227. Mentors in Detection

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants.”
             John of Salisbury, Issac Newton, and a million lesser lights attempting false humility.

What pen name? What market? What can we steal? . . . Correction. Not ‘steal.’ If you copy from three or more authors, it’s ‘research.’”
               Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, and in a half dozen other novels in almost identical words.

There is very little in this world that is new and unique. We all borrow from those who went before. Some people borrow from giants, some borrow from pygmies.

Some people borrow from Shakespeare and screw it up royally. Some people borrow from third rate writers and turn the result into something memorable. But we all borrow.

I have made no secret of my mentors in science fiction, first Andre Norton, then Robert Heinlein. I write only a little like Norton and nothing like Heinlein (I would pay real money for his touch with humor.) Nevertheless, they both live in my head, all the time.

There are a thousand other authors whose work has moved me, but Norton and Heinlein got there early. Only Harold Goodwin (John Blaine) and the Bible got there sooner.

Over in Serial, my novel Raven’s Run is being serialized. It is a “men’s adventure”, a genre that is no longer recognized. In modern parlance, it would probably be classed as a thriller, although the tension level is really too low for that. It is also something like a detective novel, but not much. Genres today are so small and tightly defined, that RR crosses several of them. It resembles the Travis McGee books in that way.

In connection with mentors and influences, I will be covering three detective series next week along with one spy novel. McGee was a real influence on my writing. The two Fathers taught me a few things, but they are basically just stories I like. I’ll explain the Shrike when I get there, next Thursday.

Detective literature started with Holmes, both in the world at large and in my reading. I read him when I was in high school, and I still do, occasionally, although it is harder now that I can lip synch all the stories. I didn’t read other detective stories – or Westerns for that matter – until I was writing science fiction and fantasy full time and needed something to cleanse my mental palate between writing sessions.

McGee was by far the best and most influential. I’ll talk about him next Tuesday. Dashiell Hammet never appealed to me, but Raymond Chandler was superb. Robert Parker’s Spencer was great for the first ten books while he was imitating Chandler; after he started imitating himself, they went down hill fast. I enjoyed Chesterton and Greeley enough to give each his own post next week.

Quite a few of the authors who come to mind were actually writing spy stories, like the gritty early James Bonds before they degenerated into farce.

There were authors with a few books whose work stuck with me. E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case was worth reading. So were the few Bertram Lynch mysteries by John Vandercook. That particular series was a recent discovery, in ancient, battered copies at my favorite underfunded library – you know, the one that never throws away a book. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is the series I am working my way through now, since I have read the covers off all my previous favorites.

To be certain that I didn’t forget any old friends, I went through several “best detective authors” lists on line. There I found Alistair MacLean (author – under a pen name – of The Black Shrike) and John Buchan. I would not have called them detective novelists, but they are among my favorites.

Not every detective lives in contemporary England or America. I fully enjoyed the five or six Cadfael novels I read before the spell wore off. I own and frequently reread every Judge Dee book, and Bony (Napoleon Bonaparte), the half aborigine Australian detective is very nearly my all time favorite.


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