I’m a natural-born speed reader and, from about ages 16 to 45, read about a book a day. At least one book a day, more if I had them around. This included re-reading old ones. It’s kind of baffling these days to me to realize that I just don’t read as much as I used to. This is for a number of reasons — partly that I can’t afford to spend as much on books as once I did, partly that I experience a lot of books on audio these days, partly that I’m writing one and don’t want to be influenced.
But I can say that there are a couple of writers whom I used to love and now — well, as I put it the other day, they’ve changed from unputdownable to unpickuppable. I remember the day when I used to buy Reginald Hill in hardcover, just because I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out. Well, I’ve had his last-but-one in paperback sitting on the to-be-read shelf with a bookmark at about page 50, and I have finally stopped believing that I am ever going back to it. It’s going in a box for storage.
The other writer I used to love is Elizabeth George. I was fortunate to meet her a couple of times, when she came and signed at my store — apparently we sold a disproportionate number of books of hers out of sheer enthusiasm and she was sent to us more often as a result. I also took a brief course with her on “How to write a mystery”, which doesn’t seem to have gotten me anywhere because all I remember is that I was seated next to Kareen Zebroff — if you are a Canadian, you will remember Yoga with Kareen on television from the 70s or 80s. Ms. Zebroff was probably a good yoga instructor (her program was at this point off the air) but as a fellow course-taker she was annoying as hell, because it was all about her. I wanted to hear Elizabeth George talk about mysteries, thanks very much, not a fellow student monopolizing the conversation with talk about how interesting this all is to a yoga instructor. I note that I have never heard of Ms. Zebroff writing anything since and probably not even signing autographs. And I seem to have forgotten everything I learned from Elizabeth George, but that’s okay, she leads by example. If I hadn’t read A Great Deliverance, I wouldn’t have been able to write my own current novel in progress.
Anyway — I thought her first book, A Great Deliverance, was truly fine, one of the best mysteries of its decade. She proved she knows how to show character and let you figure it out, rather than telling you “If A, therefore B,” which “leading by the nose” I so dislike in lesser authors. I loved most of her subsequent three or four novels (okay, I didn’t like #2 and asked her once if she had had it in her trunk before selling #1, whereupon she justifiably froze me with a glance). These days, I cannot deal with all that angst and frustration and the layer upon layer of minuscule detail in her work that I gather people do so love, that incredible accretion of observations that conceal the clues. That and my current idea that Barbara Havers needs to be put out of her misery as being the unhappiest person in detective fiction. I started to read the last two or three, got about ten pages in and said “Fuck it.” As my friends know, if something doesn’t explode every once in a while, I get bored.
Parenthetically — I was present when a fan asked her if Barbara Havers was ever going to find love and/or happiness. She said, approximately, “Not if I can help it.” Good answer!
There are other authors whom I never have been able to stand reading, notably Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess and the truly unspeakably awful “Cat Who” mysteries. I’m not a big cosy guy. But I am kind of at a loss to understand how I can just “go off” an author whom I used to love. And make no mistake, George and Hill are very, very talented writers. I suppose I’ve just lost my taste for them. Perhaps my taste has worsened over the years, become more flattened and bland from years of pap on television.
Perhaps your experience is better than mine. I know I’m likely to hear from Elizabeth George fans (Cat Who fans, save your breath) — and, Susan, if you’re reading this, I still love you as a person, it’s just I’m not buying your books any more. I loved the course, honest. And I still remember our conversation while driving through the streets of Vancouver about petals dropping from the flowering cherry trees and how the presence or absence of them on a car’s windshield might be a clue in a mystery. Someday, I’m sure it will be.