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The Almost Snow Day

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I am writing this sitting in my office at home, and outside the snow is coming down steadily as it has been for hours.  Everything in the northern two thirds of this state is closed, except, of course, for the place where I teach.  That has declared itself open as f some time later this morning, which is going to be interesting.  The snow is supposed to be followed by freezing rain.  Even if I make my twelve forty five class–and if they tell me to, I will, because I’m like that–the chances that I’m going to have m ore than one or two students are close to nil.  But this place is like that.  The first year I was there, it waited until after noon to close on a day when the snow started around nine, leading to a situation where it took my forty-five minutes to make my way from school to the neartest Interstate exit, usually a trip of less than two minutes.   And I’m n ot ven factoring in the number of cars, almost all of them from our place, left spun out and disabled on the way. This is not the kind of thing  I understand.  Yes, certainly, there are some institutions and businesses with vital work to do that cannot wait.  The hospitals have to stay open and so do the fire departments.  Colleges and niversities can almost always take the day if the weather is prohibitive, and exactly what is gained by insisting on opening in conditions that endanger students and staff is beyond me.  

It is, however, the start of another idea in my head, so let’s go with it.

I was rather bemused at the responses to yesterdays post, which were mostly concerned with showing me how everything has become much more expensive.  I know that, really. What I was wondering about was why we are increasingly unwilling to pay whatever it costs to get certain kinds of work done and done right.   I think that the reason lies largely in what we expect to have in our private lives–that the Boomer generation and those that follow it simply expect to have a larger amount of money to spend, a larger number of consumer goods, and all that sort of thing, than our parents’ generation did.   It’s not that we don’t sacrifice.  It’s that we find even th idea of “sacrifice,” even the “sacrifice” of the trivial, to be unthinkable.

As to mass entertainment, I’m not sure what the responses mean–is it the case that it is no longer financially possible to produce entertainment that is to our present population what the movies of the Thirties were to that one?  My mother’s father was ruined in the Great Depression, literally.  He spent some time selling pencils on street corners.  She could still go to the movies.  It would seem to me that there ought to be something like that–something available to everybody, except maybe the homeless living on the streets–and yet there isn’t.  Even NASCAR and professional wrestling seem to get more expensive by the day.

I was thinking, though, that one of the things the Thirties had, and the Fifties had, was books, and most importantly mystery books.

For one reason or the other, those two eras coincide with “golden ages” of the mystery story.  In both of those periods, mysteries outsold every other genre, and mysteries were taken semi-seriously by the wider culture in a way in which no other genre was. 

In the periods between those periods–in the periods of much greater prosperty–mysteries tended to recede and horror and romance gained more ground.  In the Sixties, this was joined by science fiction, which has become the only genre other than mystery that intellectuals will admit to reading and/or writing.

But I wonder what’s going on here exactly.

For all the screaming and yelling about percentages of rising incomes and whatever, we’ve just been through one of those periods of our history that was just full of money.  A lot of this money seems to have been fake money, but while it seemed to be there we spent it as if it were real.

And in this period, as in similar periods that came before it, we saw a rise of books and other entertainment that focussed on magic and the supernatural–horror novels, certainly, but also “documentaries” about psychics and Nostradamus, claims made for mediums and mystics, a renewed popularity for Tarot cards and Ouija boards. 

Then there are the really bizarre new crazes in subgenres–vampire romance novels, for instance–coupled with the mind-numbing silliness of John Edward and the more extroverted of the faith healing preachers, the latter coming complete with prophecies of the AntiChrist and the end of the world.

I’ve never been particularly interested in claims of the supernatural, or stories about it, either.  I’ve read Dracula, more or less, and there are some horror novels I rather like, but I almost always like them in spite of the supernatural parts.  My favorite Stephen King novel is The Shining, and it’s a plus for me that you can go through two thirds of the thing unable to figure out if there really are supernatural things happening, or if it’s all in this guy’s crazy head.   I thought Interview With The Vampire was incredibly well done, but I tended to see the vampire as a metaphor and the rest of Anne Rice’s novels make my eyes glaze over.

And superpowers?  Please.  I’ve got two sons, so  I tend to get dragged to every superhero movie on the planet, but I  fall asleep in the fight scenes. 

I like the rational and the real world, if not necessarily the exact real world that I happen to be living in right this minute.   People do not have superpowers, so superpowers tend to diminish the interest of the story for me.  Vampires do not exist–except metaphorically, where I sometimes think they’ve had a population explosion–so I’m not much interested in that, either.

And as for vampire porn–well.   I mean, I’ve wanted a lot of differint things from sex over the course of my life, but, I mean…okay.   I was never interested in getting from sex a complete obliteration of my mind and my will.  And that’s a subject for another time.

But back to murder mysteries for a moment–why is it that murder mysteries seem to flourish in periods of relative scarcity and to recede in periods of relative prosperity?  Who reads murder mysteries, and why?

Let’s back up for a minute from that thing so many of you said–yes, you read to relax and to forget your troubles and to be entertained.

There are lots of different genres out there.  Why pick this one, why pick murder mysteries, to do all those things for you?

I want to talk now about murder mysteries in particular–not action thrillers or blood and gore Mafia crime novels or caper fiction–the kind of thing produced by  Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ed McBain, even Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  I know, I should pick more modern novelists, but I’m sitting her watching the snow fall and getting distracted.   It’s already nine o’clock.   I have no idea how I’m getting the car out of the driveway by quarter after twelve.

At any rate, some of you oug there must read murder mysteries, detective novels, that kind of thing.  Why do you think you do it?

I’d supposed that very few of you are like me.   I’ve only ever been much interested in the one genre.  I’ve read a book or two in other genres over the years, but nothing every grabbed me for very long.

So if you read other genres besides murder mysteries, what makes you pick up a murder mystery this time?

And what is the relationship between increased interest in the detective novel and decreased economic prosperity overall?  I sound like I think the field is actually bringing recessions with it, but of course I don’t think so. 

But there’s yet another question in all this, and that is the fact that the giants of the first golden age of mystery fiction are often still with us.  Christie, Stout, Sayers, Hill, Chandler, Hammett, Gardner are all still in print, and Christie at least sells much better than the vast majority of modern novelists in her field.

Logically, there must be a market out there for classic detective fiction.  Readers arre certainly reading a lot of it, and writers–almost all dead–are certainly selling a lot of it.

And yet, it is very hard to get a classic detective novel published these days.  By and large, if you want to do that and see yourself in print from a major house, you need to be writing cozies.  If you’re not, then you need to go in for a lot of very graphic violence, at least some very graphic sex, the sort of vocabulary that would have gotten you arrested in 1954, and an “action” plot that includes car chases, kidnappings, stalking perpetrators through sewers and at least one really good no-holds-barred shoot out. 

Robert has suggested a couple of times that people aren’t buying fewer books, there are simply more writers out there forced to share a still limited readership.  That may be true, but it doesn’t explain the present situation.

In point of fact, there are very few modern writers of classic detective novels, much fewer now than there were in the first golden age.   And they’re mostly n ot doing very well.  If the same people who were keeping the Christie estate more than solvent were also reading contemporary detective fiction when it appeared, there would be more of it published and more of it available more cheaply.

So–who reads murder mysteries?  Murder mysteries, not crime novels.  Novls of detection.

Why are more of such people to be found when the economy is tanking?

And why do they read the old stuff but not the new?

And why do they read dective novels in particular, instead of some other form of entertainment, relaxation and escape?

Written by janeh

January 28th, 2009 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'The Almost Snow Day'

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  1. I can’t answer for everyone who reads murder mysteries, but I can tell you that the reason *I* read them is that when I’m reading fiction, I like there to be some goal the book’s characters, or at least some of them, are trying to reach. You’re pretty much guaranteed that with a mystery–a detective is trying to find out who dunnit. I read in other genres, as well–science fiction & fantasy, mostly, and those usually have a goal, as well. I try general fiction occasionally, but usually end up wishing the characters would stop drifting and aim to accomplish something. Anything, I don’t care. And make that the core of the book.

    I read both the old stuff & the new, when I can find it. I wish there was more of the new to read. When I do mystery displays (contemporary or older authors) in the library, they fly off the shelves. I suspect their limited sales may have more to do with limited promotion than anything. Right now thrillers get on all the best seller lists, & lots of people find their reading from those lists. So they’re self-reinforcing. People don’t know the names of new authors if they’re not on those lists, so they go with the names they know–Christie, Sayers, etc. We do displays & book lists in the library, but that probably mostly affects in-library use, not sales.

    As to why people read more mysteries in poor economic times, I’m just guessing. But maybe it’s because they have unsoluble problems in their own lives. When they read mysteries, at least that problem gets solved. Even if it’s not their own problem, it may be comforting just to feel that some solutions do exist.

    Lee B

    28 Jan 09 at 11:22 am

  2. “I was rather bemused at the responses to yesterdays post, which were mostly concerned with showing me how everything has become much more expensive. I know that, really. What I was wondering about was why we are increasingly unwilling to pay whatever it costs to get certain kinds of work done and done right.”

    Actually, I thought yesterday’s responses weren’t about the fact that everything is more expensive, but rather provided guesses as to why they were. And these guesses generally didn’t have anything to do with willingness to pay, but focused instead on changes in organization and technology that have developed in the movie industry and education. People don’t make profitable movies these days with black and white film, elementary (and cheap) special effects and unknown actors willing to work cheaply.

    Part of the increase in educational costs is, in fact, an attempt to ‘do things properly’, although a cynic like me often wonders how effective these efforts are. Sure, it’s cheaper and probably better for hearing and visually impaired students, especially those with moderate impairment, to be taught in their local school by regular teachers with support by itinerant specialists than in boarding schools hundreds of kilometres from home. And if you can’t provide specialist science or French teachers in rural schools, a roving specialist can help the generalist. It does sound like it’s gone to extremes in your state, but systems of funding and responsibilities for the management of schools differ so much between the US and Canada I really shouldn’t speculate further. Well, I can’t resist making a few comments.

    I think there probably is a focus on the self that causes a reluctance to sacrifice in contemporary culture, but I’m not sure that has much to do with the conditions of the schools because I think there’s a tendency to assume that there’s lots of money going there already; it’s just mis-spent. So why send good money after bad? Plus there’s a minority who don’t understand why they should pay taxes to schools when they don’t have children. I don’t have children, and that attitude drives me crazy. I want all the younger people who will be helping me in the future with everything from checking out my grocery purchases to providing my medical care to be as well-educated as possible.

    As for where the modern poor find entertainment equivalent to the cheap movie of a couple generations ago, I’d guess TV and gambling. And I bet both Canada and the US are well-enough off that almost all poor households can scrape together enough for cable or satellite TV. Gambling is even cheaper, particularly the lottery tickets which seem to be replacing bingo and card games.

    I’ve read other genres. I still do. I suppose I read mysteries most (at the moment) followed by science fiction/ fantasy/ supernatural. I haven’t read much in the romance category for a while. I don’t know why people read mysteries, or why they read more in difficult times. I read them because I like the puzzles.


    28 Jan 09 at 1:25 pm

  3. During the Great Depression, people flocked to the movies, and while many great dramas were made, the popular favorites were screwball comedies (often about very rich people- think “Thin Man”) and musical extravaganzas. Pure escapism, when real life was all about sacrifice and need.

    You asked about why the rise in supernatural writing during the Recent Economic Pleasantness. You are right, for much of that period, the money seemed to come out of nowhere. Ridiculous rises in home values, imaginary billions created out of internet startups gone wild, etc. Well, when your money seems to come out of thin air, why *not* believe in magic, and want to read about it? Certainly there were no valid economic theories about where the money was coming from, and in spite of the prosperity, the underpinnings of the whole time were uncertain. In times of uncertainty, even prosperous uncertainty, people turn to magic.

    Mysteries, puzzle-based novels, have been with us since they were invented. People like them because they can be read on many levels. The reader can compete with the detective in solving the crime, or relax and go along for the ride if they crave entertainment. Newer authors *don’t* get the publicity to be top of mind when a library patron asks a librarian to recommend a mystery. Publishing houses will cut back on publicity during hard times, so that may be one reason why fewer mysteries are read during that time. But I tend to think that it’s a parallel to the 30s movies..people want more fantasy and fluff, to read about something or someone that has nothing to do with home foreclosures, unemployment and reality. In many ways a nice Christie novel describes a world so different from reality it might be a different planet.

    I know what you mean about the unthinkability of the concept of sacrifice though. Last year my husband & I saved money so we could pay cash for a new (used) car. The salesperson treated us like we were Mr. & Mrs. GotBucks. He actually told us we were “rich.” No, we explained, we saved our money until we had enough, it took a couple of years of foregoing some discretionary spending and skipping a vacation or two, not to mention working more. He looked at us like we were speaking a foreign language. I know when we left he still thought we were “rich.”

    I don’t know what the solution to that is. Our kids have never seen us struggle, the way we saw our parents struggle. We’ve tried not to give them too much, and to encourage them to get out and experience their own “lean times” the way we did when we were newly adult. Doesn’t seem to be working. The next 20 years are going to be interesting, that’s for sure.


    28 Jan 09 at 2:37 pm

  4. I started to read murder mysteries when I was about 12 (I also read Black Stallion books and everything by Albert Payson Terhune, but they were other interests). I cut my teeth on Ellery Queen and on the challenge to the reader he always gave about 2/3ds of the way through his books. I almost never met the challenge, but was always fascinated by the way he did. I did Christe, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Highsmitn (I think that’s right), Dorothy Sayers (who I still read when I’m out of new ones). With some I got attached to the protagonists (as I did with the early Martha Grimes and still do with Debra Crombie): with others I read for the puzzle.

    I don’t think there are a lot of really good MYSTERY writers out there (though I am fond of Nevada Barr who also has a protagonist I find appealing) with the exceptions of JH and P.D. James.

    But I don’t read for ‘escape’ as much as for the challenge and for the aesthetics of good writing and for the characters, many of whom have become my friends over the years.

    Janet Lewis

    28 Jan 09 at 2:48 pm

  5. I don’t know why anyone else reads mysteries, but I do because I want Good to triumph over Evil. I want to see the bad guy get caught and punished. When I pick up the book, I like knowing that when I put it down, the bad guy will be caught and stopped. I agree with a comment above that solving the mystery gives a backbone to the story, and I too am sometimes impatient with fiction that just flits and dithers aimlessly. I almost never try to solve mysteries as I read them, but I like the puzzle of them. And more importantly, I like the fact that someone is going to solve the puzzle with his/her brain. I find all this very comforting. (I am still thinking about the issue of the murder itself, posed awhile back. You’d think a story based on murder would not be comforting. But most of the mysteries I read rarely describe the death or body in gruesome detail, and I think murder is just a stand-in for “the worst kind of evil possible” that is still somehow understandable.)

    When I’m really anxious about something personal, the only antidote is a bout of serious mystery reading. I think it gives me an illusion of order. So when the world economy is tanking, the bad guys got away with your 401C, your government resigned, your country is bankrupt, and war is breaking out – I’d say that the illusion of Good triumphing over Evil thanks to human intelligence is pretty comforting. Better than mashed potatoes.

    I read old and new, but a favorite old book just adds to the comfort, particularly if the action takes place in a time and location and society I can romanticize. Modern mysteries remind me too much of the bad stuff outside the window.

    As for cheap entertainment? I’m not sure – TV, cell phone “stuff,” going to the mall and hanging out with a bit of money to buy some little trinket?

    As for sacrifice – no, we don’t do it much anymore. Delaying gratification — saving up for things, putting things on layaway, making due, repairing things, reusing things, making things, renting things, borrowing things – I don’t think any of this is part of American life these days.


    28 Jan 09 at 3:24 pm

  6. Jeez. Sorry about the weird computer squiggles.


    28 Jan 09 at 3:28 pm

  7. Ah. Sorry. I live abroad and have a non-English operating system in my computer. When I posted my comment, it appeared distorted by squiggles and odd characters. But now they’re gone. Or are encoded properly. Or were an stress-induced illusion caused by thinking about layaway plans. Apologies.


    28 Jan 09 at 4:49 pm

  8. I am at a loss. I certainly thought virtually every American not actually homeless had a television. Whether or not I’ve been poor, I’ve been pretty flat broke, and we never wanted to trade in the TV for two movie tickets a week and a few ball games in the summer.
    In those golden days of gleaming new schools, government spending was about 25% of GDP, and almost half of that went to the military. Today the government is spending 35%, and under 5% of the GDP funds the military. I do not see a reluctance to make it 40% as an unwillingness to sacrifice, and I suspect schools spending $10,000 per pupil per year and neither fixing the roof nor educating the kids won’t do it for $11,000 either.

    But on the deeper issue of the mystery novel, I wish I knew how one produces a golden age. Please note that there is also precious little SF published today which would have passed muster when John Campbell Jr edited ANALOG/ASTOUNDING–the golden age of SF. When I feel the need for a good swashbuckler, I generally have to buy something about a century old. Detective fiction isn’t the only genre in the doldrums. Good job it IS a golden age of romantic comedy. By the way, I don’t think there were two golden ages of the mystery novel. I think there was one beginning after WWI, and continuing into the fifties, though World WAr II was a bit of a distraction. None of the mystery greats began after the War, and many would continue writing mysteries as long as they were physically able.

    I suspect part of the golden age is writers taking inspiration from one another, and part of the problem afterward is that those authors remain competition. A new swashbuckler has to bear comparison with Sabatini, and a new SF writer with early Heinlein or Poul Anderson. Show me a new detective fiction writer who holds up next to Stout and Sayers, Tey and Heyer, and I’ll burn rubber getting to Borders.

    But that’s a lot to ask. As for why I love a mystery, I’ll pass for now.


    28 Jan 09 at 6:21 pm

  9. So–Robert sent this via e-mail, I’m not sure why, but I post it here because it’s a great response:

    >>>The mystery. On the shelves sit Stout, Tey, Heyer, Sayers, Elkins and Papazoglou. (Haddams are read, but mostly go to storage in Indiana. The mystery element seems to be fading away.) In the mystery, the facts are set before the reader, and, properly interpreted, it points to only one person. Any mystery in which someone else could have committed the murder–unless the trick is in how someone was gotten to incriminate themselves–is an unsatisfactory mystery, as are any in which not all the facts are in evidence prior to the denoument.

    So, on the one hand, the Detection Club Oath and the thrill of the hunt. I also have a fair bit on celebrated historical mysteries–Custer, Richard III, and everything I can get on the history of Cryptanalysis and the decyphering of unknown scripts. On the other hand, a strong sense of place–series mysteries with a familiar cast, and, except for the poor coppers, homes: Wolfe’s brownstone, the Picadilly flat and Tallboys, and Pay’s apartment. These people have gone out, set the world right by their intellectual ability and integrity, and gone home. More power to them. They are not so very different from some of my swashbucklers and SF, though, which also feature people who set the world aright sna go home.

    One of the nice things about my present status is that I can take chances with my purchases. I’ve spent money on about three books last year which were supposed to be classic mysteries, just like the golden age. All three were donated to various sales. I think I only finished one. Elkins is fading. If there is someone out there the equal of the golden age mystery greats, a name would be appreciated. But do you remember complaining about one of the New Englanders with a good idea for a story poorly executed? And you complaining that you wouldn’t take the idea and run with it because now it was used? I think the desire to be original and not to get too close to the classics may be one of the things which closes out a golden age.

    But how you start one, I don’t know. A successful book spawns imitators, obviously, but there’s a diference between a family resemblance and clones. At a guess, a few strikingly successful authors, a readership for a type and low entry costs are necessary. I don’t suppose anyone’s read a paper at the MLA on the subject?


    29 Jan 09 at 11:58 am

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