Sunday, October 01, 2006

Characters reading books, part 1

Something that’s always struck me as strange is how rarely authors of novels spend any time telling us about what their characters are reading. Assuming that authors read a lot themselves, and therefore know how important books are to people, how what you’re reading can color you whole day, it surprises me that characters aren’t more often thinking or talking about what they’re reading. It’s also an easy way—though with a danger of becoming too obvious—to give some signals about a character’s inner life or about larger themes the author wants to develop.

I bring this up because the two most recent Hard Case Crime novels I’ve read both featured characters reading book. David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun (1949) follows an adventurer, Al Colby, who reminds me a bit of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He’s willing to work in the shadowier corners of the law, and he perpetually balances a definite tendency towards knight-errancy with a desire to get his share of whatever loot is legitimately on offer. In Plunder of the Sun, when a job couriering an unidentified parcel quickly gets him embroiled in a dangerous search for lost Incan treasure in Peru, Colby turns to William H. Prescott’s 1847 History of the Conquest of Peru to learn just what it is he’s fighting for. Prescott’s book, which, though of course quite dated, is still in print and regarded as a good introduction, and it plays a big part in Plunder of the Sun. From it, Colby learns not only of the treasure itself, but of the origins of Peru’s racial strife and exploitative class system; that knowledge ultimately leads him to stick his neck out on behalf of a couple of members of that exploited class.

Plunder of the Sun is exactly what I look for in a crime book: it pretty much skips the preamble and jumps right into the story, features vividly drawn locations and characters, and has good amounts of action and surprise. I mentioned that Colby reminds me of Travis McGee; he also reminds me a little of Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer. As with Archer, we don’t ever learn all that much about Colby or his background—the author gives us just enough to know, unquestioningly, that we want this man on our side.

I’ll write about the second Hard Case Crime novel tomorrow.


  1. Anonymous9:41 PM

    To enjoy the bad version of characters reading books, one need go no farther than The Time Traveler's Wife. For character development purposes, the author describes the main character's book shelf: "While I wait for it to brew, I peruse Henry's bookshelves.

    "Here is the Henry I know. Donne's Elegies and Songs and Sonnets. Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. Naked Lunch. Anne Bradstreet, Immanuel Kant. Barthes, Foucault, Derrida. Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Winnie the Pooh. The Annotated Alice. Heidegger. Rilke. Tristram Shandy. Wisconsin Death Trup. Aristotle. Bishop Berkeley. Andrew Marvell. Hypothermia, Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries."

    These are obviously the author's books, and could easily be mine, as a wannabe hipster and intellectual. But this hodgepodge is not a choice for a character. (Though Henry does come off as a hipster and intellectual. I still accuse the author's lack of filters.) The author thinks she's pretty smart, and so Henry must be, too.


  2. In Niffenegger's defense, Henry is not only a smart character, but one who can't watch television. So compared to, say, a walk through The Rocketship, it's the brevity of Henry's book list that strikes me as lazy writing.

    On the other hand, I know exactly how little a Newberry librarian makes in a year. Perhaps Henry has to sell all of his favorite crime novels to Rick at Shake Rattle & Read, and perhaps he depends on his friends to lend him all the good zines and comic books any good Chicago hipster would be expected to keep up on.

    For another good example of characters reading, Snoopy spends much of his freetime with Anna Karenina. This tells me so much more about the nature of Snoopy.

  3. I'm ambivalent about characters reading because the authors don't always handle it well. The device is not always as clumsy as in that awful example from The Time Traveler's Wife, but it is often obtrusive nonetheless.

    So I'll post interesting examples as I think of them. I'll begin with Salvo Montalbano in The Smell of the Night, who is thwarted every time he tries to relax and read Georges Simenon.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"