Weekly Geeks: Long-lasting authors

Having written the grand total of one "Weekly Geeks" post, I haven't yet spotted another set topic that I thought I could answer, until last week. The question is "what makes an author last?", and it is posed at the Weekly Geeks blog by Bernadette in Oz, of the brilliant Reactions to Reading blog. Bernadette highlights Agatha Christie, whose first novel was published in 1920 and her last in 1976 (the year she died). I think I'm right in believing that all these books, or if not all, most, are still in print today, a remarkable achievement.

Bernadette asks: "What do you think it is that gives your favourite long-lasting author an edge? Is longevity all to do with quality? Quantity? Style perhaps? Or luck?"

My favourite long-lasting crime author is Dashiell Hammett, without a doubt. I think Mystery Net sums up his appeal to me, in a nutshell: "Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) is recognized as the first master of hard-boiled detective fiction. His lean writing style, cynical Hammett Hammett characters and complex plots brought a new energy to pulp magazines then went on to define the genre in movies, radio and television where the private eye series became an entertainment staple." Unlike Agatha Christie, he wrote only a few novels – The Dain Curse, The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and Red Harvest – as well as short stories, often about the Continental Op, published for example in a volume called The Big Knockover. All of these are on my shelf, read many times over. I read my first Hammett novel when in my early teens and was instantly attracted both to the utter difference of the world it described compared with my own tedious existence, and to its essential darkness. (I also discovered John Steinbeck at about the same time, and read most of his novels – Cannery Row is still my favourite of his, but that short novel is a brilliant, poetic, funny, bursting Judgement celebration of life which I recommend highly to anyone who wants a saccharine-free antidote to the dark side on occasion). Although I read and enjoyed many other long-lasting American crime writers, for example Raymond Chandler, James Hadley Chase and Ross MacDonald, none of them quite touched the same nerve for me as Hammett.

Of crime novelists writing today, the two that spring to my mind as long-lived and highly enjoyable are Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, and Michael Connelly. Maybe Rendell/Vine is the author to whom Christie handed her torch, and similarly Connelly continues the true Hammett tradition. His 21 (soon 22) novels about Harry Bosch and/or his world in Los Angeles – the blue religion; speaking up for those who don't have a voice; the loneliness and poetry amid the urban sprawl; and the sadness of our modern "civilisation" – it's all there, and I think will continue to live on for many years to come.

Michael Connelly's first novel, The Black Echo, was published in 1990. Ruth Rendell's, From Doon With Death, was published in 1964. Both authors' novels are in print, and you'll see their books on sale in any good bookshop as well as readily available online.

9 thoughts on “Weekly Geeks: Long-lasting authors

  1. Maxine – What a fine post! I think you’ve expressed perfectly what Rendell and Connelly’s appeals are. I believe, too, that both writers take the time and trouble and make the effort to develop characters, create interesting plots and show some depth in their work. They’re quite different, but in their own ways, each has remained durable for those reasons, I think. I want to be them when (and if) I grow up ;-).

  2. Your post is spot on as usual Maxine. This question of longevity was discussed on Monday at Paignton Library and community hub by Mathew Prichard and John Curran. I do think Hammett, Rendell and Connelly will be read in 90 years time.

  3. A great post asking a very good question.
    When I think of longevity, I tend to think of Lawrence Block, the US crime author, who I believe has now been publishing novels since the early 1960s. I think the secret of his enduring appeal – aside from quality – is that he has been able to reinvent himself over the years with each character reflecting the age it is written into. I’ve not read a lot of the very early stuff, but the Evan Tanner series was very 1960s and Chip Harrison 1970s. The two longest-serving characters – Bernie Rhodenbarr, the charming thief, and Matt Scudder the NYPD/PI (the best long cop series in US fiction alongside JLB’s Dave Robicheaux – evolved with their age.
    Meanwhile the latest creation – the hitman Keller – is perfect for the current morality vacuum we seem to live in.
    Whether his books endure like Hammett/Chandler/Christie, I don’t know. They may be too of their age for that. I would wonder whether Connelly too would be read in 50 years.
    Of current authors – completely off top of head – who might make that, perhaps Andrew Taylor, whose books have a timeless quality; I think Dennis Lehane maybe. Ian Rankin. Great question. Likely will not be around for the answer.

  4. Thanks for the kind words Maxine, though perhaps I am not quite so brilliant as my blog as I posed the question then promptly mangled the electronic file with my own answer in it. I shall have to re-write it before the end of the week but I haven’t yet summoned the effort to do so. Sigh.
    As for your post it is as always excellent and makes me sad that I don’t share your interest in any of those authors. I first read Hammett when in my teens too – my older brother had discovered him and I read the books when he’d finished with them. My overriding memory is of being annoyed at the way women were depicted in the stories. Looking back now I can see this was all to do with timing and circumstance (I was the only girl in a house full of boys as along with my brother at that time there were several foster brothers and all of them very ‘blokey’) and was quite under the spell of my favourite ever teacher who was teaching us to look for how different people were depicted in what we read. I wonder if I would look at the books differently now, though I admit I haven’t been tempted.
    Ruth Rendell is another author who I have a potted history with, though I am actually listening to one of her later Wexford books at the moment and quite enjoying it. Connelly is the only one I’ve never really tried (only read one of his) but would like to.

  5. I just read “The Maltese Falcon” this year and liked it; it’s the only book by Hammett I’ve read. I’ve only read one by Rendell, an Inspector Wexford. I found it was okay, could read more, but stay away from her Barbara Vine incarnation, as good as they may be.
    Michael Connelly I discovered when I read “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which I told everyone I met to read. It’s one of the best legal thrillers I ever read. Then I went back and read some about Harry Bosch and other protagonists and like them. I always know that when I need a good book, I can turn to Connelly’s writings.
    I remember reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books as a teen-ager. His books are still noteworthy. There are so many authors I’ve enjoyed over the years, it’s so hard to name favorites. But among nonmystery writers, Steinbeck is one of the top authors in my book; “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. And I add Toni Morrison, whose “Beloved” is incredible.

  6. Thanks for these great commments! I must do this geeks meme more often 😉
    Bernadette, you are probably right about the sexism, it was so rife when I was a girl (in books and reality, girls just weren’t on the radar for many activities, professions, etc) that all of that just passed me by ,I tuned it out. I remember reading “The Women’s Room” by Marylin French when an undergraduate and getting furious, but had not really taken it all on board up to that point.
    Rendell/Vine is up and down, and indeed some of Connelly’s are not as good as others, but in terms of longevity I imagine they’d be hard to beat. Rebus is good, but will he age as well as Connelly? Not sure.
    Ben, I’ve only ever read one Block (and one McBain though read lots of his books under other names), so I must rectify that.
    Kathy, I loved Sherlock Holmes too, and The Grapes of Wrath. Beloved is just too sad.

  7. Speaking of sexism, when I first began reading mysteries, Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane books were popular. I wouldn’t read them because of the sexist covers and blurbs; that was my first clue about this issue in books. Today, there is so much of it, especially in genres such as “hard-boiled” mysteries, but others, too. The misogynist violence in books and on covers is awful. I stay away from those altogether, whether written by women or men.
    “Beloved” is sad. I could only read a small amount at a time and Morrison could only write small sections at a time; then she had to walk away. But nothing ever grabbed me, moved me and educated me as did that book.

  8. I find unthinking sexism in novels much more annoying than I did when I was a young girl, Kathy. I like books that show it up, though!
    And I do agree about the violence – dwelt upon unnecessarily, “torture porn”, “autopsy porn”, descriptions of shoot-outs and murders, and the rest. Ugh. Those older books were much brisker about all that, than books today, on the whole.

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