Does Anything Last Forever?*

An interesting post at Fair Dinkum Crime (You really should be following that blog if you’re not) has got me thinking about what happens as we expand our reading horizons. Reading more widely introduces one to all kinds of ideas, themes, and authors that one wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It also gives debut authors and authors who are less widely known the chance to get their work ‘out there.’ So I for one think it benefits readers, authors and the genre (in this case crime fiction) when readers stretch themselves. Of course, let’s not talk about what expanding one’s reading horizons does to one’s TBR list… 😉 But there’s another consequence to branching out: one sees one’s old favourites in a different light. Sometimes that’s a positive experience, and sometimes it isn’t. As we evolve in our reading habits, we do get a different perspective and that affects the way we look at the authors and books we always loved before.

For example, authors such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr created memorable novels that feature mostly a focus on plotting as opposed to deep character development. Of course one can point to exceptions in each of these authors’ back catalogues but in general their novels feature intellectual puzzles. That’s their appeal for millions of crime fiction fans. But for those of you who loved those puzzles, what happened to your view when you first read, say, Ruth Rendell’s work or P.D. James’ work? Those authors certainly feature solid mystery plots but their focus is also on deep interesting characters and psychological study. Did expanding your horizons that way change your perception of the ‘whodunit’ kind of intellectual exercise?

Many readers fell in love with the hardboiled PI novel along the lines of Raymond Chandler and later, John D. MacDonald, Peter Temple, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. It’s easy to see why too. A well-written ‘hard boiled’ novel has a solid blend of realism, action, compelling plot and suspense. And the very well-written ones also develop the characters so that they aren’t ‘cardboard cutouts.’ But if you’re the PI-novel type, what happened to your perception when you expanded your horizons to include quieter series such as Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series? Did you change your view of the level of violence and grit in the series you’d always loved? If you’ve broadened your reading to include some traditional ‘country house’ or ‘English village’ series such as Ngaio Marsh’s or Caroline Graham’s work, have you returned with the same interest to the PI sub-genre?

Very often crime fiction fans experience these ‘growing pains’ if you want to call it that when they broaden their reading to include the work of authors from other countries. Each country has a different culture – sometimes several different cultures – and that’s reflected in the crime fiction that comes from that country. So suppose you’ve been a fan of L.A. crime fiction such as the work of Michael Connelly. What happened to your perception of that sort of crime fiction after you expanded your reading to include work such as Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels or Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels? Those series reflect the cultures of their authors and thus expose readers to those cultures. After experiencing those different cultures did you return to Connelly’s work with the same enthusiasm?

There are also many crime fiction fans who originally fell in love with historical crime fiction such as Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. If that describes you, what happened to your perception of that context and those authors when you began to read crime fiction set in the modern day? Do you still enjoy virtually returning to medieval times? What about when you began to read historical crime fiction set in different eras, such as Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series which is set just before World War II? Did that change your perception of the historical crime fiction you’d always loved?

Sometimes of course we broaden our reading only to realise how much we really do enjoy the novels we’ve always loved. In those cases, returning to a favourite author’s work is like re-uniting with a dear friend. Yes we’ve matured but that doesn’t change our feelings about that author’s novels. I know I have my favourites whose writing I always enjoy. It doesn’t always work out that way though, even if the author has continued to innovate and create well-written books.

When that happens – when we see that our tastes have simply changed – it can be a little sad, especially if we have some very good memories of a particular author or series. But people grow and expand their horizons and sometimes that simply means that our favourite clothes if you will simply don’t fit any more.

Has that happened to you? What’s happened to your perception of your favourite authors’ novels as you’ve widened the scope of your reading? If you’re a writer, has your writing changed as your reading has changed? Just wondering…

Thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for the inspiration for this post. Folks, you really should be following her superb blog. I know it’s one of my must-reads.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kenny Loggins’ Heart to Heart.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Caroline Graham, Ellery Queen, Ellis Peters, Håkan Nesser, John D. MacDonald, John Dickson Carr, Louise Penny, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Peter Temple, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Cantrell, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

22 responses to “Does Anything Last Forever?*

  1. I know it has happened to me. I must admit, I have my favourite type of novel – British gritty crime fiction– and tend to read mainly that. However, I have ventured out of my reading-comfort-zone and always find myself pleasantly surprised.

    • Clarissa – I’ve had the same experience actually. I never used to be much for thrillers for instance, but I’ve had a few people whom I trust suggest some high-quality thrillers that don’t resort to ‘body count’ or a lot of brutality for suspense, and they can be excellent.

  2. An excellent point Margot – I keep going over the reasons for my enthusiasm for mystery fiction and find that the only compelling rationale is found in its breadth.I recently got into a fascinating debate about Julian Symons’ often harsh views on the vexed question of the critical worth of mystery books vs crime novels. I like both but couldn’t do without either. I find Rendell too bleak to read on a regular basis but the split between her Wexford books and her Vine publications for example does seem to point to a necessary divide at least in marketing and maybe even in literature. Hard and fast rules about anything, frankly, nowadays strike me as a bit juvenile or rather, they remind me of how I used to see the world as a teen and my endless desire to come up with hard and fast rules to define everything and so reassure myself. The realisation of the simple permeability and mutability of life is frankly what keeps me going nowadays as I approach middle age (a label I should of course dismiss as a ‘label’).

    As always Margot, apologies for the rambling and terrible typos in response to your ever lucid thoughts.

    • Sergio – First, no need at all to apologise. You’ve no idea how many times I have to go over and over my posts to remove some really embarrassing mistakes and give what I write a semblance anyway of cohesion. Even then I don’t always catch everything. You’ve a very well-taken point about the crime novel vs the mystery novel actually. There are differences and it is nice to have both so as to be able to read one or the other as one wishes. That said though, it doesn’t make sense as you wisely point out to be too caught up in labelling a book or the work of an author in a categorical way.
      You’re quite right too that one of the beauties of the genre is its breadth. As I often tell people who are willing to listen to me on the topic, there really is something for nearly every taste, mood and budget.

  3. PeterReynard

    Margot, you make a great point. Growing up I used to be an avowed Poirot fan with an occasional Ms. Marple throw in. Now, I actually prefer Christie’s other novels. I still like Poirot but I often feel that he overpowers the novel whereas her unknown regular-joe/jen-caught-up-in-the-mystery characters just have more fun.

    • Peter – Thank you 🙂 – And it’s really interesting too that you’ve learned to like Christie’s non-Poirot sleuths more. There are plenty of good ‘uns among them, so I’m not surprised. Like you, I started by reading mostly her Poirot novels but have also come to really like her other sleuths as well. Interesting parallel.

  4. neer

    This is a very perceptive post. When I read P.D. James first, I did get a shock. I was used to Agatha Christies and Perry Masons where the private lives of the investigators were in the background and here James was talking about how the investigative team was balancing its professional and personal commitments.

    Now, of course, I am used to it and think that personal demons besetting the investigators is a rather overdone trope. Frankly, I like my vintage mysteries, though now there are more than just Christies and Perry Masons.

    • Neer – Thank you 🙂 – Like you, I was mostly accustomed to the classics and Golden Age authors at first. Things were quite different of course when I started to read Rendell, James and the like. As you say, the look at the detectives’ home lives and the sub-plots regarding the personal relationships the detectives had were a big change. I still love the vintage mysteries too for a lot of reasons even though in the hands of a talented author such as Henning Menkell, the look we get at the sleuth’s home life can add much to a story.

  5. Thanks for the acknowledgement Margot and, as ever, for taking my thoughts in new directions. Although I don’t have accurate records going back more than about 5 years I know that if I was able to compare my reading list of today with one of 10 years ago it would have very little overlap. There are a few authors that have stayed the same but overall the style of book that I prefer to read now is quite different. I think back then I probably read more non crime books to get my “deep” or “meaty” reading and the crime stuff was what I read for pure escapism. So the fact that it was fairly formulaic, predominantly American or English and generally fairly mainstream was not too much of a problem. But these days I hardly read anything but crime novels and so I do want at least some of them to be more substantial. But I’m not consistent – In the post you referred to I didn’t really like what I thought of as a fairly shallow book by Gabrielle Lord but I can still happily read (well listen to) a Dick Francis yarn and there’s no one more formulaic than him. It must be so hard for you authors to know how to keep us readers happy you poor things.

    • Bernadette – Oh, trust me it’s a pleasure to mention you and your great blogs. I think it’s really interesting (and makes sense too) that when you were reading more non-crime fiction, you didn’t mind your crime fiction being a little formulaic and mainstream. But a switch to nearly all crime fiction means that an intelligent reader is going to want some depth and real substance to a novel. If you add to that the fact that we mature and change as we go on it isn’t at all surprising that you to have very little overlap between the books that draw you in now and those you used to read. I know that’s true of me anyway.
      And I’m quite sure you’re not the only reader who’s inconsistent when it comes to what we find appealing. Part of it is the author’s talent. A commenter on this blog once said of Dick Francis, ‘That man could make cockroach races interesting,’ and there’s a real point there. Part of it is also I think the reader’s mood, effect of life events and so on. So now, it’s not easy to know exactly what it takes to keep readers happy. But when you know that a reader has really enjoyed something you’ve written, there’s nothing like that feeling…

  6. Skywatcher

    I’ve always had rather eclectic tastes as regards books, with the result that I’ve tended to be interested in authors rather than genres as such. If I find an author that I like, I try to read all of his or her books. If the first one doesn’t grab me, I might well end the relationship then and there. The result of this is that finding that an author like Rendell is more interested in character than Christie doesn’t really affect me. I like Robert Parker, but Raymond Chandler leaves me cold, although they have a lot in common. There are authors that I like, and authors that I don’t, and I read different writers for different things.

    • SKywatcher – Interesting perspective! And it makes sense too since authors can vary so greatly. If one likes the work of one particular author, there’s no saying one would like the work of another just because s/he also writes crime fiction. There’s just too much variety in the genre for that follow logically. Interesting too that you like Parker’s work and don’t care much for that of Chandler. There are some similarities as you say, but each author is going to make a different impression on each reader.

  7. kathy d.

    I credit this blog and some other also wonderful ones with expanding my reading horizons. I read mostly U.S. authors, and a few others, and for years not crime fiction, but good novels by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Arondati Roy, Jeffrey Eugenides, Barbara Kingsolver and so many more. Then for some reason, I went back to mysteries, though I had read Grafton, Paretsky and Muller since they began publishing. Then I read other crime writers, finding series, like Nevada Barr’s, and so many more. Then happily I found Donna Leon and the Venetian commissario and is friends and family. Then I began to look further and found Fred Vargas, Tana French, and then Arnaldur Indridason, Stieg Larsson and Asa Larsson. And then I found these blogs and began reading so much more, books from South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, India, Germany, Denmark, Greece, Norway — and a great find in the last few years boosted by the three wonderful blogs from Oz, lots of books from Australia — a big boost to my reading list. Then I found Salvadore Montalbano. Need I say more? So I’d say overall i’d dropped a lot of mundane U.S. authors to explore the world, experience, enjoy it, take virtual vacations, learn more.
    I know I’m leaving out a lot but that can’t be helped.
    From a teenager who read Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner and Arthur Conan Doyle, an occasional Dorothy Sayers or Josephine Tey, to one who reads books from over 20 countries. My lists are nowhere the same now as my teenage reads — except I’ve rediscovered Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, when I need a fun, light break between huge, heavy tomes.

    • Kathy – I couldn’t agree with you more that blogs are a powerful and addictive way to get leads on new books and authors (And thanks for the kind words 🙂 ). I learn so much from the blogs I read. It sounds as though your reading list has expanded in a number of ways as you’ve learned about other authors and crime fiction from other countries. The same thing has happened to me. I think it’s especially interesting that despite the fact you’ve learned to love so many different kinds of crime fiction, you still return to the Rex Stout series. I can see why too. It’s a wonderful series on a lot of levels in my opinion. And one of the great things about crime fiction is that it comes in all sorts of colours and flavours so that when one wants a break from one kind of crime fiction…there’s always another to try.

  8. A great question, Margot. Although I read all genres (and a lot of nonfiction too), mystery/suspense/thriller is still my favorite. I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, moved up to gothic mystery/romance, then read all the classics in my mom’s bookshelves, transitioned to contemporary cozies, then to more hard-boiled series, on to thrillers including those from international authors such as Matt Hilton and Deon Myer….and oddly enough am now hooked on YA dystopian/sci fi/mystery novels. Right now I’m reading Michelle Gagnon’s YA novel, Don’t Turn Around.

    • Pat – Thank you 🙂 – It’s really interesting that you’ve experienced so many different sub-genres of the mystery/crime fiction genre. I’ll bet that it’s given you a really broad perspective on what people write. I’m sure it’s found its way into your writing too. I’m glad too that you’ve found some YA fiction that interests you. If I were wearing a hat, it would be off to those who write good stories for young people. Anyone that gets tweens and teens hooked on reading is doing a vital public service I think.

  9. It’s a good question Margot. I recently moved house and I had a good clear out of my crime fiction collection. I was ruthless and it was actually fascinating which authors were consigned to the charity shop. Minette Walters, who I once read diligently went, although I kept ‘The Ice House’ for sentimental reasons. Similarly Kathy Reichs – all hardback which goes to show how much I liked them once, has gone. I dithered over my Sara Paretsky but decided to keep them as again I have a sentimental attachment to some of the early books but I haven’t read her last two.
    But I kept all my tatty Ellis Peters paperbacks because I like to read them when I have a cold and can’t concentrate on anything more difficult.

    • Sarah – There’s nothing like moving house is there to really give one a sense of priorities when it comes to what stays and what goes. I know that’s how I feel. Interesting that you chose to keep your Paretsky collection (I’d have done the same) but not all of your Walters. I actually have only a few authors whose work I would not give up no matter what. But if you aske me in 20 years, my guess is my list would change…

  10. kathy d.

    And I neglected to say that I am still 100% a fan of Sara Paretsky’s and read an occasional Sue Grafton. And I always read Nevada Barr’s books; without them, my education on national parks and environments would be even more sorely lacking.

  11. Very interesting post and very interesting comments. Sometimes it pays to come late. One disappointment I have had recently is not enjoying the vintage mysteries as much as I expected. I read them voraciously when I was younger. Of course I never get tired of Rex Stout.

    The last few books I read I went from the very gritty Philip Kerr mysteries about Nazis and Germany, during and post WWII, to the very cozy Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. It was good to get the variety. Although usually my reading is somewhere in between those two.

    • Tracy – Thank you 🙂 – I always find the comments to be the most interesting part of anything on my blog. It’s funny, you’re not the first to tell me that after reading more modern books, the vintage mysteries don’t have the appeal they once did. Of course lots of people still prefer them; nothing can really be said to be true for all readers really. And I agree that Rex Stout’s work is terrific.
      I do the same thing you do in terms of varying my reading. Sometimes I read bleaker novels and then sometimes cosies. Sometimes I read historical novels and then I’m ready for something else. That’s the beauty of the genre really: its variety.

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