Friday, August 19, 2011

Golden Age

A Guest Blog by Timothy Hallinan

I once knew a woman who translated hieroglyphics, and one of the texts she rendered into English was one of the oldest poems known to man, dating from about 3000 BC. And what was it about?

It was about how things were better before. It was a lament for having missed the Golden Age.

It seems to be human nature to think in terms of lost Golden Ages. The operative word is “lost.” It's not even fashionable to suggest that we're living in a golden age.

But I think we are. I think this is a golden age for mysteries and thrillers.

Sure, some of the great ones are gone: Christie, Hammett, Chandler, Sayers, Tey, Highsmith, Stout, McDonald, Parker, and many others. But we have an enormous number of exceptional writers working now, and more titles to choose from than at any time in history.

I'd put the best writers working today up against the best working at any time since Poe kicked things off. Who's better than James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Louise Penney, Laura Lippman, SJ Rozan, Lee Child, John LeCarre, Donna Leon – I could go on for pages – all writing right now?


I think this Golden Age has come about for three reasons:

First, the ubiquity of relatively inexpensive books; until just a few years ago, despite all their moans and groans, the world's publishers put out, in editions of varying costs, more books than at any other time in history. And with all those books being published, good writing usually found a champion.

Second, the durability of the genre. The mystery or thriller is the one of the oldest genres (what is “Oedipus Rex” but a mystery?) and one of the most universal. Mysteries and thrillers help readers work through some of the most difficult aspects of human existence. They present a world in which order, even though it's been temporarily broken down, can be restored. They ignore the fashion of nihilism and despair that mars so much supposedly “literary” fiction.

Third, women have come full circle. Once the royalty of the genre, they faded during the heyday of the pulps. the hard-boiled noir, and the five-testicle PI fiction of the 40s through the 60s. And then, starting in the 70s, the entire genre tilted; women re-emerged with a vengeance, no longer confined to the classic and/or cozy end of the spectrum, but ranging straight across, from one extreme to another. And in one of the most remarkable shifts in modern marketing history, women became the driving force in mystery writing.

So now we have women writing all kinds of books and also some of the best male writers who have ever worked in the genre. Jackpot. We've also seen a loosening (pretty much an abandonment) of the old restrictions on what people can write about, which has produced some terrible books but also some really serious explorations of the darkest corners of human behavior.

And now we're seeing things open up even more widely. The ebook has broken New York's stranglehold on what we can read—and what we can write, too. Once again, we're seeing a lot of books that should have remained in people's desk drawers, but we're also seeing some tremendous stuff.

It's certainly opened things up for me. Like most writers, I've been restricted in what I could write because publishers would only buy a certain kind of book from me. But now I can write literally anything I want and put it out there to sink or swim.

I've always had an ambition to write a series in which the thrills were real but there were also a lot of laughs. And now, thanks to ebooks, I am. I just put out LITTLE ELVISES, the second in a series starring a Los Angeles burglar named Junior Bender who moonlights as a private eye for crooks. It's got some rough stuff in it, but it's also pretty funny, or so people tell me.

I believe it's a uniquely human experience to be frightened and amused at the same time, and I love writing books that attempt to put the reader in that position. Junior's first outing was CRASHED, and it did well enough that I had offers from traditional publishers to buy the series, but I decided to stay with the e-book channel, direct from me to the reader.

Do I think LITTLE ELVISES is golden age material? I doubt it—I can't take myself that seriously. But they're the product of a writer doing what he wants instead of what a corporation wants him to do, and in the long run that has to be good for everyone. When people look back on this particular golden age, I think they'll say the emergence of the ebook both broadened and prolonged it.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Bravo, Tim. I've come to the same conclusion.

Jackie King said...

Excellent article, Tim. And so true. Your upbeat, positive viewpoint ROCKS!
Jackie King

Anonymous said...

Glad you broke away from trad publishing to do what you want to do -- write funny books. E-books make all things possible. I love the Simeon Grist series and Junior Bender series. For my money, nobody can touch you.
Your fan,
Pat Browning

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, all, and thanks for being so nice. You've all contributed to a lift in my spirits -- not that I was really down, just dragging, on my fourth straight 18-hour day.

So thanks to Jean for the opportunity, to Jackie for rocking me, and to Pat for making me feel talented.

Actually, yes it's one of THOSE days.

Jaden Terrell said...

Tim, you know I think your work is Golden--and I believe you're right. There is sp much wonderful material out there to read; I only regret that it's not possible to get to it all.

Earl Staggs said...

Well said and right on, Tim. It's a whole new world for us and an opportunity to have some control over what we do.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Jaden and Earl -- we should all have a cup of coffee or four and advise each other on our careers. My ideas for you have to be better then my ideas for myself.

Thanks for the comments.

Jaden Terrell said...

Tim, I would like nothing better--and since we're both going to be at Bouchercon, why not make it happen?

Earl, how about you?

Anyone else on Murderous Musings planning to be in St. Louis?

Michelle said...

I don't read those authors listed in the blog, but I enjoy the abundance of cozy mysteries on the market, especially from Berkley Prime Crime. There are knitting mysteries and cat mysteries and lots of ones where people run a shop and sell cookies or other things.