My fellow blogger JJ, over at The Invisible Event, has produced a fascinating post on whether a back catalogue of a Golden Age crime writer should be read in order or whether it doesn’t matter. So I had a think and started writing a response. When I hit my seventh paragraph, I realised that maybe that was a little too much for a comment box, hence this post.
I suppose the question breaks down into separate parts. First, should you be able to read a series out of order? Second, even if you can, do you gain more by reading them in order? The answer, I think, should be yes to both of these, but let’s take a look at them with a few examples.
Should you be able to read a series in any order? Remember, we are looking at Golden Age crime fiction here, or at least writers who started their careers in the Golden Age. From their point of view, they wanted readers to buy their books, enjoy them and then come back for more when the next one came along. But generally, they didn’t resort to ongoing soap operas or multi-book character arcs. There are exceptions, and I’m not going to discuss Campion or Wimsey, as I haven’t read enough of them. Marsh has an bit of an ongoing thing starting from Artists In Crime when Handsome Alleyn meets Agatha Troy, but his general character never seems to change in the books that I’ve read, at least.
Christie never seemed to consider continuity an issue. Poirot has retired by the start of his third novel, but then resumes work as if nothing had happened. He doesn’t seem to age (until Curtain) despite the rest of the world moving forward around him, as evidenced in the later novels such as Third Girl and Hallowe’en Party. Miss Marple, likewise. But Christie’s work, contradictions aside, are supposed to happen in order. In Cards On The Table, where Poirot happily talks about the solution to Murder On The Orient Express (a solution that he covers up in that book!) a book published only two years previous! It’s important to remember that these books weren’t being written for someone to read once the entire catalogue was available but as a read-when-published strategy.
Ellery Queen is another example where continuity is thrown completely out the window. There is a popular (if silly) theory that the Ellery of The NATIONALITY OBJECT Mystery titles is actually a different character to the Wrightsville Queen. The style of writing and plotting is so different, they could almost be different series by different writers. Personally, I enjoy the earlier ones more, but that’s not the common viewpoint. A reader could easily start at say, Calamity Town, and not feel as if they’d missed something. NOTE: They have, because The Siamese Twin Mystery is a work of genius!
So “Should” is a difficult question, because unfortunately, we’re not the intended readers. Even Christie was repeatedly surprised by her success – I don’t think any of the Golden Age writers expected some idiot to be writing this about them eighty years later.
But do you gain anything from reading in order? Again, I think it depends on the author. Some authors allowed their characters to develop alongside their mystery plots. Take one of my obsessions, John Rhode.
The Dr Priestley tales clearly happen in order. There are a couple of minor spoilers along the way because of this. In Peril At Cranbury Hall, events in The Davidson Case are alluded to, mostly in a general way, but in a way that may affect my reading of that book when I get round to it. Also in a later book, we meet Jimmy Waghorn’s wife who he married after meeting her in the preceding book. So I guess she didn’t do it in that one. But more generally, the characters slowly develop as the books go on. Usually actively involved in the earlier books, Priestley becomes more immobile (by choice), letting the police do his legwork, to the extent that they really should have their names on the series. Think Poirot in The Clocks and you’ll get an idea of the average amount of Priestley in the later books. Things do happen to the other characters. Priestley’s assistant marries Priestley’s daughter [not the best example as he marries her after book one and she’s barely mentioned again], Superintendent Hanslet retires only to be return to service during the war, retiring again and joining Priestley’s regular dinner-crime-discussion group. There is a sense of time passing if you were to read the stories in order, so a reader might want to try this to get the most out of the series. But there are obvious problems with this for the modern reader who decides to read from the beginning.
- Availability. There is currently one official Rhode title available (Death At Breakfast) and while they seem to be being re-released at the rate of one per three months, the order seems utterly random. It’s not the best books, the order for the first four is, I think, Books 23, 1, 28 and 22. I honestly don’t know why.
- Quality. It’s not uncommon for an author’s first books to be a bit iffy. The Paddington Mystery is generally regarded to be perfectly adequate but not of the style of the series as a whole. But my experience of Rhode is that the later books are much less impressive than the earlier ones (although oddly, the final two Miles Burton, Rhode’s alter ego, are rather fun).
The evenness of quality is the biggest issue when a reader decides how they are going to tackle an author. Take John Dickson Carr. It’s not a popular opinion, but I’m not that big a fan of most of Carr’s work pre-The Plague Court Murders. And it’s very common for a series to go downhill/plummet rapidly off a cliff as the author ages. With Carr, this happened well before he stopped writing, and there are a number of late titles that are, apparently, dreadful. But with Carr, there’s enough information out there to discover this before tackling the author. I’ve forced my way through Dark Of The Moon, The Cavalier’s Cup and Behind The Crimson Blind, but I knew how bad they were supposed to be (and they are truly awful) so I left some good Fell and Merrivale titles to read after them.
With Brian Flynn, however, I’ve been ricocheting through his work due to having no information about the overall quality of the series but might go back and do them in order from now on (as much as I can – anyone got a copy of Murder En Route they can give me?) because while the later books are a little less ambitious, they aren’t rubbish by any means. So I’m expecting a decent enough read throughout…
So as a new reader to an author, should you read the books in order? I don’t think so. Read a couple of good ones. Read an average one. Try and find out if there are any dreadful ones to avoid. Try to find out if there are any books that spoil earlier ones. And try and save a good one til last, so you’re memories aren’t tainted by a master thief running around Tangiers with an iron chest under his arm…