By Steve Donoghue
I’ve recently had an infectious quote ringing in my head for weeks, one of those quotes that robs you of your peace and just won’t go away.
It’s most commonly attributed to the great poet W. H. Auden, but I’ve seen it attributed to half a dozen other great poets as well (when in doubt, people tend to attribute just about everything that isn’t nailed down to great poets – they’re the most likely candidates, aren’t they? They say so much, after all). “Some books are undeservedly forgotten,” the quote goes; “none are undeservedly remembered.”
That’s a killer. It lays out a pitiless readerly geometry that seems unavoidable. The more you try to think up exceptions, the faster they disappear. Some books, some authors, manage to create stories that resonate across decades and centuries, across cultural boundaries, and, maybe most importantly, across discreet marketing campaigns. Some books live like that. Most of them don’t. A hundred million of them don’t.
I had the quote in mind recently because I read “The Book of the Lion” by Golden Age mystery author Elizabeth Daly.
It came out in 1948, when its author was nearly 70. It was the thirteenth novel she wrote that starred her slightly unusual protagonist, rare book expert Henry Gamadge, who was introduced in the 1940 novel “Unexpected Night.” As “The Book of the Lion” opens, Gamadge gets a phone call from the secretary of a very wealthy man, summoning Gamadge to the man’s mansion for an urgent inquiry. The first taste we get of Gamadge’s character comes when he points out to the secretary that if her boss has a question, Gamadge in fact has an office. None of this lese majesté business.
When that initial dance is quickly ended and the two men talk, it turns out the urgent inquiry involves Gamadge’s speciality: the wealthy man wants to know if it’s really true that somebody could sell a dead poet’s letters for a pile of money. Gamadge admits it is, and he’s quickly drawn into a byzantine plot involving literary forgery and a pair of dangerous, desperate characters. At the peak of the novel’s action, the reason for the title comes up: it’s a reference to the retraction Geoffrey Chaucer published for his hilarious and scandalous Canterbury Tales. In that retraction, Chaucer briefly mentions other books he’s written, and one of them was apparently called “The Book of the Lion.” There’s no evidence that the book ever existed, certainly no evidence that copies were ever in circulation – in other words, the ultimate rare book Holy Grail.
Gamadge is what used to be called a tough cookie, and he sees right through the hint about “The Book of the Lion” – in fact, he sees through all the hints and dodges presented by all the different shady characters he encounters in the course of unraveling the murders at the heart of the story (despite the bad first impression, one of the book’s only purely non-shady characters is that bossy rich man from the book’s first scene). He knows whodunnit and why long before both his friends and the good-natured but plodding cop he knows; he faces the book’s few sharp moments with ready courage; he never wavers in either his convictions or his ethics – such wavering doesn’t even seem possible. And the New York of nearly a century ago is evocatively captured, almost street-by-street.
“The Book of the Lion” is terrific. I couldn’t put it down, skipped deadlines and meetings to race my way through it, finished it hungry to read or re-read other novels by Elizabeth Daly.
Which presented a problem, since that infectious quote very much applies. She was out of print for a long time, and although Felony & Mayhem Press currently has a stylish set of reprints on its list, those reprints very much give the feeling of being for nostalgic specialists only. They’ve become that deadliest of all literary things, period pieces.
As mentioned, that period was the Golden Age of murder mysteries, which has countless fans but has also come in for some high-profile critical assessments over the ensuing years. Some of those critics saw the Golden Age as the pinnacle of gimmickry, a great big bag of cheap tricks. “It was a job for full-time writers in whom a capacity for steady output of variations on an accepted theme was more important than liveliness of style or wealth of characterization,” wrote Colin Watson in his classic study “Snobbery with Violence.” “Their plots tended to be mechanical, with much emphasis on time-tables and geographical layouts.”
That criticism, that snide comment about “mechanical” plots, is also very much present in another classic study, “Bloody Murder” by Julian Symonds, who claimed that constructing the “perfect mechanism” was the goal for which Golden Age writers sacrificed every other element of storytelling. “Their work pandered to the taste of readers who wanted every character de-gutted so that there should be nothing even faintly disturbing about the fate of victims or murderers.”
“To insulate your writing totally from life,” he pronounced, “is also to make it trivial.”
Which is certainly true, although it’s also certainly not what most of the best Golden Age mystery writers were doing. “The Book of the Lion,” for instance, has plenty of non-gutted characters walking through its pages, and every other Gamadge novel I’ve read has likewise been full of intriguing personal elements. Other Golden Age writers might have indulged in that kind of plot-over-everything mechanical approach, but Daly’s books have plenty of active elements other than time-tables.
And yet, her time seems to be over, and she’s mostly forgotten. The reading public has mostly moved on, but I’ll be reading another one of her books tonight.