Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Days of Yore

asheville city hall
Originally uploaded by mygothlaundry
I took advantage of my sick day yesterday to delve into the cheap literature of a prior age: namely, I read or reread a Rex Stout Nero Wolfe murder mystery called Fer de Lance, which actually turns out to be the very first Rex Stout Nero Wolfe murder mystery, published in 1934 and a nifty original hardcover 1920 book I picked up at the Goodwill: The Eye of Zeitoon by one Talbot Mundy. I had never before heard of Talbot Mundy but it turns out he is/was quite famous (as you too can find out by googling him) and has his own wikipedia article even. He was apparently big with the Theosophists, who are another group I know very little about, except that I am familiar with the name Madame Blavatsky, know they dabbled with the occult and thus in many later books of speculative fiction they are referred to as pretty sinister. They have, or used to have, a decidedly unsinister office in downtown Baltimore on Charles Street and I used to try to look in the windows to see if anyone in dark robes was using exotic poisons and a crystal ball, but alas, there was never anything going on in there at all.

The Eye of Zeitoon, however, is chock full of sinister behavior on the part of men in dark robes. It's also chock full of the kind of casual racism that makes a modern reader cringe - Talbot Mundy really hated, I mean he really hated, the Turks, and just dropping the phrase the Color Line into an otherwise ripping paragraph full of smoke and fire and exotically beautiful dancing girls kind of grates on the 21st century ear. This is bad, of course, but I have long justified my fondness for Kipling by saying that well, there is no point in chronocentrism and people just didn't think like us back then.

Or did they? The difference between Talbot Mundy and Rex Stout is kind of striking: those 14 years between 1920 and 1934 were apparently influential ones on cheap literature. Rex Stout comes across as a fairly sexist and classist bastard, as do many private eye authors from the 30s, but compared to Talbot Mundy he reads like a contemporary. For one thing he blessedly does not begin every chapter with bad epic poetry. More pointedly, though, his sentences are crisp and sharp and could have hopped right off a blog if you ignore the constant references to milk, which nobody has drunk by choice since 1957, and hats, which, as we all know, disappeared off the planet some time in the mid 60s. (This is too bad, by the way.)

Anyway, reading the two last night I got fascinated by the differences between them and then I got fascinated by the twenties in general and started wondering just when, really, a century begins. I started thinking about the book I was holding and wondering who had held it in 1920, what the room they were in looked like and what they were thinking about as they read it. Objects have that weight, sometimes, and I thought that, given a time machine, while Rex Stout's New York might not throw me into culture shock, Talbot Mundy's world most certainly would.

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