Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stuff Happens

News that Alexander Dumas has a new book out, The Last Cavalier, only137 years after his death, set me to thinking about how my favorite book influenced my character as a reader and a writer. I am a genre fan, and a mystery writer by trade. All because in the sixth grade I lost myself in The Count of Monte Cristo.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dumas, he was the greatest historical fiction novelist of all time. Born in 1802, he was the illegitimate son of a mulatto French general. Dumas wrote rollicking tales of adventure and romance based on true stories his army of research assistants dug up in libraries throughout Europe. Books like Count and The Three Musketeers made him rich and famous. The Last Cavalier, serialized in newspapers just before Dumas’ death, was discovered a few years ago by a Dumas scholar and is, according to all reports, just as terrific a read as the rest of his books.
I grew up in a tiny rural community in Virginia. I wasn’t the pastoral type, so I spent all my free time reading. I’d read almost everything in my one-room school library (no, it wasn’t heated with wood and we did have indoor toilets) when I lifted Count off the shelf. I don’t remember much about the rest of sixth grade. I spent that year in Napoleonic France, following Edmond Dantes through the loss of his love Mercedes, his unjust imprisonment in the Chateau D’If, his education over the next twenty years by his fellow prisoner, the Italian priest Faria, his unlikely escape, his discovery of the vast fortune buried on the island of Monte Cristo, and the vengeance he wreaks on the man who sent him to prison and who stole the love of his life.
I loved that book. I’ve never forgotten the experience of reading it, of entering a fictional world so absorbing, so evocative, that I lost my own identity in it for a time.
Ever since I’ve preferred books where stuff happens. Not for me the coming of age novel, the friends-meeting-at-the-beach-after-twenty-years-drinking white wine-and-being-supportive, the author-centric whine fests. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, if you like them!
I prefer genre novels, and I’m not alone. Mysteries, thrillers, westerns, science fiction, horror, and romance novels are so popular that they have their own sections in libraries and bookstores so that their fans can find them easily. And let’s dispense with the nonsense that genre novels aren’t literary. Jane Austen was a romance writer. How else would you describe Pride and Prejudice, her bestseller about penurious sisters, who, despite obstacles and misunderstandings, found their true loves, and saved their colorful family from homelessness into the bargain, other than as a romance novel?
After I’d recovered from Count, and had finished reading everything else in the school library, I discovered the mysteries of Mary Stewart, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Agatha Christie on my mother’s bookshelves. I got hooked on my favorite genre forever.
So I tend to pass on the newest literary sensation, at least until I hear from my friends that it tells a story and has a plot.
I’d rather read about two battered cowboys ushering a ragged herd of cattle and cowpokes to Montana. Yes, Lonesome Dove, perhaps the greatest novel of the last half-century, was a western.
I’d prefer to read about a space age Jesuit priest who blasts off to a new planet and, despite his best intentions, screws the entire culture and ecosystem up beyond all belief. If you haven’t read science fiction before, start with The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. You have a treat in store for you.
Once you’re done with the Dumas oeuvre, which might take some time, the best historical novels written were the Hornblower series, by C. S. Forster, starring an insecure midshipman in the British Royal Navy who swashbuckles his way through eleven novels and ends his life a Baron.
Most of all I crave books populated with corpses, sleuths with issues, suspects everywhere, shadowy motives, and plenty of red herrings scattered about. So much that I write them myself. And perhaps because of my experience with Alexander Dumas’ historical fiction, my sleuth is a historian who solves old, cold cases.
Stuff happens in my books. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ve got a copy of The Last Cavalier on order. I can’t wait to read it.

--Sarah R. Shaber, Raleigh, North Carolina
Author of the Professor Simon Shaw mystery series, editor of Tar Heel Dead


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