Friday, January 13, 2012

Remembered pleasure

Upon reading this review I immediately bought the book. The experiences of both the author and the reviewer seemed to so closely parallel my own as a youthful reader, including the reluctance to re-visit some authors out of fear that they wouldn't stand up to the remembered pleasure. From "The Sheer Joy of Genre Reading: Dirda’s ‘On Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling’," by Curtis Evans:
I was fascinated by Dirda’s account of his own experiences with fiction, which date back to the 1950s, the great era of pulp paperbacks and E.C. Comics. Dirda’s seminal childhood reading material was somewhat loftier than, say, Vault of Horror, but he still got from it that same delicious frisson of fright:

The Hound of the Baskervilles...was the first ‘grown-up’ book I ever read—and it changed my life…Romantic poets regularly sigh over their childhood memories of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower. But what are daisies and rainbows compared to…sleek and shiny paperbacks? …. With a dollar clutched in my fist, I pedaled my red Roadmaster bike to Whalen’s drugstore, where I quickly picked out two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush. After my family had driven off in our new 1958 Ford, I dragged a blanket from my bed, spread it on the reclining chair next to the living room’s brass floor lamp, carefully arranged my provisions near to hand, and crawled expectantly under the covers with my paperback of The Hound—just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thump against the curtained windows…. The Hound of the Baskervilles left its teeth marks in me and seriously aroused my then still slumbering passion for reading. I was no longer the same ten-year-old when I reached its final pages.
Dirda goes on to discuss other amazing genre discoveries he made after Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle showed him the way:
  • G.K. Chesterton’s clerical Father Brown (“each story chronicled a crime utterly beyond human ken”)
  • Sax Rohmer’s diabolical Dr. Fu Manchu (Dirda writes that he dare not go back and reread the Fu Manchu tales, “lest I be seriously appalled by my youthful taste”)
  • Howard Haycraft’s Boys’ Book of Great Detective Stories (where Dirda “first read the stunning Thinking Machine classic, ‘The Problem of Cell 13′ “)
  • Ernest Bramah’s blind detective, Max Carrados (see
  • “The highly scientific Dr. Thorndyke of R. Austin Freeman”
If you’re a longtime fan of this amazingly rich period of mystery genre fiction, from the 1890s to World War One and beyond, to the “Golden Age” of the 1920s and 1930s, Dirda’s book makes entrancing reading.
I read all of those including, of course, Conan Doyle, except for the Haycraft — but I read "The Problem of Cell 13" in some other collection and then went on to read more of Futrelle's "Thinking Machine" stories. I've posted about many of these authors here and most, having fallen into the public domain, are available online. Curtis Evans writes about a few of these authors and others here and here. One of the most enjoyable accounts of the "Golden Age" mystery writers was by the above-mentioned Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story.

The Sheer Joy of Genre Reading: Dirda’s ‘On Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling’ | The American Culture

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