This essay was written for the 2003 Edgars Awards publication, on the question, “What past or present mystery writer has had the most influence on you, and what do you most admire about him or her?”
Is an author ever actually influenced by a writer they admire? Yes, some writers don’t read fiction while they’ve got a book going because, they claim, their prose style changes, but I have to wonder if any third party would see the contamination. I know that whenever I’ve deliberately tried to infect my own prose with the virus of another’s genius, within two lines I’m back to Laurie King. I pick up Josephine Tey thinking that I, too, might catch her ability to manipulate a plot, but the only infection I get is despair. I read Sayers by the hour, yet my prose never soars into anything but that of a Californian with a haphazard education. I could read John Dickson Carr until my eyes grew dim or Raymond Chandler until a ghostly cigarette dangled from my lips, and I still couldn’t write their locked-room mysteries or tough-guy stories. I might begin every day with a chapter of Conan Doyle, just to set me into the mood, and— Oh, why even try? Clearly, I have no gift for channeling spirits, living or dead.
So I don’t know about influence. I can’t say that the Edgar I won ten years ago was due to a deliberate evocation of someone who knew how to write—if that were the case, wouldn’t I have done it again and again? Nor can I point to any of my books and say, “Right here is where XYZ transformed what I was writing.”
A great writer is, by definition, inimitable. One can but stand with head bowed and hat in hand.
Peter Dickinson is my own chosen demigod in the pantheon of crime fiction. Lamentably little-known in this country, one has to wonder why. He won two Gold Daggers in a row back in the Sixties (has anyone else?) and has been nominated for Edgars, but never made Grand Master here or—shame!—won a Diamond Dagger in his homeland. Perhaps it’s because he’s hard to pin down, or because he has “wasted” so much of his literary substance on brilliant works of juvenile fiction. Maybe if he had churned out five hundred page novels of weighty complexity every twelve to eighteen months instead of sparkling gems half that size and every so often, his impact might have been more strongly felt, but he did not and, considering the man’s age, probably won’t start now.
Why Dickinson? One does not necessarily read him for his plots, even when they come together with the crisp click of a well-cut jigsaw puzzle. And it isn’t just the delight one gets from the characters—although this is one of the few male writers who gets women right. Dickinson’s people at first glance seem commonplace, even drab, individuals whom the reader knows well. Or thinks he does: Everyman, but seen in the edges of a fun-house mirror; colorless, like some rare, shy creature inhabiting a narrow and fragile strip of ecosystem.
James Pibble, the gray Scotland Yard anti-hero who slumps apologetically through about a third of Dickinson’s books, is a typical bit of the author’s sleight-of-hand. Pibble appears to possess little in the way of courage or ability, yet he solves cases that baffle his apparent betters. He does so more or less in spite of himself—not so much by accident as by his inability to avoid solving it, and saving everyone a lot of trouble.
But for pride of place, before plot and characters comes Dickinson’s astounding ability to create what can only be considered alternate universes, unique, perfect, completely functional, and weirdly probable: the literally upside-down world of a desert sheikh and the marsh dwellers he rules; a shambling London terrace house whose brick walls shelter a tribe of stone-age Papua-New Guineans; a Longleat-style country house where the man-eating lions are toothless in comparison with the owners; Buckingham Palace peopled by an alternate royal family. One after another.
Unfortunately, while reading Dickinson may make me a better person, and certainly a greatly entertained one, I cannot, as I have said, claim that it makes me a better writer. In fact, the man’s skill can be downright infuriating—particularly now, when I’m supposed to be thinking about a stand-alone novel set in 1920s England, yet cannot envision anything but Dickinson’s story of the General Strike of 1926. A Summer in the Twenties isn’t even his best, yet there it lurks on my horizon like a black hole, sucking aside every thought I might have on the period.
There’s one alternate universe I can’t help wishing he’d left the hell alone.