Thursday, May 24, 2007

Another prejudice that might be history

I feel like a man unburdening myself of my sins. First I dropped a prejudice against crime stories set in countries other than the authors' own. Now I'll try to do the same for historical crime fiction.

My hesitation about such writing has two causes. First, is the inability of many authors to dispel the reader's nagging awareness that decades, centuries, even millennia have elapsed between the story's time and the author's. Then there is Lindsey Davis, whose historical research is so good and whose tone is so engagingly breezy that for me the two have interfered with one another, at least in her novels.

But I'm giving her another try because I've just visited the spectacular setting of one of her books. Fishbourne Roman Palace in Fishbourne, West Sussex on England's south coast, contains gorgeous Roman mosaics that are all the more moving because most are in situ, right where they were laid in the first and second centuries. Davis' novel A Body in the Bath House, part of her long-running series about Marcus Didius Falco, the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe/Travis McGee of first-century Rome, sends Falco to far-away Britain in pursuit of some shoddy building contractors who have fled Rome. There, the palace later to be known as Fishbourne is under construction and plagued with problems that include fatal accidents.

At Fishbourne last week, a member of the staff told me that Davis launched her novel at the palace and that she was highly respected by historians and classicists. That and the memory of some funny lines from Davis' other work were good enough for me. I'm reading her again.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once bought all the then-current books in the Falco series from a bookshop in one fell swoop, about 15 of them. I had enjoyed the first, you see, and I'm a bit complusive about series. I was then condemned to read them all -- after about number 4 they began to drive me mad, but I persevered. I haven't read any more since, though -- I felt they got pretty routine, and the journey through Falco's life from book to book was so slow. The jaunty tone is, ultimately, unrealistic.

I had a similar experience with the J. D. (D?) Robb books, "Death in" -- I bought a ton of them all at the same time, and then ploughed through them one after the other. And she writes two a year (as well as about 4 a year other Nora Roberts books). These books are quite good but if you read them as I did, the formula is obvious. And again, the lives of the regular characters develop far too slowly. The plots in each book are quite good, but they are, like the Falco books, playing safe with a tested forumula, at the end of the day.

May 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One of my traveling companions in Croatia had read all the Falco books, and she singled them out for her enjoyment of the journey through Falco's life. You both strike me as intelligent and discerning readers, so who can account for such differences of taste? Viva la difference.

Wacky family comedy tends to get on my nerves, which is one reason I had trouble with the previous Falco novels. But the jaunty tone can be a useful corrective to readers' excessively lofty ideas about the ancient world. I enjoy Falco's observations about the Emperor Vespasian's personality, for instance. And Fishbourne is such a stunning monument, and its history is so interesting that that alone might get me through The Body in the Bath House.

I also have been thinking recently about why readers grow dissatisfied with series. I have just bought the twenty-third and most recent of Bill James' Harpur and Iles novels. My opinion of James is a matter of record, but I admit that I've enjoyed the more recent titles less on a whole than I did the middle ones.

In James' case, the two main characters and the chief supporting characters have remained as strong as ever. But something critical has changed around them.

The best of the books paint a touching and funny picture of aspirations to respectability among criminals, mostly in the form of the wonderful Panicking Ralph Ember. Ember begins as a scuffling bar owner and small-time drug dealer who lives above his pub. Mostly through luck, he becomes a big-time dealer with a lavish estate. The chronicle of his rise coincides with the best six or seven books of the series, which must be among the best crime fiction ever written.

Once he reached the top, though, the novels lost that element of social history or chronicle. They still have some of the darkest and most theatrical humor and some of the most delicious prose ever in English crime fiction. And I think I'll cannibalize these thoughts for a separate post.

May 24, 2007  
Anonymous Paul perry (Melbourne) said...

Readers often complain that later books in a series are less enjoyable.
Sometimes the fault is with the reader - if one reads a whole series at once, then one could well tire of any formulaic tics.
But I think sometimes - at least in the case of authors who have become famous during the series - it is due to the author getting out of control. A very successful artist (in any field) can find themselves in a position to ignore advice from any quarter. Patricia Cornwell is a classic example of a writer whose ego has outdistanced her capacity to write competent fiction.

April 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. I haven't read Patricia Cornwell, and it won't surprise you to learn that a good deal of what I've heard about her in recent years has not had to do with her writing.

April 08, 2010  

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