I’ve been reading Christie and admiring her devious plotting since I was a teenager given to raiding my mother’s prized collection of murder mysteries. Her work and others from the 1920s and 1930s, a era sometimes called the golden age of detective fiction, always fascinated me. The wickedness of the poisons, the cold calculation of the poisoners in the stories, all influenced my own non-fiction book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, which takes a narrative look at forensic toxicology in that same time period.
My book was the No. 6 bestselling title in America for a while, right behind all the different “50 Shades of Grey” and “Gone Girl.” It was selling more copies than “Hunger Games” and “Bossypants.” So, I can sort of see why people thought I was going to start wearing monogrammed silk pajamas and smoking a pipe. But the truth is, there’s a reason most well-known writers still teach English. There’s a reason most authors drive dented cars. There’s a reason most writers have bad teeth. It’s not because we’ve chosen a life of poverty. It’s that poverty has chosen our profession. Even when there’s money in writing, there’s not much money.
This despite the profile generated by the overly reasonable cease and desist letter from Jack Daniel’s (a must read by the way), that played a part in propelling the book – whose original cover design bore a striking resemblance to the well-known whiskey’s bottle label – to the upper reaches of bestseller lists in the US.
It seems to me many people will only ever rate a book, movie, game, whatever, if they reacted strongly to it, that is, if they either loved it or hated it. If they enjoyed it, then they’ll often award it a rating of five (out of five), whereas if not, just one out of five.
I have seen better writing in a Hallmark card! Boring! Give me a good ole copy of Elvis and Me! A true story that really tugs at your heart strings! I sleep with that one under my pillow! Keep Moby Dick away from my bed!
James Bond is a pedant at the morning meal (“his favourite meal of the day”). His routine when stationed in London, as detailed in From Russia with Love, always comprises “very strong coffee from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex, of which he drank two large cups, black and without sugar”. Foodwise it is a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes (“it amused him to think there was such a thing as a perfect boiled egg”). It is always served with wholewheat toast and a selection of preserves and a “pat of deep yellow Jersey butter”. Such fussiness conceals a deadlier truth. “I know all about you,” Miranda Frost warns him in the most memorable line of Die Another Day. “Sex for dinner, death for breakfast. Well, it’s not going to work with me.”
Don’t know much longer we’ll see these sorts of lists, but The New York Times has put together a listing of what they, based on the thoughts of a number of graphic designers, consider to be the twenty best book covers from 2012. Good to see Wisdon, being cricket’s bible of bibles, rate a mention… can’t go passed a classic, no?
What you need to remember is that many books written prior to the digital age were not merely page-turners, they were also experiences:
Bring both your head and your heart: these are books that want you thinking and feeling. While you’re at it, stock up on tissues. You may, like Oscar Wilde, consider yourself too sophisticated to cry at the sentimental bits, but you never know. It might be the tenderness of Silas Marner that gets you, or maybe silly Dora in David Copperfield will surprise you into sniffles – or maybe your downfall will be Mr Harding and his old friend the Bishop in Barchester Towers. If you think you’re immune, start with A Christmas Carol: Dickens has a name for people like you.
I dare say many books written today are the same, but how many people are still reading them?