To kick the year off the Tuesday Night Bloggers are looking at crime fiction firsts this month. Already we have had posts looking at the origins of detective fiction, John Dickson Carr’s Dr Fell series and J. J. Connington’s first novel. In case you missed last weeks’ posts here is the link to the roundup of them:
And here are this week’s contributions:
Brad at ah sweet mystery blog: The First Poirot
JJ at The Invisible Event: Back to the Beginning with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Moira at Clothes in Books: 1st from Mary McMullen
This week I decided to look at my first encounters with certain author’s works, sharing which titles I began with and whether or not they were a good starting point for me. I decided to look at some of the pre 1960s writers that I have read, as I felt it was these authors who shaped my later and current reading tastes a lot.
First up is Gladys Mitchell and although The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) is her fourth Mrs Bradley novel, it was my first experience of this wonderfully maverick amateur sleuth. For me I think it was a good first encounter as I enjoyed the comedy of the story and the vicar narrator was a good vehicle through which to follow the story and to experience Mrs Bradley (a narrative device which is also used to great effect in Christie’s earlier novel, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)). Moreover, I think this is one of Mitchell’s more lucid plots. If I had say The Twenty Third Man (1957) as my first read I’m not sure I would have read as many Mitchell books as I have, due to the reduced coherence of the plot. Equally The Rising of the Moon (1967) could have put me off for life due to the sheer boredom it induced in me.
With Ngaio Marsh though my first read was also her first novel, A Man Lay Dead (1934). At the time I definitely found it a lot of fun, giving me the motivation to try more of her books (whether that is a good thing is debateable). This book is by no means my favourite Marsh novel, though I think it would have been anti-climactic if I had read my two favourites first (Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) and Scales of Justice (1955)), as by and large Marsh for me is a middle of the road author. I think the worst Marsh novel to start with though would be Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) and if that had been my first encounter I’m not sure I would have ever returned to her work.
However, with my third author, John Dickson Carr, I definitely started with a dud book, In Spite of Thunder (1960), which was such a poor reading experience that I never tried his books again until encouraged to by fellow bloggers JJ and the Puzzle Doctor (who writes In Search of the Classic Mystery blog). If only I had tried The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) or The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) first! Either of these two would definitely have motivated me to go back to Carr’s work much sooner than I did.
I think I also started with a poorer read when I first
encountered Margery Allingham’s Campion novels, starting with The China Governess (1963). Campion did seem a bit past it all and didn’t really grab my interest. However, I think it was the BBC’s adaptations between 1989 and 1990 of a number of Campion novels which rekindled my interest in the books and although she is not a firm favourite I did enjoy reading The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) and Mr Campion and Others (1939).
Without having to look up the title I knew from memory which was my first Dorothy L Sayers novel and that was Gaudy Night (1935). Highly controversial amongst crime fiction readers, but was a brilliant read for me, though in retrospect I think it would have made more sense to have read the Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey novels in order (Gaudy Night being book 3 in the quartet). This book definitely drove me to find others of her work and I think the only books which might have dampened my enthusiasm had I started with them first were The Nine Tailors (1934) and Five Red Herrings (1931).
Whilst my reading of Sayers went from strength to strength on the whole after my first read, my journey with the works of Anthony Berkeley was far more bumpy. My first encounter with his work was The Silk Stocking Murders (1928), which although I can’t remember much about, I didn’t really enjoy. This read was followed by Death in the House (1939), which was certainly not Berkeley at his best. My enjoyment of Berkeley only really began with his novels, The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and Trial and Error (1937), which are by far stronger works.
I think a similar experience happened with me and my encounters with Josephine Tey as my first read of hers, Miss Pym Disposes (1946), was not entirely satisfactory and mainly led to me wanting to give the protagonist a stern lecture on responsibility and/or hit them. Yet I think in the main I went onto stronger and more enjoyable novels such as The Daughter of Time (1951), The Singing Sands (1952) and A Shilling for Candles (1936).
There are some authors though where a poor first read has not lead to better things. Freeman Wills Crofts is one such author. My first encounter with him was The Groote Park Murder (1923), which was a decidedly dull and painfully boring read. It definitely put me off for life and only when Dolores Gordon Smith at the first Bodies from the Library conference spoke so enthusiastically of him, did I decided to give him another go. Consequently I bought the two British Library reprints, The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) and Antidote to Venom (1938). These however did not spur me on to others. Antidote to Venom is my favourite of the three books I have read, primarily because Inspector French doesn’t make an appearance until 2/3s of the way through (after that it becomes quite dire). The Hog’s Back Mystery though had Inspector French from very early on in the book and with passages praising new road ways it was a struggle to get to the end.
Occasionally there are those authors who you keep on trying, maybe because there books are easily available or perhaps because you feel like one more read may lead you to the book for you. Both of these reasons probably contributed to my reading of Michael Innes’ novels. My first encounter was with his first book, Death at the President’s Lodging (1937), a book I found to be rather middle of the road, not painfully boring, but not that amazing either. Yet I kept on trying his books and out of 11 reads, only one book, What Happened at Hazelwood (1946) was worth the read. This is definitely one of those instances where I had wished I had heeded the warning my first experience gave me.
Finally another couple of good first encounters were Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca (1941), Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop (1946) and Cyril Hare’s Suicide Excepted (1939). All of these encouraged me to try more of the author’s works and in the case of the latter two authors these two books remain very firm favourites.
I don’t think any hard and firm rules can be made from my first encounter experiences. Sometimes they have been great and led to greater books. Others time they started well but ended not so good, whilst with some authors bad starts led to better books. The decision to quit or persevere may rest on the reasons why you disliked the first book. A bad plot decision might not be repeated or a different serial sleuth may work better. Yet when it comes to choices in narrative style or setting or subgenre, it may well be that the books aren’t just for you. I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this as it is an idea I am still percolating.
You may be wondering where Agatha Christie is. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to put her on my list as I can’t remember which was my first Christie novel. Terrible I know! And I know devoted Christie fan Brad will be most unimpressed with me (could even lose my buddy status!). The difficulty is that when I first started my good reads account which logs all my reads I added a lot of Christie titles at the same time, not adding them in order of when I read them. Looking at these titles I have tried and tried to remember which one was the first one. I have a feeling it could have been The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), as it was around the time I was beginning my dissertation on female sleuths and since I read all the Miss Marple novels for it, I feel like I would have started at the beginning of the series. But since I can’t be 100% sure it didn’t feel right to add it to the above list, as in this same batch of Christie reads there are a number of Tommy and Tuppence books, standalone novels with female protagonists and even some stories featuring Adriane Oliver. So hopefully once you’ve have recovered from the initial shock of this news you’ll find it in your hearts to forgive this misdemeanour.