Inspired by Crime Fiction Lover’s “Classics in September” coverage, I’ve reacquainted myself with two favorite authors—Rex Stout and Georges Simenon–and finally read one I should have gotten to a long time ago, Scotland’s Val McDermid. Reading these older mysteries really shows how much the genre has changed. Today we generally have more realistic characters and motivations, more detail about procedure (thanks, CSI), more graphic violence, and more body fluids.
Rex Stout: The Doorbell Rang
Stout’s legendary private detective Nero Wolfe has an active fan base for his 33 novels and 39 short stories and novellas. Their hero is famous for several reasons: Wolfe loves good food and wine and, as a consequence, is not slim. Notoriously sedentary, he very rarely bestirs himself outside the office in his well-appointed Manhattan townhouse, where he tends his orchids. (When these were written, orchids were exotic, and not available in every supermarket!)
Wolfe’s wise-cracking assistant Archie Goodwin narrates the novels and does Wolfe’s
leg-work, as well as any necessary strong-arming. The stories are about a profession—the private eye with the Big Case—that barely exists today, in fiction or anywhere else.
The Doorbell Rang (1965) takes more than a few swipes at the FBI along the way as, from behind his desk, Wolfe pits wits against not just the NYPD, but J. Edgar Hoover and his men. Can he pull it off? Archie thinks not. Good clean fun.
Georges Simenon: The Misty Harbour
This 1932 story likewise involves a trademark detective, Inspector Jules Maigret, who appeared in 75 novels and 28 short stories from this French author and was reportedly second in world renown only to Sherlock Holmes.
The title of this novel was most apt, because I could never penetrate the fog surrounding what Maigret was doing in his investigation or why he was doing it, though in the end he pulled out a neat solution. It all starts intriguingly enough with an amnesiac wandering Paris with evidence of a memory-blasting gunshot wound to the head. But who is he? Why was he shot? And when he’s finally identified and returned home, why does someone immediately finish him off? Lots of suspects, no apparent motives. An evocative read.
Val McDermid: A Place of Execution
McDermied is interesting as a writer not only for the clarity of her prose and the complexity of her plots, but also for the care with which she pursues her craft. I have her writer’s guide, Forensics, which I keep at hand always.
In a recent interview with LitHub’s Daneet Steffens, McDermid says that writing her next book “doesn’t get easier, it gets harder! . . . With writing: one sits down with ambition, knowing in this little part of your head that you will not realize all that you want to achieve with this book.” That determination to “fail better,” as opposed to believing oneself a master of one’s genre and starting to coast, is what makes her books so compelling.
Compared to the above two short novels (less than 200 pages each), the 400-page A Place of Execution (1999), is a layered examination of interpersonal dynamics in a remote, claustrophobic hamlet (nine houses) where a young girl has gone missing. The secrets the community holds and the challenge to the police authorities in penetrating them make for thrilling reading.
While Stout and Simenon are entertaining, it’s McDermid, who published her 30th novel this year, who makes you truly care about the outcome.
“If you read my books and you’re not disturbed by them, then you probably need professional help,” McDermid said, at the recent Iceland Noir conference.