On a recent visit to Barnes and Noble with a colleague, who was on a quest for his afternoon latte fix, we paused to review a table piled high with gloriously bound old favourites. Jules Verne, Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain were represented and I commented that I would love to have some of them.
He asked why I wanted to buy these as these were kids’ books, to be read as children. He had taken his kids, who are both under 12, to see the Johnny Depp version of “Alice in Wonderland” – he would not have gone otherwise. He was genuinely amazed that I still re-read these books.
And it got me thinking of the authors I still read. In recent years I have bought copies of some great classics by Shaw, Dickens, Hardy, Austen, the Brontes and Thackeray as well as PG Wodehouse, Gilbert and Sullivan and Marlowe. Amongst the finds was a copy of Hobson-Jobson!
Enid Blyton has been labelled racist now, and the gollies are gone from the front of the Noddy books and gypsies are called “travelers”. The brouhaha over one Sam Clemens’ use of words now considered racist and demeaning refuses to quite go away.
Biggles apparently was gay according to some scholars, who have read and re-read the books of WC Johns and concluded that to be so.
Dame Agatha based Poirot’s essence on his being ‘foreign’ and somehow alien, ‘clever’ and getting to the truth by means of a very un-English process of mistrusting everyone. Notice how the foreigner in her stories is almost always depicted as being sly and cunning. And even though, they are never the murderer, who turn out to be distressingly English, the aura of unseemliness and untrustworthiness remains their lot right to the end.
Of all the authors who have allowed me to escape into a world far removed from my normal humdrum existence, PG Wodehouse will always be my favourite. The intricate plots (“wheels within wheels”) with characters driven by a sense of honour and noblesse oblige are forever embedded in a past era. But while the plots are farcical and the knut long dead, the language is anything but trivial. It is full of life.
Wodehouse retains a pre-eminent position in my list of masters of the simile. How can you not marvel at this one, for example, “He looked haggard and care-worn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to put cyanide in the consomme, and the dinner gong due any minute.” And when you read “He groaned slightly and winced, like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch.” you cannot but be convinced that you are faced with a veritable master of the English language. Wodehouse excelled at the farcical but all eventually worked out for the best, except for the heavies such as Constance or Dunstable and the burbling plot distributaries never drew blood.
Contrast this with Tom Sharpe, where farce meets real blood, death and mayhem. Dark comedy, laced with acid that makes you laugh despite the sobering truth of the bigotry, prejudice and other human foibles that Sharpe uses to make his damning point.
Then there are the thrillers, Alistair MacLean, Robert Ludlum and Desmond Bagley et al amongst the moderns, and Peter Cheyney and Leslie Charteris amongst the pre-moderns with John Creasey straddling the two groups.
With most authors plot patterns repeat themselves as do character types. From the sleazy but clever Callahan from Cheyney, the debonair and dashing Templar of Charteris, you have easily recognizable plot patterns. Agatha had it right, the basic method never varies, though the circumstances and the characters may.
Many of the authors I have enjoyed are no longer in print. Modern readership will find them dated and tame and they remain now only in my memory or in copies slowly deteriorating on my shelves. I count Edgar Wallace, Peter Cheyney, Henry Cecil, John Creasey even Leslie Charteris among them.
Who do you wish was still in print?