I know, I know–none of these has ever been called Serious Mainstream Literature. You’d never catch Tolstoy writing about celebrity spiders; and Jane Austen wasn’t big on lost cities inhabited by maniacs.
But these are the authors I’ve learned from, and these are the authors whose works I love–and return to again and again.
Some authors are wildly successful for a while, maybe even a long while; and yet they and their books wind up slowly fading away. If you’ve ever read a best-seller list from 100 years ago, you’ll be amazed at the number of famous books you never heard of.
Here’s a corny cover of The Viking, by Edison Marshall. Just for the record, vikings did not wear horns on their helmets. And dig the 35-cent price! This particular edition now sells for $300.
Since I wrote this in 2011, Patty and I have been able to complete our collection of Arthur Upfield’s “Bony” novels. It seems readers simply won’t let them fade away. You can still find most of them on amazon.com at reasonable prices.
Do you enjoy a cracking good detective yarn, full of realistic, vivid characters in an exotic setting–I mean, real exotic?
The late Arthur Upfield’s chronicles of Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte are among the best mystery novels ever written; and the one I’ve just finished reading, Journey to the Hangman, is one of my favorites.
In a very small and close-knit town in the Australian Outback, a town not very far removed at all from its frontier past–we’re in the 1950s here, but the town of Daybreak doesn’t seem to have a single television set–Bony has to solve three murders, with every indication that another murder will be done if he doesn’t catch the killer fast.
Visiting Daybreak is like stepping a hundred years into the past. Indeed, Upfield so excelled at settings that we sometimes forget he was just as masterful at describing characters and bringing them to life.
And of course the centerpiece of all these novels is Bony himself, half-white, half-aborigine–a hunter who has never failed to catch his prey, because he knows that just a single failure would destroy him. When Upfield started writing these books in the 1940s, many white Australians viewed the aborigines as primitive savages: but Upfield delved into the riches of their ancient culture, and wrote of them with respect and admiration. In our own era of supercharged racial politics, Upfield can be read as a voice of sanity. I appreciate that.
Anyway, it’s a real poser of a mystery, and yet we almost don’t care because the place and the people are so fascinating. Upfield knew how to put you there–and only great writers are able to do that… again and again.
Anytime you make a list, you always discover later that you should’ve added this or that, etc.
I try to learn more about the art of storytelling from every author that I read. My list really should have included Walter R. Brooks, Ross MacDonald, Ring Lardner, Sir Thomas Malory–and there I go again. Maybe I should just leave lists alone.
(Mark Twain, H.R.F. Keating, Eiji Yoshikawa [not showing off: I really do like him], Dorothy L. Sayres—now cut that out!)
Some of you are down on movies and television for celebrating immoral and even wicked actions and letting the characters in the story get away with it. Those are not unfounded criticisms.
As a fantasy novelist, I must plead guilty to writing in such a way that the story turns out as I want it to. King Ryons gets to Obann in time to save the city. Lord Orth passes through a phase of madness and idiocy to emerge as a true man of God. These things happen because I wrote them that way. It can’t be helped.
I watch a lot of old TV and movies. One reason is for relaxation. After a day of writing, I need to veg out. I don’t think any of you will accuse me of allowing these films to shape my moral outlook.
But there is another reason.
Writing a novel isn’t as easy as it looks. The only thing easy about it is that it’s very easy to mess it up. And as I write, I have two overriding concerns: character and story. Both have to be right, or the novel will be wrong.
So I watch for the same reason I never go to bed without a book to read until I fall asleep. I want to learn how to create and manage believable characters that my readers will respond to, and how to tell a story coherently, convincingly, and compellingly. I can’t learn that unless I immerse myself in other people’s stories. And because the story-telling art is so difficult, I have to keep learning all the time.
As hard as I try to avoid it, some of the stories I watch turn out to be dreck. From these I learn what not to do! From the others, the ones that are not pigs’ breakfasts, I pick up innumerable hints that I can apply to my own stories. From C.S. Lewis, Agatha Christie, Walter R. Brooks, J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Upfield, and many others, I learn the techniques I need to make my novels stand the test of readership.
And daily Bible reading is indispensable as a guide to what I ought to put into my stories and what I ought to leave out. As a writer, I can do nothing without God’s blessing and guidance.
A steady diet of B.S. fiction, consumed uncritically, unthinkingly, for no other purpose than “because it’s there,” has a really good shot at rotting the consumer’s mind.
If you want to be a musician, you have to listen to other people’s music. The same hold true for story-tellers.
In The Bachelors of Broken Hill (1950), by Arthur Upfield, a prosperous mining city in the interior of Australia is the hunting ground for some unknown person who uses cyanide–a deadly poison, but easily obtained in those days–to murder elderly bachelors: in broad daylight, and in public places. When the local police, inexperienced in such bizarre crimes, can’t crack the case, Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (“Bony” to his friends) has to take over.
Bony, half-white, half-aboriginal, has never failed to finalize a case. He is one of the most fascinating fictional detectives ever created, on a par with Sherlock Holmes. I know, that’s easy to say, but I really mean it. Upfield wrote several dozen Bony books, from the late 1930s into the early 1960s, and all I can say is, I wish he’d written more!
Usually Bony works in the Australian Outback, a world which Arthur Upfield knew intimately, and which he excels in bringing to life for the reader. It’s as if Australia itself were a major character in these stories.
But this time Bony has to do his detecting in a city, where his special gifts seem to be inapplicable.
To complicate matters, there’s another killer on the loose–a criminally insane magician.
Now, I haven’t yet read the last two chapters, so I can’t spoil it for you by telling you how Bony solves the case. But it has been a wild ride. The mystery in hand is truly devilish: Upfield was a master of creating suspense, and in this book (as in a few others), a real sense of creepiness.
If you like mysteries, treat yourself to some of these novels. Many of them are available on amazon.com, kindle or paperback, even a few used hardbacks. Arthur Upfield was a great writer, whom Australia ought to have declared a national treasure. Thankfully, online book outlets have made him easily available to American readers. For a time there it looked like he was just going to be allowed to go out of print; but I think amazon and Alibris and the others may have saved him.