Saturday, November 17, 2007

1930s whodunits

My name is Jerry Anderson, and I am the author of Death Before Dinner, which was published by Midnight Ink last March. When I was in college, I used to become disgusted with my dad, who insisted on reading mystery novels while I was trying to force him to read my favorite Thomas Hardy or Joseph Conrad of Dostoyevsky or some such literary gem. I gave up on this project to improve my father's literary tastes, to our mutual benefit. Then, oh, it must be about a hundred years ago now, I was doing research in London. I was living in a flat near Earl's Court Road, in a building right out of "Upstairs/Downstairs." It had once been the London home of some tof gentleman, and had now been divided into twenty-one flats. I was living in a basement flat, where once some miserable footman perhaps plied his trade. 
Anyhow, so here I am with a flat that I had to pay for in advance for the summer. As a graduate student, I had very little money, and while the swinging London night scene had a great deal of appeal, I did not have the pounds and pence to make it happen. I had a little transistor radio and that was it. My research concerned the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and the national government of Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin. At issue was the whole question of civil liberties versus public order in the 1930s. That is, at what point does it seem necessary to infringe on traditional civil liberties to protect the people against civil disorder. During this painful decade, mas demonstrations were threatening the civil fabric of London. Well, weighty stuff, right? I thought I needed to know more about the lives of people in the 1930s before I could properly write about their political dynamics. There was nothing to do in that cold basement (that month of June was the coldest January of my life!!) exceptr to read. The libraries and public records offices all closed about 5:30 in those days. However, I discovered a used bookstore only a block away. I could buy a paperback book for ten pence, and if I brought it back he would give me five pence for it. Heckuvadeal!! Well, I saw a couple of Agatha Christies there and so I thought I'd give them a try. Two days later I was back for two more. I read them eating lunch, I read them while riding in the tube, and I read them at night. Then it was on to Dorthy Sayers. Then Ngaio Marsh (alright, so maybe she was more 40s and 50s, but by this time I was not concerned too much about academic things). Perhaps my favorite, though, was an American writer. One of the reasons I am writing this is to acquaint readers with the work of John Dickson Carr. Carr wrote some books under that name, but he also wrote them under the pen name of Carter Dickson. Although born and raised in the South (I think South Carolina) he became an American expatriot in the 1930s and all of his books are set in England. He became the master of the locked door mysteries. His slueth, the unforgetable Dr. Gideon Fell, would easily solve how someone could be murdered in a roon where all the doors and windows were locked (No, no trap doors, secret passages or a large chimney) and the corpse was the only occupant of the room. 
Well, one gets hooked on this stuff, as I would guess many of the readers of this blog will allow, and when I came back to America, I pretty much put in a claim for my Dad's paperback collection. Serious, academic literary pursuits have taken a hit ever since. 
Death Before Dinner is the first of the Palmer Knutson novels. Murder Under the Loon will come out in March, and Death by the Prairie Chicken will follow the year after that. Palmer Knutson is a Norwegian American sheriff of Otter Tail County and is the type of character found on the Prairie Home Companion. In a future blog, I will wax on about Scandihoovian Minnesota.
Jerry Anderson


Keith Raffel said...

Hey Jerry! Welcome aboard!

Why do you think John Dickson Carr and Erle Stanley Gardner, who were so popular, are hardly read anymore?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Welcome, Jerry! Nice post.

Like you, my reading tastes were definitely of a more literary bend until someone suggested I write a mystery. Once I started researching them, all bets were off and I became an instant fan of the genre.

Felicia Donovan said...

Welcome, Jerry, to InkSpot!

I read many mysteries growing up but these days, tend to read outside the genre when I have time with more mainstream, contemporary novels along with a mix of pure literary. I think of it as stretching my muscles in a new way. Oh, to have the time to read all day!

Anonymous said...

It is curious how tastes will change -- and not change. So many of the writers of the Golden Age are now footnotes, but Sherlock Holmes stories are still popular. I think those are an exceptional case though. I'm not sure anyone but a scholar would read the Dupin stories.

I think most people want to read mysteries that they can relate to in some way, which generally means they want stories set in the present day (or that are so timelessly written that they transcend their era). What strikes me as odd is how a mystery almost always has to have a murder in it, yet most people don't experience this in their day-to-day lives. Life is full of mystery as it is without murder and mayhem. But maybe my tastes are an exceptional case too.

Joe Moore said...

Welcome to InkSpot, Jerry. When I was young, my tastes in books were more like your dad's than you. I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and Ian Flemming. Throw in a little Edgar Allen Poe and you have my complete fiction collection nailed down.

Candy Calvert said...

Great to see you here, Jerry!

My truth is that I read very little mystery beyond my childhood love of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and so forth; but have long been a fan of romantic suspense and romantic comedy. Mixing romance, action and humor are second nature to me, and having those elements enhance a mystery plot is . . . frosting. Now that I'm gobbling up the wonderful mysteries by our fellow "Inkers," I'm hooked!

Again, welcome.


Nina Wright said...

Jerry, welcome to our motley crew! I think it's safe to say that most of us backed into writing mysteries. And we're glad we did.

What fun to share "How I Got Here" stories. Best of luck with your books and the blog.


Anonymous said...

reply to keith raffel as to why some great whodunits are no longer read very much. First of all, there was a recent novel by Peter Lovesey, he of the Chief Inspector Diamond series set in Bath, Eng. (I don't recall the title, but it is his latest one) in which John Dickson Carr novels are a major theme. So some people do remember them, apparently. Probable some of it is that they seem dated. Nobody ever swore, for instance. People were prepared to do the most brutal murder, but not to say a naughty word? Look at the old greats. You might find a "damn" uttered by Lord Peter Wimsey, in a snotty upper class way, of course, but that would be about it. Dr. Fell, Carr's sleuth, will sometimes come out with a shocking "Oh My Hat!!" or something equally mild. In my writing, I don't have my characters cuss too much. Personally, I can do it with the best of them, especially when I watch the Vikings coached by an idiot, but i don't often have my characters cuss. Perhaps I am prudish lest I one day have grandchildren who will wonder why grandpa's characters can swear so vigorously. Or not, I donno.