Friday, June 6, 2008

Rumpole and Keating: Brits Fit For Reading


I'm having a great time reading short stories by John Mortimer, whose protagonist is an English barrister named Rumpole. Mortimer's Rumpole novels and stories (famously adapted to the small screen by the BBC) fit into the legal-detective genre, but they're exceedingly character-driven, witty, and literate, and without being heavy-handed, Mortimer also likes to examine social issues, such as colonialism and feminism. One could say Rumpole is Britain's answer to Perry Mason, as Rumpole is a defense "attorney" and tends to win, but he's more cerebral than Mason, and Mortimer likes to raise good if basic questions about law and morality. The short stories themselves are superbly constructed, and anyone interested in short fiction generally would benefit from reading them. Rumpole also loves to quote poetry, so really, what's not to like?

I also just found H.R.F. Keating's Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books. Splendid. Keating (photo attached), who reviewed crime novels for the London Times (maybe he still does) and also wrote mystery fiction, lists the books chronologically, starting with Poe and ending with P.D. James's A Taste for Death in 1986, when this book of "the 100" was published.

In the preface, Keating immediately admits that his task is impossible, qualifies his selections, and acknowledges that some authors he left off the list (like Dick Francis) have earned the right to be on there. After each title, Keating writes 3-4 pages that explain what the author and the book bring to the genre that's fresh and/or especially strong, and he explains why he likes the particular book. He doesn't gloss over problems a book or author may have, and he rarely if ever spoils the plot.

I was astounded that the two Simenon books featuring Maigret that he chose were ones I hadn't read--unless, of course, I've read them under a different title--quite possible with so many editions of the translations of Maigret novels out there. So I'll need to track them down. I've probably read something by 70% of the authors and maybe 50% of the books. So in general, there's some work left to be done.

Keating has convinced me that I need to read some things by Cornell Woolrich, Celia Fremlin, and William McIvanney. He has not convinced me to try Josephine Tey, Margaret Allingham, Michael Innes, Cyril Hare, or Emma Lathen again. Books by these authors just didn't click with me.

In this gem of a reference-book, Keating has written some of the best, most insightful short essays on detective fiction available. He's a discerning but generous critic--generous, probably, not just because that may have been who he is but also because he is a novelist as well as a critic: he knew how difficult the genre was. He also has a knack for saying fresh things about old war-horses like Conan Doyle, Christie, Hammett, and Chandler.

There's no sense in quibbling with such a list of 100, but I do wonder if Keating has ever read Rudolph Fisher's The Conjure Man Dies. (Keating does include a Chester Himes novel set in Harlem.) I'd love to learn what Keating thinks of that book.
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