Have you ever read a novel written, perhaps, decades ago, or even longer, and still found that it felt contemporary? Me, too. I got to thinking about this after yesterday’s post about Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios. Someone who was kind enough to read the post mentioned that the book still feels quite contemporary.
And there are aspects of it we do still face today. The novel is set against a backdrop of unsettling international tension. In that case it’s the tension that was building just before World War II. But international tension is nothing new, and we’re still feeling it today. One of the plot threads has to do with drugs smuggling, and with how smugglers get their contraband across borders. That still goes on today, too. And we’re still asking ourselves some of the larger questions that are raised in the book (e.g. Do the ends ever justify the means? Are we really in control of our own choices?).
Whether you agree about that particular novel feeling contemporary or not, there are certainly plenty of novels, sometimes from a long time ago, that arguably have that feel. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for example, was originally given a title that most of us would consider offensive today. But the story itself still resonates. A group of people are invited to house on Indian Island. For various reasons, they all accept. On the night of their arrival, each one is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Soon afterwards, one of the guests dies of poison. Late that night, there’s another death. Before long, it’s clear that someone has targeted all of the guests. The survivors are now going to have to find out who the killer is, and stay alive themselves. Some of the larger questions of guilt, of what ‘counts’ as a crime, and of how people justify what they do are still raised today. And the context – a group of people trying to survive in a dangerous situation, also resonates.
Another reason that even older books can feel contemporary is arguably that they address challenges that we still face today. For example, Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die has as one of its central figures a detective novelist named Frank Cairnes, who writes under the name Felix Lane. When his son, Martin ‘Martie,’ is killed by a hit-and-run driver, Cairnes decides to find the culprit. That’s, in fact, the first sentence of the novel:
‘I am going to kill a man.’
Those feelings of grief and rage resonate today. The loss of a child is the sort of human experience that isn’t limited, unfortunately, to one era.
Neither is a heat wave, which is the backdrop of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. The fictional city of Isola (a thinly disguised New York City) is stricken by a persistent heat wave, which makes everyone miserable. With this in the background, Steve Carella and his teammates at the precinct investigate the murders of two police officers. At first, it looks as though the killer is someone with a grudge against the police. But it’s both easier and more complicated than that. It’s true that this book (published in 1956) doesn’t include modern amenities such as air conditioning, computers, and so on. But even today, we all know what it’s like to go through a heat wave, and how hard that can be on the nerves. And many of the procedures used in the novel (talking to witnesses, checking information on weapons, and so on) are still done.
Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts was originally published in 1938. In it, Ellery Queen is working on a film script for Magna Studios. The project is a biopic about screen legends John Royle and Blythe Stuart. They had a very public, stormy romance and an equally public breakup, and went their separate ways. Each married someone else, and now has a grown child. The studio executives think that the public would pay for a film about their love story, so the pair is approached about it. To everyone’s shock, they not only agree, but they also rekindle their romance. In fact, they decide to marry. Unwilling to let go of the profits from the film, the studio Powers That Be decide to make the most of this new romance. They plan a Hollywood-style wedding, right on the tarmac of a local airport. Then, the couple and their children will take off in a private plane for the honeymoon. The wedding goes off as planned, and the plane leaves. When it lands, though, the newlyweds are dead from what turns out to be poison. Queen investigates to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the motive isn’t ‘dated.’ Neither is the backdrop of Hollywood glitz and gossip, very public love affairs, and fascination with celebrity.
And that seems to be one of the keys to a novel that feels contemporary, even though it was written many decades ago. A contemporary ‘feel’ is even more likely if the emphasis in the novel is on the characters and overall plot, rather than in details of an era that can ‘date’ a book. What about you? Are there books that feel quite timely and contemporary to you, although they were published a long time ago? Which ones?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Peter Allen and Carol Bayer Sager.