Friday, October 02, 2009

Forgotten writers

I was glad to see that two of Patti Abbott's Forgotten Books today were John D. MacDonalds. Bill Cameron reviewed The Last One Left while Randy Johnson discussed Wine of The Dreamers.

We've been talking about how quickly writers fade after their deaths. I still can't believe how John D. went from best seller and exemplar of the commercial American story to near obscurity (not to mention ignominy) in just a few years. As Bill Crider noted yesterday the same thing seems to be happening to Evan Hunter/Ed McBain. I suppose writers my age have an ego stake in these two men particularly. Not only did we enjoy them, they taught us so much. Everybody from Tony Hillerman to Charles Willeford acknowledged their debt to John D. And you had to stand in line to praise Evan Hunter. When I read writers my age I can spot his influence all over the place. So their fading is sad for us both as readers and acolytes.

Of course the generation coming to prominence will face the same thing in twenty years or so. Literature of every kind is a continuum. The sweet Harlequin of yesterday has passed through many stages and can be found today in paranormal romance with frank sex and a fair amount of violence. The western has all but disappeared. And thoughtful political novels such as Fail-Safe have given way to screeds from both the left and right.

As I've said before, that's why I appreciate the democratic nature of the internet. John D. will never be truly forgotten nor will Evan Hunter.


Iren said...

I keep thinking that both Hunter and MacDonald are ripe for TPR reprints of not only their best known work but some of their lesser known as well. I've amassed a nice collection of the MacDonald books and plan to make it a point to read one a month next year (I have been doing one a month from Donald Westlake this year).

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can think of very few writers whose books were more fun to read or who created a more memorable character and locale.

Max Allan Collins said...

I believe it's way too early to know if McBain and MacDonald will last. I think they will, and certainly will have a place among genre enthusiasts.

But what it usually takes is for major movie and or TV attention to insert a mystery writer into the popular culture in a mainstream way that mere books (remember them?) are not able.

At the National Film Theater of London, where my Spillane documentary was shown, Mickey and I were interviewed in front of a packed house. I mostly just sat there, but the host asked me about the one thing Mickey and really disagreed on: the film KISS ME DEADLY. For years Mickey had said he hated it. I explained that Mickey would owe much of his posterity to that film, saying I questioned whether Hammett and Chandler would have their exalted positions if Bogart hadn't played their characters in the classic film versions of THE MALTESE FALCON and THE BIG SLEEP. In one of his final interviews, Mickey was asked who the best screen Mike Hammer was...and he said Ralph Meeker.

Christie has been driven by film and TV starting with MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS but even more so Suchet and the various MARPLE series. The Stout revival can be pointed to the wonderful but only cultish A & E series.

The news that Leonardo DeCaprio may play Travis McGeem, horrifying as that prospect may seem(particularly if he tries to play "big boy" tough as he has been lately) suggests the kind of thing it will take. McBain would already be there if the filmmaker who'd made a great film from one of his 87th Precinct novels were Martin Scorcese, say, rather than Akira Kurosawa.

Short of that kind of big-screen success, somebody like Robert B. Parker is going to be tomorrow's S.S. Van Dine.

Right now I know that for all the praise my Nate Heller and Quarry books have received, my best shot at "lasting" is ROAD TO PERDITION.

Iren said...

Max: You bring up some interesting points about needing a major film to keep your name around. I think that both Hunter/McBain and MacDonald have that in The Blackboard Jungle and Cape Fear respectively. I would have said that Parker will last on the mostly fond memories that people have of the Spencer for Hire series from the 80's, but I think that the more recent Jesse Stone TV films are going to be what carries his name forward.

DVD is also going to play a role in keeping all of these names alive. Every time someone gives the gift of these films on DVD to the next generation there is the chance for the books to be discovered by a new audience.

Frank Loose said...

I agree with what Max Collins wrote about authors and their books needing a bigger media presence to help ensure not fading into the past. I am not sure that the two films mentioned by Iren are enough for JDM and McBain. When was the last time you even heard of Blackboard Jungle being broadcast, not to mention it finding a youthful audience? Admittedly, both versions of Cape Fear were quite good and still turn up on TV and make the rounds via DVD. But, that's only one movie.

By far JDMs most successful writing was the McGee series. Now if that hit the screen in a big way ala the Bourne series it could help propel JDM.

Re Leonardo DiCaprio as McGee? You gotta be kidding!

Ed Gorman said...

Apparently Justin Timberlake wasn't available so they took DeCaprio.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Blackboard Jungle is shown often on TCM, though their audience probably skews quite old, demographically.

Deb said...

Evan Hunter wrote the first "adult" (in both theme and style) book I ever read: Mothers and Daughters. It has a gradually-revealed shocking revelation which has become one of my favorite narrative devices. About once every five years or so, I reread it--and it has held up well. I didn't even know he was Ed McBain until a few years ago (the things you can discover on this internets thingy). It saddens me to think that not many people read him anymore.

Evan Lewis said...

Not too many years ago it seemed Ross MacDonald was headed down this same track to obscurity. The libraries had nothing and I couldn't even find used paperbacks. Thankfully Black Lizard has been plugging away at getting him back in print.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Max, do you know why Mr. Spillane didn't like Kiss Me Deadly? Personally, I think it's one of the best of the noir films.

Peter L. Winkler said...

It slipped my mind earlier that Evan Hunter wrote the screnplay for Hitchcock's The Birds. I suspect that that may be his tenuous hold on some lasting fame.

Max Allan Collins said...

Mickey had a lot of trouble with producer Victor Saville. He was unhappy with both I, THE JURY and THE LONG WAIT (his input on both was ignored), and I believe his negative reaction to KISS ME DEADLY was somewhat kneejerk.

That said, he did not like the substitution of the atomic element in the box for his original Mafia drugs stash. And he was no dope --he knew that Aldrich and screenwriter Bezzerides were doing a left-wing smear job on his famous PI.

But he came to see that, beyond the politics, the film best captured the feel of the novels, their fever-dream pulp energy, and to respect the high opinion this great noir had earned from so many critics...myself included.