#29: The spurns that patient merit of th’unworthy takes: To complete or not to complete?

MBC

I will probably put this very poorly, so bear with me.

I am an Agatha Christie fan.  I am also, you may have noticed, a fan of John Dickson Carr, and of Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce, Rupert Penny, Kelley Roos, and Constance & Gwenyth Little.  What these detective fiction writers have in common is two-fold: firstly they are all dead, so their output is now a fixed and known quantity, and secondly it is my express intention to read everything they ever published in the crime fiction sphere.  In some cases this may not be achievable – though with the recent increase in GA reprints it’s to be hoped that these will be picked up before too long – but I intend to give it my best shot nonetheless.

I am aware that these authors wrote some books that are commonly regarded as absolute duffers – Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt, for instance, or Carr’s Papa La-Bas – but I still want to read them.  It’s not the satisfaction of completing every published word someone has laid down – this actually won’t be the case if I don’t also read Christie’s Mary Westmacott novels, two archaeology memoirs and autobiography – so much as that for some indefinable reason I simply want to.  My question is this: why?

It’s true that I’ve got a lot of joy out of the books I’ve read by those authors, but I have experience of some of those duds: I’ve actually read Papa La-Bas, and didn’t love Crispin’s Buried for Pleasure, among others (it’s also true for Arthur C. Clarke, and I’ve recently been bored stupid by his A Fall of Moondust).  So it’s not like I’m in denial, and it’s not like I want to read everything by every author I’ve enjoyed.  Take Ellery Queen; I have hugely enjoyed the five or six Queens I’ve read – I’d go so far as to say I’ve loved two of them – but I know I’ve got about three more in me and then I’m done.  Diff’rent storks for diff’rent forks and all that, but it intrigues me all the same, not least because of recent Carr- and Christie-based discussions that I’ve seen on various blogs wherein people seemed quite happy to read 78 of Christie’s novels and leave out the two that common consensus deemed they should avoid.

Now, I’m not knocking either common consensus or these people’s choices, it just got me thinking about my own criteria for completing an author’s oeuvre, and I realised I have no idea what they are.  Why am I committed to Carr given his unavailability and universally-agreed tailing-off in form but happy to let some potentially marvellous Queens pass me by?  Equally, there are about three Robert Ludlum novels left that I’d like to read, and then a smattering of his that I’m happy to never pick up (and I refer here to the books he actually wrote himself, of course).  It’s probably something dreadfully dull like the personal preference of simply enjoying one author’s style more than another’s, but I didn’t know if there was some mileage in this.  Though I am, it must be acknowledged, prone to overthinking some things that are actually quite simple.

So I throw it out to the interwebs: do you have certain authors whose output you will complete come what may?  Or, conversely, are there authors who you’re happy to read but whose output you have no interest in fully covering ?  And why, dammit?

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10 thoughts on “#29: The spurns that patient merit of th’unworthy takes: To complete or not to complete?

  1. Everybody has read christie it seems, but Queen, Carr, Chandler and Ian Fleming were the authors who,as a teenager, turned me onto crime fiction in a big way, so I have an attachment that goes beyond mere objective enjoyment in some senses. On the other hand, i read some Ludlum at around the same time and have not gone back. I have seen many of the movies from Grisham but have no intention of reading him (same goes for Clancy and many other authors),. Ellroy I like but find exhausting so have to pace myself. But there are no Allinghams, Sayers, Christie titles that I would want to miss, but can very easily live without ever reading another duffer by Ngaio Marsh or Patricia Wentworth! I appreciate Innes, but for the most part he doesn;t do it for me, while Crispin does (though I have avoided GLIMPSES OF THE MOON).

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    • Now, see, here’s my point: I understand that Glimpses of the Moon was written quite some time after Crispin’s other books and so is unlikely to be quite the same experience, but aren’t you just a little curious to try it? Surely he wrote it because he felt there was something worth writing…so there’s a chance it contains some gem of his brilliance, right? And I can completely understand you disagreeing with that, I’m just wondering what reasons people have for not wishing to complete someone who they’ve enjoyed elsewhere (Clancy I completely agree about, there was nothing in the three or four I read to ever make me want to go back…I’m amazed to discover, thinking about it now, that I even managed that many).

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      • It is about reading it and being disappointed, for me. Re-reading Christie’s woeful POSTERN OF FATE was to a degree an evercise in frustration but it did make me feel a great deal of sympathy for a person who was clearly very unwell at the time. I actually think Ellery Queen is an example of an author whose later books, while thinner, were still fascinating. The last completed Dannay and Lee collaboration, A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, has many weaknesses, but also finds time to pull off one of the most original Golden Age mystery gambits I know of and one that onely they could have got away with.

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  2. For some of us who like to read, a button gets pushed by certain authors. This happened to me with Christie and Queen, both of whom I loved. I would find an author and read everything, which was easy when their output was small, like Christianna Brand (adore her!), Edmund Crispin (read them all and can’t remember them), and many others. But with Christie, that became something more, and I’ve revisited her work over and over until I feel I really know something about her style and technique. That “obsession to finish” you describe took me through all of Ngaio Marsh, whom I don’t love, and it’s even got me reading all of Elizabeth George’s doorstop novels and Louise Penny’s incomprehensible Gamache stories, both of whom I sort of despise now but which I CAN’T STOP READING! Somebody help me, please!

    Now I have read all of Christie’s books many times, EXCEPT for Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate, both of which I dragged myself through just once. They are too much the sad evidence of Christie’s failed powers for me to read again. Similarly, I LOVE Jane Austen and read all her books over and over – except Northanger Abbey, which I just don’t like. I’ve read fifteen or twenty Carrs, having preferred Fell to Merrivale, but I haven’t felt the drive others feel to complete his entire canon. And now, with all the “new” old authors I’m being introduced to, I’m not sure how far I can even get!

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    • I went through a period of just deciding that I would complete an author’s work (almost sight unseen sometimes) in my late teens. The most recent of these was Peter Robinson, whose books I persevered with despite not really enjoying the first five, and I eventually quit arond the eleventh having already bought the next two. Sounds similar to you and Elizabeth George (though you may of course love her…). There’s certainly a technical appreciation to those authors I’m keen to complete, and I look forward to these weaker Christies almost because of the flaws people have described in them. I don’t expect an impeccable record from anyone – not even Herper Lee has one any more – but I’m still prepared to be more tolerant of some authors than of others.

      I tried Louise Penny’s Dead Cold a little while ago, FYI, and didn’t finish it. Don’t really understand the fuss surrounding Penny, though of course that is a very small sample size…

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      • I loved George – past tense – but after she killed off a main character, her books, which had been getting longer and longer, got even longer and were joyless. I hear the latest one might be better. One can always hope.

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  3. I think I’ve read virtually every Christie novel – barring her romances under a different name – except for ‘Postern of Fate’.

    I very much enjoy Berkeley, and I’m working my way through his major novels, though the ones I’ve read after ‘Poisoned Chocolate Case’ weren’t as good. So this may hold me back from completing his works.

    I’ve only read one title by Crispin, though that was enough to make me buy three more of his novels. Then again, he killed off my favourite character in the one novel I read, so I may hold off reading more of him for now.

    I doubt I’ll complete all of Queen’s or Carr’s novels, given that the reviewing community seem to agree that both authors have some shockingly poor entries to their oeuvre.

    I suppose I’ll read as many Halter titles as Locked Room International is willing to translate? Maybe not ‘Lord of Misrule’ though.

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    • Do you think you will read Postern of Fate, though? It was the final book Christie wrote after all, so holds some interest value…

      Anthony Boucher killed off my favourite character in one of his books, too (you bastard!), but I always take that as a sign of encouragement – if an author is too smitten with their own characters it’s likely to manifest itself in ridiculous plots or situations just so the charatcer can come out on top. Kill your darlings, etc. Ngaio Marsh did it in Death in a White Tie, too, but then subjected me to several other exceptionally dull books, so I guess it’s not always so clear-cut.

      And, yeah, I’m with you on LRI and their Halters (actually, everything they put out). I’ve just proofread Death invites You – the next Halter novel, coming soon! – and it’s fantastically good fun; not an all-time classic, but not every book has to be. Lord of Misrule is worth reading on the same grounds, in my opinion; much like Demon of Dartmoor, it contains some gorgeously devious ideas and has a nice line in impossible explanations. Though, of course, horses and courses and all that.

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      • I have actually read the first third of ‘Postern of Fate’, but it struck me to be a spy thriller rather than a mystery, and it was, in any case, sufficiently mind-numbing for me to push it aside… So no, I don’t think I will pick it up again, much as I admire Christie, and much as I wish to complete the canon.

        What disappointed me regarding Crispin was that my favourite character did not need to die… Argh!! And since you have read ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ you might be able to guess the character? I hesitate to drop further clues for fear of spoiling the experience for those who haven’t read ‘Love Lies Bleeding’. I definitely recommend it for its excellent humour, if anything – and it had a decent mystery.

        My next Halter will be either ‘Demon of Dartmoor’ or ‘Picture from the Past’ – unless I get my hands on ‘Phantom Passage’. I’m still seeking another Halter novel to match the excellence of ‘Seventh Hypothesis’, and perhaps ‘Demon of Dartmoor’ will live up to my expectations… From the reviews I’ve read it seems that ‘Demon of Dartmoor’ has the best shot at making the cut.

        P.S. I’ve read Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Died in the Wool’ many years ago, when I started running out of Christie novels to read. But I can’t recall anything – never a good sign.

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        • Yeah, I reckon I know who you mean from LLB, and I agree that it was an unnecessary death. Ho-hum. It is a funny book, but a trifle overlong for my tastes; Crispin is best in brevity, when his delightfully skewed ideas jump out at you unexpectedly.

          And I imagine that my feelings on Halter are pretty clear by now: read them all! All of them, I say!

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