faves and you describe them well. But my ultimate is Chandler. Ross MacDonald (another fave) said he wrote like a slumming angel and it’s so true.

Good luck with your Grifters-inspired story. Would love to see it some time.

P

lisaljohnljc said...

Hey thanks for that Paul!

Keep you posted on the latter!

And yeah, MacDonald's quote seems spot on!

Cheers!

writingfictionnow.com said...

Oh, and one more thing...

Did you know that all of the city of Anaheim is reading Hammet's "The Falcon" this month as sort of a giant book club challenge....
cool stuff going on out there!


Paul D. Marks said...

That's cool about Anaheim. I would be curious to see what they all thought.

P