#335: Stand Not Upon the Order of Your Going – Do You Get the Most Out of an Author by Reading Them Chronologically?

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In light of my recent favourable experience with Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), my thoughts turn to the benefits and pitfalls of reading GAD authors’ novels in chronological order.  The old joke is that they had to write them in that order, but is there any real benefit or detriment in reading them so arrayed?

Simply put, most of us read a book to enjoy ourselves, and it takes a brave soul to venture away from the accepted classics for their first foray into an author’s oeuvre: I’m guessing most people started Agatha Christie with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) [I did], Murder on the Orient Express (1934), or And Then There Were None (1939), started John Dickson Carr with The Hollow Man (1935) [me again], started Dorothy L. Sayers with The Nine Tailors (1934), etc, etc.  You want to try an author, you pick up one of the Good Ones they wrote; if your first two Christies were They Came to Baghdad (1951) and By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), you may not read a third — research to find a Good One makes perfect sense.

And, inevitably, these Good Ones are unlikely to be an author’s very first novel.  Most authors improve after their first book (some, it must be said, don’t), and then may write inconsistently and so peak in their fifth, twelfth, eighteenth, and thirty-third: so those are the ones you’re going to go for.  From a pure enjoyment perspective, this makes perfect sense.  Additionally, since a majority of GAD sleuths don’t really have a personal aspect to their stories that change in any meaningful way, you’re unlikely to spoil a major Series Event by jumping ahead to a later book.  I  mean, sure, Lord Peter marries Harriet (…spoilers?) and Roderick Alleyn settles down with Agatha Troy, but in a way they’re such proponents of possibly the only GAD trope I actively dislike — If the Detective Fancies You, You’re Innocent — that it doesn’t actively upset your overall enjoyment to read later novels containing these relationships before earlier ones when those worthy women found themselves suspected of murder most foul.

So there’s no disadvantage in the main in reading these books out of order.  I say “in the main” because there’s always the odd exception: the Ellery Queen Wrightsville novels are, received wisdom seems to have it, better experienced in order and planned to be read as such; the Nero Wolfe ‘Arnold Zeck’ Trilogy is designed to have more impact when approached in the published order — these rare cases of long-term character planning and development do exist.  Additionally, authors would drop to their characters’ earlier cases in later books: Carr’s The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) reveals the perpetrator of a key act towards the end of The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940), Christie would have Poirot make reference to killers from previous books (in one case listing a handful of them, but only using their first names), Freeman Wills Crofts tells you for absolutely no good reason the identity of the killer in his debut novel The Cask (1920) as an aside in The Sea Mystery (1928)…so, yes, let’s not wipe from history this cohort of chronologically-minded mysteries, but let’s also acknowledge that they are in the minority.

freeman-wills-crofts

“The book isn’t spoiled if you’ve already read it…”

However, my focus anterior to now has deliberately been on the internal world of the books: the characters, the plots, and their associated revelations.  If the internal structures on the whole don’t matter, if little to no additional insight on the characters, their behaviour, attitudes, and relationships is to be gleaned from reading the books in chronological order — and it’s interesting to note that the handful of contemporary crime fiction series I dip into seem to be adopting this model more and more, with character growth sidelined in favour of attracting new readers — is there and argument that reading an author’s books in chronological order is nevertheless a worthwhile thing to do?

Well, yeah, I think so.  Obvs.

Inevitably some caveats apply.  I am guilty on this very blog of encouraging people to approach the works of my favourite author not just in GAD but probably in all time, space, genres, and parallel universi — you may’ve heard of him, James Darkson Corr, or something like that — by not reading his first novel first, nor his second novel second.  Good gravy, clearly my credibility is about to take a kicking.  Except that was based on purely practical grounds: Carr’s novels are largely, staggeringly, infuriatingly out of print, and so anyone waiting around to read It Walks by Night (1930) first will either have a long wait for a new edition or must trust themselves in the hands of sometimes-unscrupulous secondary sellers.  The Carrs I’ve read have not been completed in strict chronology, but I’m broadly managing it, so I am trying to practice what I preach.

This coming Tuesday — ooo, previews! — I’m intending to run through the high and low points of the Agatha Christie books I’ve read to date, and Christie is one author I’ve read mainly in order.  There is a clear quality curve in Christie’s work — she starts good, builds to very good, has a run out outright astounding novels, drops to merely very good, becomes good again, and then — so it would seem — has all but mashed the keys of her typewriter for the final handful of novels she wrote.  In comparison to her 1939-49 heyday, these later books are somewhat off the money, but in reading Christie in order I’ve found — a little speciously, some would contend — a lot to enjoy that I never suspected would be there.  A Caribbean Mystery (1964) has some beautiful reflection on aging and the gradual diminution of one’s powers, At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) is full of a sad yearning for more familiar times, I admit that Third Girl (1966) isn’t very good, but Endless Night (1967) is both in content and execution a frustrated examination of the appeal and folly of youth.

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Just look at these happy, youthful bastards…

Conversely, were one to read And The There Were None (1939) and follow it up with At Bertram’s Hotel, that later book seems weirdly preoccupied with an old dear complaining about the Young Folk and their ways, and as such furiously out of touch and so easily dismissed.  I maintain that Christie actually knew she was out of touch with the Young Folk at the time, and the book is a reflection on her own place in such a rapidly-changing and increasingly-unfamiliar milieu.  Alas, it also has an inferior murder plot tacked on, and that’s what you’ll notice if you pick it up following books where plot was her sole purpose.

It’s typically easy to write about Christie because she’s an author so many people have read, and someone whose books it is possible to relate fairly easily.  Other  authors — and this shall by no means pretend to be a comprehensive list — were equally aware fo addressing change in their works as they progressed.  To return to Carr (notice how I stay in safe areas here?), the fifth and final Henri Bencolin novel, The Four False Weapons (1938) came some six years and sixteen(!) novels after the fourth, The Corpse in the Waxworks, a.k.a. The Waxworks Murder (1932), and that final Bencolin has the character — and so Carr — reflecting on his previous approaches and admitting his flaws as a person — and so character — before bowing out with one last staggeringly convoluted murder.  It seems odd when taken out of context, but represents a huge step in Carr’s development as an author to see him pick apart the man who got him started and then admit there’s no place for that investigator any more.

Personally, putting the internal consistency of the plots aside, I prefer to read the works of an author with this mutatis mutandis aspect always in mind, and I find that best achieved by taking their output as a representation of their development, allowing for the flaws that will inevitably creep in towards the end of a long, and sometimes a short, career.  It seems churlish to me to write off later, weaker books without paying respect to the efforts involved in bringing us the earlier, stronger ones, as if denying that the weaker books were written by the same person.  Perhaps arguably they’re not — who among us will be the same at 70 as we are at 35? — but that’s getting a little too philosophical for my intentions here.

So, to sum up, I suppose I’m acknowledging both camps here while pitching my tent in the latter: start with a classic if you will, absolutely hunt down the accepted Good Ones and enjoy what you’re reading, I wouldn’t expect anyone to read something they’re hating just because they ‘should’ for whatever.  But you’ll typically find me making a case for the context of their weaker ones when they’re encountered.  Not that I’m desperate to placate or stand in opposition, far from it, I just think that there’s often more richness than can initially be appreciated in the sometimes-variable experience of reading GAD authors in a freewheeling order.

Okay, with that out of the way, I hope you have a lovely weekend.

~

In the middle of writing this, my attention was called to a relatively new blog — Justice for the Corpse — whose first post advocates a non-chronological starting point for Carr’s novels.  The timing of this discovery seemed weirdly apposite, so I include it here for the curious…

83 thoughts on “#335: Stand Not Upon the Order of Your Going – Do You Get the Most Out of an Author by Reading Them Chronologically?

  1. Having started reading detective fiction as a teenager, I had no thought for reading an author’s work chronologically, it was just determined by what I could get my hands on. However, I have started to re-read Agatha Christie in order, and am interested in seeing how her work developed over time. I don’t know what the etiquette is on promoting one’s own writing, but I have started a blog that will cover this at https://cjcjcountdownjohnschristiejournal.wordpress.com/

    • Superb, this sounds like a fabulous undertaking, and I’m extremely nterested to see how you get on with it — thanks for sharing.

      As for etiquette on self-promotion: if it’s relevant, promote away as far as I’m concerned!

  2. I’ve never followed any particular method when it comes to reading order for these kinds of books – just whatever came to hand or was available, an interesting sounding hook or maybe even a cover tor title which appealed to me. For instance, while I’ve been reading Christie on and off for many years, I only read The Mysterious Affair at Styles for the first time last week.

    I do/did try to go through trilogies or vaguely connected books within a body of work – the Zeck stories or the Wrightsville tales you mentioned – even if they are only loosely related in the order they came. To be honest, aside from the issue of occasional spoilers, which are not necessarily a huge issue given my dubious memory, I haven’t felt that I’ve missed out on anything significant with my own approach.

    Actually, the only exception to this, and this is more silver age than golden age material, is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, and that’s largely down to the fact I got into the books and thus into the habit of reading them chronologically via Sergio’s blog posts.

    • To be honest, aside from the issue of occasional spoilers, which are not necessarily a huge issue given my dubious memory…

      Hahaha, I feel you there, Colin! I almost wonder if my memory for such things might improve if I read more long-term series where the reader was required to remember more…the problem with those being that oftentimes even the authors forget or neglect certain aspects of their narrative. This is why I ended up parting ways the most modern Epic Fantasy, because they all start off the same way — orphan, in a small village away fro The City, discovers something Important — and end upgoing v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y in the same narrative direction, getting bigger and bigger in scope until the author can’t be bothered any more and so just kills off a bunch of folk for no reason.

      I wonder if my largely lukewarm response to the 87th books is due to my having skipped around within that series; perhaps I’d love them if I read them in order, but I’m not sure theres sufficient of intertest to me to justify the effort…

  3. Fairly say I am a read in any order sort of reader, but I always admire those who undertake to do it in order. I have been reading Ames’ Jane and Dagobert novels in order, more through difficulties of getting a hold of books than anything else, but annoyingly I think I might have to read the last Ames book before the second last one, as the latter is proving very hard to track down.
    The only time I think I regretted not reading an author in order was with the first two books by Manning Coles, as I read the second one before the first one. Definite mistake, as the second one has quite the spoiler for the first and it meant that although I loved the first book I think I missed something as a consequence.

    • I find it weird when authors start a series and then have a major character in that first book turn out to be the villain or be suddenly killed and therefore not feature again anywhere in any of the books. There’s a medieval-set series that does this and it’s always baffled me; I picked up perhaps the fourth or fifth book, then started at the first where the protagonist’s “good friend” was definitely going to feature in all their adventures…except there’s no mention of them in that third or fourth book, nor any indication they ever existed. Guess who the killer was…

  4. I like to read them in order, especially the Dect series, like A Raisin etc
    and now it’s so easy to generate your list as well

    when I discovered Christie I read them as I found them

    • I appreciate availability is an issue for a lot of GAD stuff, but certainly for the more recent series, as you imply, it’s not that arduoud an undertaking. I wonder if we’d all’ve read It Walks by Night were it only in print. Perhaps in a few decades we’ll find out!

      • I took this to mean “especially recent detective series featuring a recurring character, such as the Agatha Raisin book by M.C. Beaton and her ilk”.

  5. What interests me about all this is that it seems as readers of GAD looking back and having all the work to read (if you can get your hands on it) that we relate to the books in such a different way to those who would have been waiting for the next Carr or Christie novel (for example) to be published.

    I have something I’m working with in my head here, stick with me: its seems like there is a kind of post author chronology if you will that develops from having access to their whole oeuvre and being able to read the whole and ‘reorder’ according to what you feel are the best works. These reorderings seem to change over time and context as well, as with the the top 15 locked rooms list being a perfect example in that many see that list as needing to be re done. The funny thing about reading in order now is knowing what is coming, and that you at times may be ‘two away from a really good one’ or ‘in a bad period of he authors work’. I find that while whole experience and ideas fascinating, seeing an authors art as a whole.

    • I’ll take your idea of a post-author chronology — which is a great way of lookig at it — even further and suggest there’s a kind of genre-wide post-milestone awareness: witness the number of French detective novels from the 1930s that just take the solution of Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room as an understood and known quantity. Is there a sense of how the genre changes once a particular solution or novel is written: Orient Express, say, or The Hollow Man? Can you look at the genre as being wodely aware of how far it is from certain milsetones and certain totemic works, the chages they wreak felt throughout the whole subgenre?

      Maybe there’s a case for reading the whole GAD era in order — identify the authors you want to read, and then seek out the publication dates, and away you go, exactly as if you’re in the contemporary publication era. Might takle a lot of organising, but would probably be quite good fun.

      • Really nice thought. And that milestone idea goes then same for someone’s career. When Murder On The Orient Express arrived, or any other of Christie’s major works, did it change the way everything before that of her own work was read? A read in order of the ‘major’ works would make a lovely project.

        • An aside on your suggestion, but…

          I have this idealised year where I spend the full tweve months only reading books and short stories published in the genre in a particular year — 1937, why not — just to get the sense of the era as it was seen and communicated at the time. I’d never do it, too much else crowds in for my attention, but parallel universe me is well up for that as an experiement.

          This was one of the things I used to lov about the Crimes of the Century Rich would run at Past Offences — his round-ups would call out all the little things people had highlighted about the year in question, and I loved the focus on just the one slice of history as seen through our particular prism. I’d love to see CotC resurrected…mainly because it might mean Rich was back blogging with us, but also for the petty and selfish personal reason stated above.

    • I think Dan raises the most interesting point in this entire thread, with respect to the luxury of being able to pick and choose an order. As a modern reader, we typically know the reputation of each of the books, or can find it with some digging. We have the leisure to scan out across Carr’s library of 70+ books and decide what we feel like getting into today.

      What we’ll always miss out on though is a true understanding of what was known in the genre at the time. We certainly have insights into timelines of when different works were released, but I can’t think that we can ever truly appreciate what it was to read, say, The Roman Hat Mystery when it was published.

      We’re getting somewhat of a taste of forced reading order with the translations of Halter or the releases of semi-forgotten authors like Christopher Bush. Even then, those books have existed for decades and there is ample opportunity to track down some form of opinion on them.

      It is a luxury though – to pick and choose what comes next, and it’s one of my favorite side effects of reading this genre. To me, a big part of the enjoyment of a title is the anticipation of reading it and the assumptions you have going in. Determining that next book can sometimes be almost as fun as reading it.

      • I agree that expectation, and determining are exciting results of reading a genre where most of the author have passed away. Its a powerful thing to have an entire artists work laid out in front of you.

        • Totally agree — consider the range of social attitudes, the profesisonal and personal hardships and zeniths, the hundreds of thousands of hours of someone’s life represented by the books they wrote — or the music they produced, the paintings they created — over, say, a twenty year period. If you sop to actually think about it, it’s a quite staggering prospect. Maybe we’re a bit innured to it as a concept because either a) unavailability or b) familiarity with the idea, but there’s something rather magnificent in it, isn’t there?

          • It’s totally wonderful. Another benefit of reading books from authors past. You can think, I know what’s coming next, I know at what point this was in their artistic life. Really magic. Really got the feeling of that reading Wire Cage this week.

  6. All good points JJ – in his intros to the Bernard Sampson series of 10 books, author Len Deighton said they could be read in any order but most readers would never do that (quite rightly). Having got yourself hooked, when reading purely fir pkeasure there is no reason not to read as chronologically as possible allowing for availability. The James Bond books are a surprisingly good example of this actually.

    • Yeah, the Bond novels do make surprisingly compelling reading when tackled in order, you’re absolutely right. People may not expect it given the jelly mould nature of the earlier films (girls! gadgets! quips!), but there’s definitely a case for starting at the beginning and working one’s way through. Excellent point, Sergio.

      • Yeah, the Bond novels do make surprisingly compelling reading when tackled in order, you’re absolutely right.

        In fact I’d say that the Bond novels need to be read in publication order. Bond is a surprisingly complex character. Fleming was a much better writer than he’s usually given credit for. He doesn’t simply tell us what makes Bond tick, he reveals it gradually.

        You certainly need to read Casino Royale first, otherwise you’re not going to understand Bond. That first book tells us an enormous amount about Bond’s complicated and contradictory attitude towards women.

  7. My first read of Christie’s entire oeuvre encompassed ten years, starting at the age of eleven. I “caught up” at By the Pricking of My Thumbs, and from there I have the books in hardcover. (My aunt gave me the new Christie every Christmas.) But until then, I selected each read by the blurb on the back cover/inside jacket . . . or subject to availability. That’s why my last out of order reads were Death in the Clouds and Taken at the Flood – pure happenstance!

    It’s not quite pure chance that my first read was ATTWN – the Tale of the Babysitter has become almost apocryphal over at my blog. But it was dumb luck that my second read was Orient Express – or that my first Ellery Queen was Greek Coffin! Tastes also change: I didn’t read them in order, but I definitely read Queen’s First Period first because they were being republished at the time. However, I did tackle the Third Period in order – not just the Wrightsville trilogy, but all of them through The Finishing Stroke – and was rewarded with one of the earliest examples of an author developing a character’s emotional arc across the spectrum of a series. You don’t have to do this – and you’ll still find some clunkers – but I think that in this instance, you should try and read them in order.

    My first Carr was The Arabian Nights Mystery, which you hated, and it propelled me forward to read Carr. But only the Fells! For the longest time, ONLY the Fells!!!!!

  8. RANT: I wrote this comprehensive answer and italicized every title I mentioned – and on my tablet, mind you, which is nigh on impossible – and lost the answer because WordPress is, for whatever reason, now making me sign in anew every time I respond on your site!!! This is FRUSTRATING!!

    The rant is over, and I am back on my laptop where I belong.

    My first complete read of Christie’s oeuvre started at age 11 and lasted for ten years. I “caught up” to her work at By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which is why I have that and all the later titles in hardcover. (My beloved Aunt Rosalie gave me the new Christie every Christmas!) It isn’t quite luck that drew me first to And Then There Were None, but The Tale of the Babysitter has become apocryphal over at my blog, and I won’t repeat it here. It is pure dumb luck that my second read was Orient Express, but I selected each title based on my attraction to the blurb on the back cover. My last reads were actually earlier books, and this was based purely on availability. In fact, I had never heard of Death in the Clouds or There Is a Tide, so it was like discovering gold when I got my hands on copies of these!!

    At that age, it didn’t really matter whether or not I read them in order. But maturity has allowed me to savor the connections – particularly in the Miss Marple series – as I’ve re-read. The issues of aging and of reflection on the changing world have become my own issues, and I’m seeing rich stuff I didn’t notice the first time I read these books.(Incidentally, I have a slightly different take on Bertram’s than you, but we can talk about that later.)

    Queen is another matter, though. I read the First Period first, but not in order. It was, again, dumb luck that I happened to choose Greek Coffin first, Siamese Twin second, and Chinese Orange third, as they happen to be the three most enjoyable ones. But I also lucked out in essentially reading the Third Period in order because it’s maybe the first example of an author’s creating a long range emotional arc for a detective. Watching Ellery suffer and grow and change was a wonderful byproduct, and if you manage to return to your chronological efforts around Calamity Town, I think you would be rewarded (that is, if you manage to stick with it!)

    As for Carr, my first title was The Arabian Night’s Mystery, which you hated. And yet it propelled me forward to embrace the author. But only the Dr. Fell novels! I didn’t venture to Sir Henry or Bencolin until I started blogging two years ago!!! The positive side effect of this is that I’ve got a whole bunch of Carr still to read! 🙂

    • I didn’t hate Arabian Nights — the first and second sections combine to wonderful effect, but, man, the third…ugh. David hadley is always a little off the pace, but sheesh on a broom that was turgid after the white-eater rapids and reversals of the delightful opening gamesmanship. I’d also already read — and, indeed, reread earlier that year — the succeeding book, The Punch and Judy Murders, which is an utter, playful delight of a novel, and so this being so proximal to that got my hopes up somewhat. In the end, I got a different book to what I was anticipating, and that’s the only time I have a problem with Carr (see: The Bride of Newgate, which I fully admit is probably better than my review allows).

      The plan with Queen remains “read them in order from Chinese Oange…” so I’ll loop around and come back to the earlier stuff at the end. Probably. Knowing my luck I probably won’t, but that’s the plan. So Calamity Town should — should, mind — be encountered in its proper place. Either way, you’ll be kept updated.

  9. I think this is an interesting question and I will admit that my EQ experience has me a little rattled and questioning my approach.

    I’d say there are probably two different answers depending on audience. If you are just reading for pleasure, pick a title that sounds good and if people don’t say it needs a previous book to be read first then enjoy!

    For professional reviewers, I think it is hugely helpful to read a series in order or to openly acknowledge when you haven’t. That really clever plot in an author’s 63rd mystery may wow you if it’s the first you have read by them but if it’s just the same as book 8 then series readers may not be quite so wowed as you.

    Similarly, if books 1 through 4 all address why an Australian bush hunter is solving crimes taking place among New York’s elite but book 5 glosses over it, your experience will differ from those readers.

    Bloggers come somewhere between these two categories of reader. The pro reviewer is my ideal but I live in the real world where I can’t afford $2000 for the first, long out of print book written by a prolific writer. I try to acknowledge the limitations of my knowledge and then review things as I see them.

    • Similarly, if books 1 through 4 all address why an Australian bush hunter is solving crimes taking place among New York’s elite but book 5 glosses over it, your experience will differ from those readers.

      I didn’t realise there was a series of Crocodile Dundee novelisations… 😀

      I’m still astounded at the number of rave reviews a novel that relies on the Birlstone Gambit for its sole surprise got when it was published a few years ago — the need to acknowledge one’s ignorance of a genre in reviewing is, I agree, crucial. So many individual reviewers’ opinions only carry weight if a) you know what they know about what they’re reviewing, and b) you know wht their tastes are in the corona genres and novels of what they’re reviewing. This is why I’ll go with a blogger’s opinion, where it’s easy to check their other views, than a newspaper columnist’s any day of the week (also, y’know, newspapers don’t review much out of print 1930s detection in my experience…).

      • So that explains the rejection letters…

        Fair point about the newspapers – that point was intended to refer to more recent works. With some GAD writers’ works being continued though I think it is necessary to have read multiple examples of that original writer’s to judge whether it is actually a sound continuation, for instance…

        • Yeah, an idea of whether the critics who praise said continuations have any sense of what the original writer was like would be helpful, I agree. The prboelm is that I feel too many professional review sites — and, I have to say (perhaps unpopularly…here goes) some blogs — have too vested an interest in keeping publishers happy to necessarily give an honest opinion.

          • I think that is true! A few years ago my wife and I blogged about YA novels together and that scene was particularly bad for publisher-gratifying posts whether it is for fear of not getting more ARCs or upsetting the author.

    • Yes, context has its place and should be acknowledged and examined where relevant but I still think any reviewer or commentator, on any art form, should ultimately base their assessment on on how they see the work.
      Sure it’s interesting to see how some has developed as an artist but unless something has been written expressly as part of an ongoing series where prior knowledge is essential, then I’d treat is merely as an option and wouldn’t want to get too hung up on it.
      And as I get older, I find that reading for anything other than pleasure is something I have no interest whatsoever in.

      • I think that you are right that you have to address the quality of the work in an isolated context too but, to take my example, knowledge of the series would affect the way I phrase a criticism.

        If the first few books explain how the character ends up as a detective on the side then I would say this book will confuse newcomers who may prefer an earlier book. If not, I might be saying that the series still hasn’t come up with a good rationale for why the main character is a sleuth at all.

        • It’s true that some — perhaps eve most — readers of a book will come to it entuirely devoid of context which I think is why 9as I said above) so many modern crime writers are now starting to revert to a sort of “Well, the other books don’t really mater…” approach. The problem is that a lot of these writers spent a lot of words and pages about 15 years ago trying to push their characters and make a rich universe for them and now seem to be dliberately taking a retrograde step that is a bit of a slap in the face to the readers who have watched these characters become so nuances only to revert to Story of the Week behaviour.

          But that is another post for another time. By another blogger on another blog.

      • And as I get older, I find that reading for anything other than pleasure is something I have no interest whatsoever in.

        Amen, brother.

  10. OK, I started writing my thoughts but when I hit my seventh paragraph, I thought I’d turn it into a response blog post over at my place. Stay tuned – but to summarise… it depends.

  11. Thanks for the mention! Regarding the point in your fourth paragraph, I think I am going to try to compile a list of Carr and books that contain spoilers (or partial spoilers like the one in Constant Suicides) for earlier books. Since so much of Carr is out of print, a lot of people coming to him in 2018 aren’t going to realistically have the option of reading them in chronological order.

    • I’ve just seen your rundown of this and firstly I’m impressed at your quick recall (see my recent post on how lousy my memory is…I think), and secondly I think this would be a superb idera for all GAD books in general — we need a two-way database cf.:

      The House That Kills by Noel Vindry spoils The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

      The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux spoiled in The House That Kills by Noel Vindry

      Etc.

      I’m actually serious, this would be an amazing resource; I’m half-tempted to set it up myself and take submissions…

      • I’d be wiling to help you with this. Carolyn Wells was notorious for giving away endings of her colleagues’ books. Envy? Admiration? Passive aggressive bitchiness? Not really worth pursing and neither are her books. She’s not worth reading at all…other than for ridicule.

      • Justiceforthecorpse has provided the spoiler data in respect of Carr and Queen. I provide it for Christie:

        1. A suspect in The Man in The Brown Suit reappears in 3 further novels: Cards on The Table, Death on
        The Nile, Sparkling Cyanide. Hence it is preferable to read TMITBS first before the other 3 novels.
        2.In Dumb Witness, the names of the culprits in respect of 4 preceding novels are mentioned: Death in The Clouds, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Mystery of The Blue Train. Hence it is preferable to read Dumb Witness after reading all the other 4 novels.
        3. Two suspects in The Moving Finger reappear in The Pale Horse. Hence it is preferable to read The Moving Finger before The Pale Horse.
        4. Cards on The Table contains a spoiler for Murder on The Orient Express. Hence it is preferable to read MOTOE before COTT.

  12. In my innocent youth, when looking beyond Christie and Doyle, I would choose titles from lists like this one https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Top_100_Crime_Novels_of_All_Time&diff=719903646&oldid=719903609. My reasoning was, If I don’t enjoy a writer’s best book, I won’t care for any of the others. But I have come to think differently. My current reasoning would be, If I don’t enjoy a writer, I won’t enjoy his best book. I really regret some of the approaches I made to authors. Example: reading Tiger in the Smoke made me avoid Allingham for years. It was nicer going in order: The Crime at Black Dudley was bad; Mystery Mile was not that bad actually; Look to the Lady was quite good fun; Police at the Funeral was excellent. There was no turning back after that. When I returned to Tiger in the Smoke, I understood it better and enjoyed it much more, though recognising it as a flawed work still (and certainly not good at introducing familiar characters to someone who hadn’t met them before). I had a similar experience with The Hollow Man even though I enjoyed that book more.

    • I think we tend to accept conventional wisdom like sych lists as a way of helping make thsoe sorts of decisions, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I used the HRF Keating list to select a lot of books I read once my tastes started to broaden in an older (as in, books published further in the past) direction…and found that I didn’t like most of them (ha, I’m such a contration…).

      But, yeah, I think there’s a completely forgivable tendency to see an authority figure as a good pointer to what you’ll enjoy, but it’s only through experience that you get to find out how trustworthy that source is by its alignment with your own tastes. I for one am kicking myself for the several years I spent accepting that Freeman Wills Crofts was a dusty, dull deplorable because now those House of Stratus reprints that were so gettable six, seven years ago are selling for absurd money (well, not selling, because no-one’s buying them that that price, but you get what I mean).

  13. Pingback: In Or Out Of Order – How To Read A Series Of Golden Age Crime Fiction – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

  14. I’ve never bothered with chronological order, I admit. As long as it doesn’t spoil what came before I can generally live with it, unless there’s explicit continuity between the entries. Considering how large the corpus of some of these authors are (and how hard some books can be to get) I don’t think one can be blamed for being a bit loose with continuity. 😛 That being said, there’s certainly a value in going in order, especially if you wanted to do a deeper analysis of the author’s work. But if you’re just reading for fun I don’t see the absolute need.

    • Congratulations, you have condensed my 1,300 word essay above into, like, a hundred words. Dammit, this keeps happening; I need to get better at this writing lark…

  15. Only series I read in order is Case Closed and even that one comes with a caveat, because when I began to read the series I had to skip over the fifth volume as it was (temporarily) not available at the time. I eventually got it when I had reached volume 11 or 12. So even that series was not read entirely in order. Somehow, I even manage to pull this off with writers who only wrote two or three mysteries.

    For example, Anita Blackmon wrote only two detective novels and guess which one I picked first? So reading series in order is not something I can do. 🙂

    By the way, that database should be hosted on the GAD wiki.

    • I am weirdly obsessive about knowing what the order of an author’s works are, I realise. As soon as I recognise them as someone I’d be interested in reading, I acquire, annotate, and fastidiously maintain a list of their books, the order they were published in, the publication year, the series characters they contain, and various other pieces of moderately insane trivia.

      This doesn’t mean I always manage to tackle them in order, but I do like to get a sense of how a book fits into the overall scheme of things — as my (ahem) three separate Norman Berrow lists attest. For someone like Chrisite it’s not such an arduous task or undertaking, largely on account of how damn available everything is, but for Crofts and Carr it becomes important to me to be able to maintain an overview of their corpus.

      Coming soon, a post on other manfestations of my OC-GAD…

      • I’m definitely in the same camp of being well aware of the year/order of the works of authors that I get more into, such as Carr and Queen. I’m fairly sure I could provide the year of most Carr books correctly, even if I haven’t read them. The 1950s would be the trickiest, as the work starts to get more spread out. For Queen, I wouldn’t know the year for most of them, but I think I could order the books correctly with about 80% accuracy.

        For Carr I have some interesting spreadsheets that I’ve been working on, but I haven’t figured out when I’ll post the material yet.

          • Well, I noticed that I was making claims like “Carr’s peak was 1935-1939”, which struck me as a pure estimate. So the idea I had was, “what if I plot out all of the Carr books by year, and then for the ones that I’ve read, produce a score for each year?” This turned into five separate charts, each taking into account different aspects of ranking. It’s kind of nerdy but I think it will eventually make an interesting post.

            • I’ve had a similar idea for the last couple of years, probably since I started blogging and so reflecting on my reading in a little more detail. I’ve assumed for a little while now that the style of GAD I most enjoy peaked in the mid-to-late 1930s (I even blogged about it here…). Sure, I read a lot from the 1930s, but is it necessarily true that it’s what I enjoy the most?

              Well, yeah, it probably is; but, just to be sure, I’m going to attempt to keep a record of the year of publication and my personal subjective “score” and see where I end up at the end of the year. Scatter graph, here we come…

              So I anticipate your Carrian graphics eagerly!

            • Go for it, Ben! I’m enjoying a very similar ranking process on the All About Agatha podcast. It makes for interesting discussion.

  16. Perhaps reading chronologically might be best reserved for a rereading of an author, when you have already read most or all of them and have seen the best and worst. Then the weaker efforts may be improved by an appreciation of their position within the ouevre and your understanding of the author’s development/preoccupations/ fits of insanity.

    • Yeah, you and Dan both have the right perseptive on this, I feel: that sense of knowing how far you are from the next accepted classic, or how many duffs remain. I’m a huge fan of not knowing much about a book before reading it — hell, I rarely even read the synopsis on the back most of the time, because they give waaaay to much away for my liking — but it’s often worth knowing that POassenger to Frankfurt is considered poor, and is followed by a run of poor books, if looking for the will to continue with a book/author I feel we’ve uncovered a far larger point here, so my thanks for bringing this perspective to my attention.

  17. Santosh?!? You . . . er . . . you made a mistake!?!?!

    The two characters who appear in The Pale Horse come from Cards on the Table, not The Moving Finger.

    It’s all right, mate . . . it could happen to . . . anybody?!?

    • I was fully correct. Two suspects of The Moving Finger do appear in The Pale Horse !
      In addition, 2 characters of Cards on The Table also appear in The Pale Horse, but only one of them is a suspect. Hence, I add point no. 5 to my comments above.
      5. A suspect of Cards On The Table reappears in The Pale Horse. Hence it is preferable to read COTT before The Pale Horse.

  18. Brad, you’re actually wrong. He’s talking abut Rev & Mrs. Dane Calthorp who are in both The Moving Finger and The Pale Horse. Oops. I guess I spoiled those books. I’m going to do it again.

    Mrs. Oliver and Colonel Race are recurring characters who are well known to be a series detective’s assistant or friend and who appear in other books as detective, co-detective or a definite non-suspect. Calling them “a suspect” in their first appearance is really stretching the “spoiler” business to absurdity.

    • John, If you check to see my response to Santosh’s response, I remembered the Dane Calthrops (and spelled them correctly!) BEFORE you wrote your response. Therefore, I win 75 points AND the lounge suite!

      I agree with you about Mrs. Oliver, but based on my recent listen to the podcast All About Agatha, I think the first meeting with Colonel Race could make him a possible suspect until his bona fides are verified!

    • I comepletely agree, John, that considering recurring characters of this ilk as suspects is stretching the “spoiler” caution too far…but there is at least one case of a friend of the detective featured in a previous book (and possibly even more than thust the one book…) turning out to be the killer. Duhn-duhn-DUUUNH!!

      • There are a few more spoilers in Christie: a couple of them occur in The Labours of Hercules, where past criminals come back in a new guise. The bigger one occurs where Poirot is talking about a suspect and compares that suspect not to a particular name but to a particular type of person, which gives away the solution – sort of – to Lord Edgware Dies. I want to say it’s in The Hollow, but I just can’t remember. I came across it again in a recent re-read. Santosh???

  19. Is it fair to say that we all operate under the assumption that an author’s first few books are going to be slightly weak and that they’ll hit their swing after a few? I can’t think of many GAD authors whose earliest work is considered their best. Heads You Lose, The Roman Hat Mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles – no one is claiming these to be among the heights of the respective author’s work.

    It seems like a reasonable enough assumption to make. After all, the author hasn’t had time to hone their craft. I recall being shocked that Carr’s It Walks By Night was actually well written, as if his first work was destined to be drooling ramblings.

    It’s interesting to compare this to music, if you’ll allow me a directionless analogy. There are quite a few bands where their first album is actually their best. Right? Everyone’s familiar with the sophomore slump. The idea is that a band has played for a few years, built up a following on the back of hard touring, and everything that they have has gone into that first album. In fact, that band may have had quite a few early songs that didn’t make the first album. The ones that did make have been road tested and are the catalogue that got them signed in the first place.

    Then fame hits, and the band is forced to crank out a follow up in six months to a year, and naturally they don’t have the ability to follow through with that same level of quality. Of course, the really good bands do.

    Similar to writers, I think we tend to see even the long lasting bands take a downward spiral towards the end of their career. They’re on a smaller label or self-publishing their albums, and they no longer have the producer/engineer in the control room telling them that they need to do another ten takes, drop portions of songs, restructure things, etc.

    Well, I don’t know quite where I’m going with this, but there are some interesting parallels. I would never try to get someone into a band by having them listen to the albums/singles in order. Instead I’d point them to the tracks that I really like – not necessarily the over-rated hits, but also some deep cuts that for some market reason weren’t selected as a single.

    But, once you’ve latched onto the fact that you do enjoy a band, you certainly listen to them enough to where you start to appreciate the order that their backlog was released. Of course, this is easy to do with 3-6 minute songs and when you can listen to an album while doing something else, like driving.

    Reading of course is a different matter. You have to make a real time commitment to a book, and you don’t have the same luxury of reading an author’s extensive catalogue multiple times. That’s where the order really becomes important.

    • It does generally appear to be the case that the longer your creative endeavours wear on the less there is in the tank to sustain your more accomplshed levels of said endeavours.

      I wonder the extent to which pressure to produce a certain type of product affects things — to write in a popular style of crime fiction (incidentally, anyone not following Crime Fiction Trope on Twitter is seriously missing out) or to make “more popular” music. I think we can all name bands who’ve been creatively neutered by the requirement that they produce something with a more…something else sound. Maybe that lack of freedom plays a part.

      Also, can’t you read while driving? Dude, I pity you…

  20. While I don’t think that Carr should be read in order, I would encourage reading the Bencolin books in order. You’re not going to really miss out on anything by pecking at them, but there is enough of a continuity that I think there’s some advantage to it. In particular, the character changes in Bencolin that we get in The Corpse in the Waxworks and The Four False Weapons would be best appreciated after reading the first three. Of course, I’d encourage sprinkling a few other books in between, as reading the first four Bencolin books without any break may be a bit much.

    • The Bencolins do represent a very deliberate period of Carr’s career. I’m almost tempted to read them again as I sit here thinking about them. The middle two in particular are amazing for very specific reasons…hmmmm, I may have to do a double post on them at some point now.

  21. I think I’ve mentioned here (or elsewhere) that I’m in the middle of a mastodont re-read, where I read several authors in order (Carr, Queen, Crispin, McCloy, Marsh, Quentin/Patrick/Stagge, Blake, and probably a few others that I can’t remember now). Obviously, reading for the first time is clearly different from re-reading, and perhaps – for those fools who start such an endeavour – re-reads are always done in order?

    Happily, the re-read is now at a point where I’m reading those works that belong to the respective authors’ best (Cat of Many Tails, Black Spectacles, Moving Toyshop and so on), so the re-read-athon is going fairly swiftly, but there was a slog somewhere at the beginning when I had to go through the early works…

    And as shameless advertising seems to be all right, here’s another fairly new blog:
    https://mysteriesshortandsweet.blogspot.se/

    🙂

    • Knowing that youre about to hit a rich seam is probably a lovely feeling — the initial read will always be informed by whatever opinions one finds surrounding a book, but since no two people read the same things in the same words I guess you never really know what you’re getting until you go back around. I suppose this is the logical extension of Dan’s notion of being post-chronology: you’re now in a person post-chronology pahse of your reading…man, its enough to make me wish I’d picked up that copy of Crooked House aged 12…

      And I’m delighted to see you blogging, particularly given the focus behind it. Welcome to the fold, I really look forward to seeing how things develop.

  22. My first Carr was The Devil in Velvet which certainly gave me entirely the wrong idea of him as a writer.

    My first Christie was Sparkling Cyanide. Probably not ideal but thank goodness I didn’t start with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. If I had done then that would have been my first and last Christie. In my view no-one should The Murder of Roger Ackroyd until they’ve read at least half a dozen of her other books, preferably ones where she doesn’t cheat.

    My first Queen was The Greek Coffin Mystery. A lucky choice. Had my first Queen been Calamity Town I would not have bothered with any others.

    I guess every writer, no matter how good, has at least one book in his output that is so awful that it would put a reader off for good.

    • Hell, my first Carr was The Hollow Man, and that nearly put me off for good….!

      See, I think a lot of people’s entry into GAD is through Christie, and I think a large number of those people come to her through Roger Ackroyd…and I reckon, as an early example, the prospect of cheating doesn’t bother people as much, right on the cusp of the genre. Hell, the continued popularity of Galdys Mitchell shows that cheating doesn’t really bother a ton of people right in the middle of the genre…but I can believe that only very few people would put TMoRA down and think “Well, I’m not reading one of those again…”. I think the surprise involved woudl capture the minds of multitudes more than it would dissuade.

      Not read Ackroyd for yeeeeears, ether, so I’m curious how fair I’d find it now.

      Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club — where WImsey only stumbles upon the solution because he overhears two journalists discussing the case in a club and one of them speculates “Well, this is what I reckon happened…” and Wimsey just goes Mein Gott, he’s right!! and that is the solution to the crime — I reckon that would put a lot of people off GAD.

      • See, I think a lot of people’s entry into GAD is through Christie, and I think a large number of those people come to her through Roger Ackroyd…and I reckon, as an early example, the prospect of cheating doesn’t bother people as much, right on the cusp of the genre.

        That’s actually quite a good point. Christie was certainly my introduction to GAD, and I was about twelve. So you’re right, at that age I probably wouldn’t have been bothered by it. I didn’t read Roger Ackroyd until many many years later, by which time I’d absorbed the rules for detective fiction laid down by Van Dine and Ronald Knox. I’d not only absorbed them, I’d become a True Believer in those rules!

        I’m possibly unusual in that although I read (and enjoyed) a lot of Christie when I was young I didn’t become a real fan of GAD until many years later. After Christie I moved on to thriller writers like Fleming and MacLean, and science fiction, and later I got into horror.

        It was my interest in horror that led me to The Devil in Velvet.

        • I remember — about the age of 12 — my school library having satcks of Christie’s books, and being vaguely aware fo the name thanks to David Suchet on TV. I even remember picking up Crooked House and reading the bit in the front about how much she enjoyed writing it…but then I put it down again and never quite got round to her until more than a few years later. Aaaah, to think of how close I came to getting in on this so much sooner…

          I can see why TDiV would have dissuaded you from Carr if it was horror your sought. It’s difficult to know who would pick that up as their first Carr and decide to investigate further…and then find themseves disappointed. It’s not a book for detection fans, the impossibility is minor and a cheat, the history is good but equally liberties are taken to enough fo an extent that it would irritate fans of that sort of thing…who does that leave? I think one really needs to be aware of Carr and his work in order to pick that one up. And I don’t know if that was a sgn of his massve confidence in his brand at the time of writing, or whether he just didn’t care about new readers and sudden changes of direction and was simply going to write what he damn well wanted to!

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