Monday, January 07, 2008

Reading Report

Did quite a bit of reading over the weekend. Read a couple of short stories by Ross MacDonald from the collection The Archer Files. MacDonald is considered by most mystery fans and critics to be the third member of the trio of classic private eye writers, the other two being Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. MacDonald is credited with bringing new levels of realism and psychological elements to the PI school of writing. His influence is perhaps best demonstrated today in the work of Sue Grafton, who not only sets her stories in the California city of Santa Teresa, where some of MacDonald's novels are set, but her plots follow the basic structure of MacDonald's Lew Archer series.
According to Lawrence Block, author of the Matt Scudder mystery novels, MacDonald only had one real plot. Basically something terrible happened twenty or thirty years in the past and it catches up to the people involved decades later, destroying them and usually their families. That's pretty much true. Block also claimed that once you'd read an Archer novel, the plot evaporated form your mind and you could read it again without much trouble. I've found that to be true as well. Much like the work of MacDonald's predecessor and biggest influence, Raymond Chandler, the plots don't really matter in an Archer tale. Character and commentary on the world takes center stage.
The short stories are generally more concerned with traditional whodunits. There isn't really time for MacDonald to get too much into the psychological ramifications, etc, though elements of those things are there. Most of these stories were written relatively early in MacDonald's career and usually appeared in magazines like Manhunt. Still they have MacDonald's distinctive voice. Often called a Chandler imitator, MacDonald had a clearly identifiable style of his own. He was fond of the occasional simile, but for the most part the similarity to Chandler ends there, especially in the later books, written after his 'break-out' novel, the Galton Case.
The new collection, The Archer Files, contains all the Archer shorts and novellas, both published and unpublished. It also includes 13 fragments of never completed Archer stories. A must have for fans and collectors of Ross MacDonald.
Also read Northanger Abbey, which was the only Jane Austen novel I had never read. Often overlooked because it's vastly different from her other novels, Abbey is quite entertaining. The heroine has read entirely too many Gothic novels of the kind I've talked about before, and she tries to live her life as if she was the heroine of one of these books, which doesn't work out well, since the dramatic events and dire turns of fate she keeps waiting for fail to materialize. It's good that I waited until now to read the book because my newly accumulated knowledge of the Gothic novels of the 18th century added much to my enjoyment. I'm amazed as always at the freshness of Austen's prose, which remains surprisingly modern. Much like Dickens, Austen never seems to grow stale.
Also re-read Adept's Gambit, one of the longest of Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, and one of the most unusual. I'll have to give it a post of its own, since it requires some explaining.
Currently reading James Patterson's Maximum Ride: School's Out Forever, the second volume in his young adult series about genetically engineered teenagers who have wings and super powers. I really enjoyed the first book. Don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading the second. Patterson (or one of his legion of ghost writers) does a fine job here, moving things along at the proverbial breakneck pace. Lots of action. Lots of fights. A surprising amount of heart.

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