Present got you down? Cheer up with a story from the past.
We live in a dark time, and when I need a break from the continuous stream of instantly upsetting news, classic fiction is my retreat. It isn’t quite escapism — it’s more of a survival tactic. I read an enormous amount of nonfiction, much of it disturbing — covering discrimination, persecution, genocide, greed, violence — the stuff of which history is made.
Fair enough, but in the lengthening of the evening here’s what I go back to: literature from an era when you could devote an entire afternoon to reading a good story, and even find a few heroes in the mix.
Here are some of my favorites from a few decades (or centuries) back, with a loving nod to their film counterparts.
Late 20th century
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” has resurrected the story of Inspector Morse, the city of Oxford’s brilliant and contrarian police inspector, with its current hit series “Endeavour.” It’s the story of the young Endeavour Morse, an idealistic police recruit, and his mentor Detective Fred Thursday, a man with a gentle manner, granite temperament and devastating right hook.
“Endeavour” is the third in a magnificent 30-year arc of programming, an eternity in the TV universe. First there was “Inspector Morse,” starring the great English actor John Thaw. Then there was “Inspector Lewis,” the story of Morse’s sergeant and what happened to him after Morse shuffled off this mortal coil. And now the prequel “Endeavour.” Having exhausted this treasure trove of grade-A television, I went back to the original books.
Author Colin Dexter (1930-2017) was a scholar, teacher and crossword addict. He published the Inspector Morse series from the 1970s to the 1990s. The first is 1975’s “Last Bus to Woodstock,” the last 1999’s “The Remorseful Day.”
These books are fascinating rides in the wayback machine to a slower paced and more contemplative time; Morse is prone to skipping out of the office for entire weekdays to drink beer, listen to Wagner and wait for inspiration to strike. He bullies the kindly, decent Inspector Lewis, who, in a more patriarchal age, puts up with it. He’s often wrong, but hates to admit it. His attitude toward women ranges from on-the-pedestal (opera singers) to pornographic (at a murder scene Inspector Morse is prone to retrieving the porno magazines — remember them? — from under the bed to, you know, evaluate the evidence).
Do I miss those times? I do not, but I love Inspector Morse anyway. He’s got a heart of mush (especially when it comes to attractive women). He’s devilishly clever, and so are the plots. And the stories are set in Oxford, arguably the most beautiful city in England, an ageless stage set with more smart, ambitious and twisted people per square mile than any place on Earth. The Inspector Morse of the books is not as charismatic as the mesmerizing John Thaw or his current counterpart, the dishy Shaun Evans, but he has the same ice in the heart possessed of all great detectives, an almost preternatural ability to cut through cant and obfuscation and into the core of a crime.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), one of the cleverest and funniest writers of all time, is not as well-known as her contemporary, Agatha Christie (Christie is tied with Shakespeare as the best-selling fiction writer on earth). Too bad. Sayers’ books are wittier, deeper and more humane, and her prodigious intellect turns every book into a pleasurable challenge.
A poet, novelist, playwright, translator, historian and essayist, Sayers (another Oxford native) also worked for a time as an ad copywriter and developed the famous Guinness beer toucan with its cheery “Guinness is good for you,” a message I for one have always taken to heart. She earned the equivalent of a first-class degree at Oxford and started writing mysteries as a way out of genteel poverty. She had numerous struggles, including having a child out of wedlock.
I didn’t read Sayers for years because I couldn’t warm up to the film versions of her monocle-wearing, filthy-rich protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey. The books are something else. Sayers created Lord Peter in part as a sendup of the British aristocracy (it’s no accident that Lord Peter’s manservant, Mervyn Bunter, can do almost everything better than his boss can). But Lord Peter’s dashing, careless exterior hides a passionate heart and serious psychological wounds from his service in the First World War, and like his creator, he’s an unflinching judge of human nature. Sayers is a compassionate writer — more so than Christie (though I yield to no one in my admiration of Miss Marple). She portrays the many layers of British society with tempered sympathy and a wicked eye for hypocrisy.
The Lord Peter Wimsey books vary in quality, but the first one I read may be the best — “Gaudy Night.” Graduates of one of Oxford’s women’s colleges (this is the 1930s, remember) return for an alumnae weekend. Someone who hates educated, achieving women starts perpetrating bizarre and violent acts upon the assembled, and Harriet Vane, Lord Peter’s true love, sets out to solve the crimes herself. The animus directed toward accomplished women in this book feels all too contemporary. It’s no accident that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifelong advocate of women’s rights, is a Dorothy L. Sayers fan.
19th and early 20th centuries
Charles Dickens and M.R. James. Maybe I love Charles Dickens (1812-1870) because I was never forced to read him. I was a psychology major in college and then I got busy, and I didn’t fully connect with this great English novelist until I was in my 50s. I’ve been hooked ever since.
If you think the 21st century is awash with cruelty and greed, there’s comfort in knowing corrupt self-interest is a long-term trend. The evidence: Dickens’ masterpiece “Bleak House.”
“Bleak House” tells the story of a legal case — a contested will that winds up in legal purgatory. Those who pin their hopes on the outcome of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce are broken on the wheel of their expectations. There’s mistaken identity, double-dealing, unrequited love and cruelty that will take your breath away.
This being Dickens, there are also heroes — the angelic Esther Summerson, the haunted Lady Dedlock. And villains — notably the loathsome lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn. There’s even a detective! Inspector Bucket, said to be the first detective in an English novel and an inspiration for many other literary sleuths.
While Dickens wrote in a time of great suffering, he held out hope that people’s better angels could prevail. Hope springs eternal! If you can’t face 1,000-plus pages of “Bleak House,” the 15-part BBC television series, starring the fabulous Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, is available to stream on Amazon, and available on DVD from the Seattle Public Library. So is the 2015 TV series “Dickensian,” a wild and crazy mashup of Dickens characters and plots in which Inspector Bucket plays a starring role.
Finally, every year for Halloween I reread “Collected Ghost Stories” by M.R. James. James (1862-1936), an English scholar, antiquarian and academic, is still considered by some to be the finest ghost-story writer in the English language. His tales of the ghost- and history-haunted English countryside, reissued recently by Oxford University Press, rend the veil between everyday existence and a dark and chaotic netherworld. They scared the pants off the Eton crowd when James read them to his students, and they scare me still today.