Speak, Institutional Memory

Hillary Waugh died earlier this month and I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never heard of him. That’s entirely my fault, but considering he wrote LAST SEEN WEARING (1952), which is considered to be one of the earliest examples of the modern police procedural, and kept up a prolific pace from the late 1940s until the late 1980s, I’m at a loss as to how he wasn’t on my reading radar. It’s like when Julius Fast, who won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Novel, passed away: I had some dim awareness but it was completely out of proportion to the significance of Fast’s work in the mystery realm.

The irony is that these reading gaps emerge as I’m on something of a classic mystery kick. I’m going back to THE MALTESE FALCON and a couple of other more recent, but still vintage-ish, books for a piece I’ll be working on after the New Year. I’ve finally hunkered down and started reading the works of Eric Ambler in a serious fashion. I recently finished reading ROSEANNA and THE MAN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE, the first two entries in Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo’s series of procedurals. As expected, they are brilliant (and I’m confident the next eight books will be just as brilliant) but now I understand exactly why the books are so phenomenal and why they hold up so well: the authors made every single word (or translated word, to be fair to the late, great translator Joan Tate) count, every single clue resonate and were as interested in capturing the change in Swedish society in the 1960s as they were the crumbling family edifice of their main character, Martin Beck. And I can also see, for example, what subsequent writers have been emulating or worse, failing to emulate in their own attempts at police thrillers.

And I wonder, with the publishing industry’s current turmoil (not to mention larger concerns looming globally) if my current gravitation towards older books owes to some attempt at finding a larger context for the books published today that, more and more, I find wanting. There’s so much preoccupation with technology, the latest gadget, and moving forward, forward, forward that there’s a substantial loss of institutional memory. I don’t mean to sound a “those were the good old days” alarm; those days weren’t so good and nostalgia is a dangerous exercise. But it troubles me when writers like Waugh or Fast or Helen MacInnes – whose suspense work is supposed to be up there with the likes of Ambler and Dorothy B. Hughes, but her once-entrenched place on the bestseller list has dissipated so much she’s completely out of print now – just disappear. The same thing has happened with Ed McBain just three years after his death. An effort to bring back Ross Thomas’s works into print stalled out. And when a brand-new author is published with the blurb of being “the next Hammett or Chandler”, to cite an oft-quoted example, it says less about the author and more about how those with the money to acquire books do so with an utter lack of context.

I recognize not every deserving author can be brought back into print, and what once sold years ago wouldn’t move many copies today. And generally speaking, the world moves so fast now it’s hard to keep up with what happened last week, let alone decades ago. But as I move into a supposedly monumental age bracket, having read a number of books slated for publication in the calendar year to come, I find myself asking how many of these new books are truly necessary – and if there was a greater attention to context, a greater recognition of why certain books are destined to endure and others will fall flat, all of us – as readers, writers, and people in the business – be better off.