Friday, 20 February 2015

Seven Quick Takes, Vol. 3

1. Recently, I've been feeling stuck for reading choices. I'm too tired at night to tackle anything really highbrow, so a second effort to get through St. Augustine's City of God is off the table. But I also don't want my brain to turn to mush, so no catching up with Fifty Shades of Grey (besides, it's Lent). Pulling out an Edwardian mystery I began to work on a year or two ago prompted me to think of Edwardian literature to catch up on (mysteries in particular).

2. What's positive about Edwardian fiction: the era is more than the image we have of the cigar-smoking playboy Edward VII (it's those King Edward cigar boxes - remember how we all used to have an empty one in the house, regardless of whether anyone actually smoked cigars?!). If we take "Edwardian" to mean the period up until World War I, it's a period when many had visions of social change: socialism, women's suffrage, workers' rights and sexual freedom, to name but a few.  Detective fiction, which of course hangs on the details, and often deals with the 'hot topics' of its day, is a great source of historical information on the period.

What's negative? The style can be stilted, often Victorian (though sometimes surprisingly modern). Detective stories don't let us into the detective's head in the way we're used to, so we often don't have the chance to make the connections or even 'see' the vital piece of evidence. That aside, here's a brief pick of authors I've tried:

3. G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton stands between the Victorians and Edwardians in terms of style, but his critique of contemporary society is fascinating because the benefit of hindsight shows us just how accurate he was - and how relevant he still is - when describing the malaises of modern life. Yet, despite that, he still has a real joy in the fact of living. I've enjoyed his Father Brown detective stories, and his novels, such as The Man Who was Thursday, are on my to-read list.

4. Victor L. Whitechurch
I've just begun Whitechurch's railway mysteries, featuring a vegetarian exercise fanatic and "gentleman of independent means". The writing is a little stilted, but I'm enjoying its quirkiness. Plus, I found out what a "plasmon biscuit" was! Kindle has some cheap editions of his work.

5. Baroness Orczy
Orczy created one of the first female detectives in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. Lady Molly's talent is her intuition, the ability to see the connections and motives that mere facts don't always make clear. Her appeal is that she had turned detective to gather the experience and information to free her unjustly imprisoned love.

6. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Really, how many people actually read the original Sherlock Holmes stories instead of watching or reading the spinoffs? Doyle's Sherlock is a fascinating anti-hero: smart, bored, with a general antipathy towards women and an addiction to cocaine.

7. For more, almost forgotten mysteries, and an analysis of the genre, read The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915, by Joseph Kestner.  For more Seven Quick Takes, hop on over to This Ain't the Lyceum.