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.
“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.
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…