Today I visited a used bookstore the likes of which I haven't seen in ages. Books stacked one atop the other in haphazard fashion, simply because there's no more room. You could smell the old books and the dust they had accumulated and maybe even some mildew from the wooden walls that seemed in dire need or repair. I loved it. I finally found a good copy of The Ipcress File by Len Deighton, the acquisition of which has been like trying to hit a home run with a toothpick.
On my way to the counter I saw a locked cabinet in which sat a goldmine of Gold Medal and other vintage paperbacks. Such names as Peter Rabe and John D. MacDonald and Harry Whittington and Jim Thompson got my attention and oh my gosh I started getting excited. An elderly lady with black curly hair sat behind the counter working a crossword. I asked her, "May I open this?"
"No," said she, setting down the crossword and folding her arms. "Those are MY books. Not for sale for a million dollars."
She smiled and showed me her yellow teeth. She was a cranky old bitch.
Oh, well. I've been burned in ages past spending too much money on an old Gold Medal only to find I couldn't open the pages without the book falling apart. The best of Rabe, Whittington, and John D. is readily available, but it's always a treat to actually hold a real Gold Medal or a real Dell or even the rare Lion in my hand. I think those of us who write in the crime and mystery genre look at those books, and the pulp magazines that came before them, the way an archeologist looks at an ancient ruin. This is where we came from, this is what inspires us.
Those old books are great because not only are they short and to the point unlike the doorstops produced today (I’m looking at you, Ted Bell—600 pages in a paperback???), but the best of those writers were forging new ground in American literature. Today, we don't see any new ground, at least I don’t think we do (and here I go complaining again....). It's almost as if all the pioneering has been done. Somebody else built the airplane, other men landed on the moon, somebody else drove a production car over 200 miles per hour. Those of us that have come after have no more worlds to conquer.
Maybe that's why so much of today's entertainment is nonsense. The new inventions are time-wasters that serve no real purpose other than to make us spend money. Artists are not doing anything new, just trying to outdo somebody else in terms or shock or awe, or copying what somebody else did; it gets tiresome.
Perhaps the public plays a role, too, in gravitating to the simple and the comfortable. They won't accept anything that isn't a carbon copy of what they read or watched last week. In a recent spy novel I picked up, the hero is still called "the best we have". How many "best" agents are there? I thought James Bond was the best. Then Matt Helm was the best. Then Jack Bauer was the best. Somebody needs to make up their mind. How many "hard as nails" cops who “break all the rules” pound a beat? Of course, these days’ heroes are more “flawed”—usually divorced alcoholics "haunted" by the past. Gag me.
How many authors are household names today? When I grew up you had King, Forsythe, Ludlum, Clancy, Grisham, Rice--and I'm probably leaving out a few. If you hadn't read their books, you at least knew who they were. Today? Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling. Stephanie Meyer. Maybe James Patterson. That's it.
The reason I like the old timers is because their stories were mostly fresh and the directions they charted were new and exciting, and I read them because I hope some of that rubs off on me. I'm not sure today's writers have the same effect. Not that there aren't talented people putting pen to paper, there just aren't enough of them, and those that are claiming new territory and charting new directions aren't selling as well as they should--or at all. It boggles my mind how writers like Max Allan Collins or Rebecca Forster aren't read by more people. Everything Collins does is amazing. When he goes for the shocker plot point or the twist ending, you're genuinely shocked and surprised, and not because somebody's head got lopped off and tossed in a duffel bag. The last three books Forster wrote were the best nail-biting legal suspense stories ever. Where is she after three books that were less than successful? Dropped by her agent and publisher. Those three books? Out of print. She’s going the indie route now and doing well. But Dan Brown's drivel flies out the door and Patterson writes more books than humanly possible. It's a crime.
I guess I wasn't looking at a gold mine of old books, I was trying to reach a gold mine of creativity and originality that remains elusive. But that's okay. As long as there's something to chase, there's something to strive for. It's when you catch the rabbit that life loses its purpose and all that's left to do is try and find a way to leave behind a good-looking corpse.