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Vacation’s all I ever wanted. But books were all the escape I needed.

ByTeam BB

Apr 19, 2023


I grew up in a family that didn’t believe in vacations. When my father took his two weeks off from the steel mill, he spent most of the time painting the house or working on the addition that ultimately became my bedroom. Like it or not, from the age of 8 or 9 on, I would be there with him, if only to fetch tools and learn how to swear. Once I hit 13, though, I landed various jobs of my own — delivering newspapers, cleaning up in a nearby bar on Sundays (the restrooms were an education), installing aluminum siding, even selling Fuller Brushes door to door. I could tell you stories.

Still, I’ve seldom worked so hard or so continuously as during the past six weeks, my “spring break.” Back around 2016, I signed a contract for an appreciation of popular fiction in Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and badly miscalculated how much time the project would take. Moreover, writing the book grew unexpectedly tricky because several authors occasionally employed language or displayed attitudes that were — shall we say — of their period. Nonetheless, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Nesbit, H.G. Wells, Baroness Orczy, G.K. Chesterton, John Buchan, Rafael Sabatini and even Sax Rohmer, among a score of others, were — and are — thrilling storytellers, as well as the founders of our modern genre literatures. That’s why, they deserve rediscovery and nuanced appreciation, despite their faults. Besides, if you live a while and read a lot of history and literature, you come to recognize a harsh truth memorably enunciated in Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men.” When Willie Stark wants to dig up dirt on a famously upright judge, he tells an incredulous Jack Burden: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

Why read old books? A case for the classic, the unusual, the neglected.

So I worked on my book from morning till night, with breaks for lunch, an afternoon walk and a late dinner enhanced with some Edmund Fitzgerald Porter from Great Lakes brewery. In the evening, usually after 9 p.m., my beloved spouse frequently watches television, but I can’t. Anything in the least bit exciting, violent or controversial will keep me from my beauty rest. I end up lying in bed obsessively replaying the film or program in my mind, annoyed at flaws in the plot or shaken by the power of a great actor’s characterization. At most I can occasionally handle an old episode of “The Rockford Files.”

So, after washing the dishes to the often downbeat accompaniment of NPR’s “The World,” I did what I have always done: read a book.

Some nights I couldn’t tear myself away from the period 1880 to 1930. I was overwhelmed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful, incomplete last novel, “Weir of Hermiston” (1896), about father-son conflict in early 19th-century Scotland, a duplicitous friend and an idyllic turned tragic love affair. Another time I picked up Bram Stoker’s “Famous Impostors” (1910), which, among much else, features five essays on women passing for men — including the somewhat complicated case of the soldier and spy, the Chevalier d’Eon — as well as a long account of the Bisley Boy legend, which maintains that Queen Elizabeth I was actually a man in drag.

Over the years, I’ve periodically relied on Agatha Christie for relaxation, but generally avoided the books of the early and mid-1920s when she experimented with thrillers, comedy and the supernatural. On impulse, though, I picked up “The Secret of Chimneys” (1925), which turned out to be an almost Wodehousean romp, involving the heir to the throne of Herzoslovakia, the unpublished memoirs of a Machiavellian diplomat, a collection of indiscreet love letters, a dotty marquis, the dreaded Comrades of the Red Hand, at least three detectives and the elusive jewel thief and master of disguise known as King Victor. The hero, Anthony Cade, is an old Africa hand, who finds himself helping the young and lively, indeed, merry widow Virginia Revel. Even the book’s minor characters are delightful, such as the unflappable butler Tredwell or young Constable Johnson who is “very new to the force, with a downy unfledged look about him, like a human chicken.”

Publishers and friends have long sent me books — how cool is that? — so one evening I sat back with Art Taylor’s “The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions” (Crippen & Landru). Taylor, who teaches at George Mason University, has won multiple awards for his short fiction, including an Edgar for “English 398: Fiction Workshop” (included in his previous book, “The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74”). As is my wont, I always read the title story of any collection first, figuring it’ll be the author’s best or close to it.

Erwin Conroy is teaching eight students enrolled in a winter study program called Creative Writing in Ireland. During the last five days of the course — spent in a romantic Irish castle — items belonging to the various class members start to disappear. Why? This is a restful but richly layered mystery, neatly linking the thefts to the essential nature of creative writing. Some of Taylor’s other stories are much darker, and at least two pay oblique homage to celebrated sleuths: “Mrs. Marple and the Hit & Run” and “The Great Detective Reflects.”

More reviews and essays by Michael Dirda

One book I started but set aside for the summer is Jeffery Farnol’s “Black Bartlemy’s Treasure” (1920), partly because of its length and partly because the sequel, “Martin Conisby’s Vengeance” (1921) is — according to the great fantasy writer Jack Vance — even better. Still, it was hard to stop reading a pirate swashbuckler that opens so dramatically:

“The Frenchman beside me had been dead since dawn. His scarred and shackled body swayed limply back and forth with every sweep of the great oar as we, his less fortunate bench-fellows, tugged and strained to keep time to the stroke.”

Now that my “spring break” is over, I still need to reread my nearly completed manuscript, if only to make its duller sentences slightly less dull. Still, I’m eager to sift through a waiting pile of review copies and, with the counsel of my editors, settle on what to write about in Book World during the coming weeks.

In the meantime, this being poetry month, consider picking up Dana Gioia’s latest collection, “Meet Me at the Light House” (Graywolf). Its enthralling final poem, a tour de force called “The Underworld,” describes an actual hell-bound train — “going nowhere but going very fast” — with echoes of ancient mythology, Dante, Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” and Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” The slender volume also includes its author’s slyly self-deprecatory epitaph: “Here lies D.G. A poet? Who can say?/ He didn’t even have an MFA.”

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