Today I am due to suggest a book for the Reprint of the Year awards organised by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. However, the sudden death of fellow blogger Noah Stewart earlier this week is somewhat forefront in my mind and I wish to remember him.
I don’t know how much interaction two people must have before they’re allowed to call each other friends. Noah and I never met face-to-face, never spoke on the phone or via Skype, and in the communications we did have — almost entirely in the comments of blog posts or via email — the conversation rarely veered into personal waters; him telling me that he was moving house was about as personal as we got, but then he also did a blog post about that, and so I claim no particular level of access to his personal and private lives. Nevertheless, I thought of him as a friend, possibly an over-presumption on my part, since his warmth and generosity in every single dealing I had with him — many people have already shared stories of their own in the Golden Age Detection Facebook group from which his absence has been felt for a while now — meant I could hardly think of him as anything less.
I first contacted him via email when he was on a blogging hiatus a couple of years ago, and would drop him a line every so often asking for advice over an author’s work or similar. The man had read everything, even to the extent that he’d deliberately started reading bad books for his hilarious 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read series, and when someone with that much knowledge also shares my view on the many merits of Rupert Penny…that’s a well I’ll go back to time and again. Outside of my own enthusiasms, he introduced me to the concept pf the Hobby Mystery or the Instruction Mystery, where someone really wants to write a book about Underwater Basket-Weaving and just tags on the barest mystery plot since they know it will sell to a broader audience that way. And yet, for all of his interest in these books which so abominated the genre he loved, Noah never failed to approach them in a tolerant and intelligent way:
One key element of good mysteries is that there is generally a sub-theme that relates to the larger theme, but in a subtle way that is not obvious from the beginning. For instance, to create something from whole cloth, if the main plot theme is the murder of a plagiarist at a university, and there is what appears to be an unconnected theme about the failure of a restaurant business wherein we meet many of the suspects, in some way the theme of plagiarism must relate to the failure of the restaurant by the end of the novel. Perhaps the restaurant is failing because someone has stolen the recipes from another chef but failed to get the details correct. That’s how the mystery should work.
This is what really struck me about Noah’s writing: it was not just his encyclopaedic knowledge, but the tolerance and insight which came with that knowledge. It’s easy to praise a book you love, but difficult to praise well, and it’s easy to launch a jeremiad against something you despise, but more telling if some patience can be taken in pulling it apart. Noah always seemed able to find the joyously absurd, or to rejoice in the way a plot would fall apart under insufficient care, and the deliberateness and incision of his expression would apply as consistently when he was praising something as it would when he was perspicaciously tearing into the most noisome books we got to hear about through his posts.
It was this even-handedness which I think is what really comes to the fore in possibly my favourite of his posts: The Golden Age of Detection Drinking Game. Those of us deep in this genre — and Noah was deeper than the majority, let’s be fair — acknowledge the flaws and the repetitious nature of the plots we encounter, but we love these books because of them, even as our dunder-headed policeman resolutely chases after the wrong quarry and the amateur sleuth must seize the reins and save their betrothed (or betrothed-to-be, following heroics in these pages) from the gallows. Who among us hasn’t wanted to grab the port…
When someone mentions a mysterious poison unknown to science, and/or curare. If someone has a large supply of such a substance in plain view that they obtained while traveling in a faraway place, take two drinks.
When the victim quarrels with more than two relatives within 24 hours of death. Add one drink for every relative quarreled with beyond two.
When the victim is said to have gone on a mysterious errand within 24 hours of death but no one admits to knowing where.
If a party line or telephone operator provides a clue.
My only criticism of the entire piece is that I lack the insight to generate anything half as witty and accurate on the subject, and so will feel inferior whenever I try.
About 15 or so months ago I reactivated my Facebook account so that Noah and I could have a “real time” chat about And Be a Villain (1948) by Rex Stout. That transcript is emblematic of the enthusiasm and knowledge that permeated all his dealings where GAD was concerned, but what you don’t see is the 90 minutes or so of additional chat that went on after we’d dissected Stout’s book — in which Noah talked about (among other things) his enthusiasm for John Sandford and Erle Stanley Gardner, and the general shape and form of mystery fiction today and in days past. Brad has written about the grand plans the three of us cooked up to explore something in greater depth through a series of possibly-connected posts, but they never came to pass. I can’t regret that too heavily — better we do something that works for all of us than labour over something none of us enjoy — but it’s all too tempting to wonder what might have been. No doubt, it would have seen Noah doing the heavy lifting, whatever it was.
A few weeks ago, I emailed him to ask for guidance on the books of Patricia Moyes, having been inspired to read her debut mainly as a result of his own fairly recent post on it. In passing, I enquired after the unpacking of his no-doubt fabulous library in his new house, and his reply contained possibly the first truly personal detail we’d ever shared:
As far as the unpacking — well, I have some bad news, I’m afraid … I have a fairly dramatic case of lung cancer that had its onset this summer and I’m unlikely to survive more than about two years.