In Memoriam: Dick Francis

March 6, 2010 at 12:12 pm (in memoriam, mystery, weekly report) (, )

Straight (1989) by Dick Francis (re-read of a good book by one of my favorite authors, who passed away last week)

To the Hilt (1996) by Dick Francis (re-read of one of my three favorite DF novels, and in my opinion his best work)

Banker (1982) by Dick Francis (re-read)

I was very sorry to hear that Dick Francis passed away in February; his mysteries are one of my most reliable sets of re-reads, and I have long admired his work ethic and the generally upward trend of his books’ quality over the decades.  He’s an extraordinary example of a writer sticking to, but not exhausting, a “gimmick” – in his case, an orbit around the world of (usually British) horse racing.

One of the biggest appeals of his books, to me, is the Narrator.   The Narrator is a man of stubborn courage – his defining characteristic, really.  He mostly has different jobs and histories from book to book, and a somewhat different personality, but it’s that fundamental tenacity that I most appreciate.

Then there are the secondary characters – a broad array of people, very different from book to book, some more interesting than others, but almost always well-defined and often somewhat unexpected.

Finally, in addition to solving the mystery (usually with a major physical component), the Narrator very often grows or discovers something new and important about himself, especially in the later works.  That’s a key to a really good novel – the inner and outer journeys finding meaningful resolution.

I’m not going to claim these works are great literature; possibly no one but English majors will be reading them a century from now, and they’ll be busy analyzing what they reveal about late-twentieth-century social mores.  But as I’ve said before: so what?

Farewell, Mr. Francis.  You’ll be missed.

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June 2009: David Eddings

July 8, 2009 at 8:59 pm (fantasy, in memoriam) ()

Naturally, my response to the death of David Eddings last month was to start re-reading his and Leigh’s books.  What better memorial is there for any author?  I went through The Belgariad (5 volumes) and part of its sequel The Mallorean before some other book distracted me.

I own a first edition paperback of Pawn of Prophecy, his first fantasy book.  It was being discarded from the library where I was working as a page, having gotten rather battered, and I repaired its properly torn-off cover with black electrical tape.  We’ve actually acquired an omnibus edition of the first two or three volumes, but I still like to re-read the more manageable single paperback sometimes.  Physically, it’s holding up rather well, tape and all.

So, what is there to say about books one first read in high school – books that were new, imaginative, and enthralling at that time, but have lost some of their luster over the years?  The Belgariad has a second world fantasy setting and grand sweep of events like The Lord of the Rings, but a cast that was much more homey and comfortable.  The characters were all human, and a lot more like modern people than Tolkien’s.  I liked that Garion came from a happy home, even though he was an orphan; the characters’ non-stop bickering and jokes were refreshingly different.  The Prophecy – well, I’m not sure that anyone has dared to duplicate the notion of a pair of self-aware prophecies working to make sure their own predictions became reality.  It would be extremely obvious where that idea came from, I suppose.  That the genre has become littered with examples of inevitable prophecies is hardly his fault; we could blame Sophocles for that, too, but it wouldn’t make any more sense.

Similarly, I’ve heard this particular kind of story derided as “plot coupon” fantasy – in which the characters travel around, picking up the necessary information, objects, or whatever, in order to reach the foregone conclusion.  The fact is, though, that given the way Eddings structured the world of these books, that sequence makes perfect and necessary sense.  That other authors have done the same thing without supplying such a supporting structure is their fault, not his.

Still, it’s true that these books are not great literature, a fact that’s become more and more clear to me as I’ve expanded my reading over the years.  I’ve sometimes called them “potato chip fantasy” – greasy, salty, not particularly filling, but very easy to enjoy.  And so what?  Not every book has to be deep and meaningful.  Sometimes a light read is just what I’m in the mood for.

The one thing that has really disappointed me about the Eddings body of work is that David and Leigh apparently only had one story in them: a band of heroes goes on a long journey and saves the world from a great evil.  No, there’s one other thing – over the decades of their career, I detected no significant change in their writing style or approach to characterization or plotting.  We bought The Belgariad, and The Mallorean in hardcover, and their semi-prequels Belgarath the Sorceror and Polgara the Sorceress in hardcover (the latter we own in the British edition, as we were in London at the time of its release and didn’t want to wait to get home before buying it).  We bought The Elenium (in hardcover), which featured a nicely significant change in setting but not much else that was different.  But we didn’t buy the sequel series to that one, and while I read The Redemption of Althalus, that was from the library.  I haven’t even looked at The Dreamers series.  We own as much Eddings as we’re interested in owning.  We re-read them from time to time, when we’re in the mood for light fantasy that we remember fondly.

The “About the Author” section in the Eddings books we own attribute the decision to write them to interest in exploring “technical and philosophical ideas” about fantasy literature.  I suspect that these ideas might actually boil down to “Can I make a living writing this stuff?”  The answer, fortunately, was “yes.”  They are light, fun books with just enough depth of character and theme to keep from being totally superficial, solidly written and with entertaining dialogue.  I have no objection to authors making a living, whether they write books I like to read or not.  It may be that in the next decades, these books will be largely forgotten – like so many other books from the same period.  So what?  I like them.  When I want deep or gut-wrenching or really angsty fiction, I’ll just read something else.

Rest in peace, David and Leigh Eddings.  You did some good work.  Thank you.

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