I'm done with blogging, at least for now. It's not another instance of writer's block but just the plain fact that I have nothing left to say.
When I started At the Villa Rose almost ten years ago, there was no other blog that I know of that dealt exclusively with vintage crime fiction and promoted it; everyone loved contemporary stuff and found no reason to explore what came before. Had anyone at the time said that Golden Age mysteries would soon be the rage and the British Library would reprint J. Jefferson Farjeon and F.W. Crofts, I and most of my few readers would have laughed it off.

A decade passed and everything changed. Other blogs appeared and suddenly vintage crime fiction was everywhere on the web; publishers finally took notice and broadened their horizons; people like Martin Edwards and Curtis Evans played a decisive part in bringing this about, with the former's towering "The Golden Age of Murder" winning almost every award going its way, something unimaginable ten years before.
As for At the Villa Rose... Its readership remained tiny, the infrequency and the brevity of the posting not helping it find a broader audience. Why would people read it anyway? Other blogs did the same thing much better, with more scope and erudition. I slowly lost my mojo though I didn't realize it immediately, my posts became ever more infrequent and now the blog is on hiatus indefinitely. Maybe the mojo will come back someday. Maybe it won't. As the French saying goes, "Qui vivra verra".


Tuesday Night Bloggers: Sticking to the Formula

This article is my contribution for this week to Tuesday Night Bloggers, a weekly event conceived by Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp and hosted by Noah Stewart of Noah's Archives. The group's focus this month is on John Dickson Carr.

In his foreword to the fifth volume of the French edition of John Dickson Carr's complete works, scholar Tony Medawar ventures to write that, maybe, some of the Master's works might have been better or even better had they dispensed with his trademark impossible crimes. My first reaction when reading this (I was fifteen years younger, and very defensive when it came to my then-favorite crime writer ever) was of bewilderment as it was so counter-intuitive. Wasn't Carr famous for his "astonishing skill" (Julian Symons) at devising new ways to enter/exit a locked room or leave no footprints on sand or snow? Weren't those his trademark? Would JDC without impossible crimes be "just another humdrum" as a much missed member of the now-defunct "Fans of John Dickson Carr" Yahoo group put it?

At this point I hadn't yet (and still haven't) read the whole Carr catalogue - the historicals in particular remained terra incognita for me. Having now a firmer grasp on the Master's work I can see Medawar's point - and I agree with it. Carr was obviously very fond of impossible crimes - hey, he proclaimed Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room to be the best mystery novel ever written - and he also knew which side his bread was buttered - readers wanted him to write that kind of story - but he was perfectly able to do without them, as a novel like The Emperor's Snuff Box demonstrates. And yet he often seemed, especially in later years, to be a prisoner of his own formula, forcing it on stories that could/would have been just as good, or even better, without it. She Died a Lady, which I read recently, is a case in point. By every standards the book is splendid - great plot, great atmosphere, great characters. And yet... the impossible crime, clever as it is, seems strangely out of place; the book would have functioned just as well as a straightforward mystery - the plot is not dependent on it. In some other cases (Dark of the Moon) the impossible crime fits in the picture but is poorly motivated (a rare occurence in Carr's work, as he unlike, say, Paul Halter took great care to give his murderers sound motives for acting the way they did) while in later works like Papa La Bas or Scandal at High Chimneys it is so poorly conceived and resolved as to look like mere fan service. 

This raises a question: Was Carr too formulaic for his own good? And another: Did his adherence to the impossible crime genre hinder his development as a writer? Aforementioned Emperor and Lady seemed to suggest Carr took a more "naturalistic", "psychological" direction - the one his friend Ellery Queen had taken some years before. Why did he finally cop out? His post-war work hints that the decision brought no joy and certainly no revival of inspiration. We are forever to wonder what might have become of Carr had he finally opened the windows of his locked rooms. 


Tuesday Night Bloggers: John Dickson Carr, American writer

This article is my contribution for this week to Tuesday Night Bloggers, a weekly event conceived by Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp and hosted by Noah Stewart of Noah's Archives. The group's focus this month is on John Dickson Carr.

Because he was an adamant anglophile, set the largest part of his work in Britain and lived there for a long time, John Dickson Carr is often thought of as a "honorary Brit" - the most British of American mystery writers, as his French publishers put it. What's more, his anglophilia was reciprocated as local writers recognized him as one of them and he was the first Yank to be induced into the prestigious (and, at the time, Brit-only) Detection Club. There is a strong argument for Carr being some kind of a mystery fiction equivalent of T.S. Eliot - an American who successfully reinvented himself as a British writer - but this argument I think does obscure the fundamental American-ness of his work. Even when he writes about the English countryside and Dr. Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale, Carr remains a thoroughly American writer, writing thoroughly American crime fiction. 

Counter-intuitive? Only in appearance. Carr's brand of baroque, lurid crime fiction with its emphasis on the spectacular, the surreal and the suspenseful, owes little to the more restrained British tradition. His stories are not rational, civilized affairs solved by rational, civilized detectives - their structure is both more convoluted and more relaxed than your average British whodunitAlso, his outlook is definitely that of a foreigner hailing from a more "democratic" society, as evidenced by his disregard of class structures and conventions, especially when it comes to the relations between the sexes. Finally, there's the humour which relies more on slapstick than wit or nonsense. All this sets Carr apart from most British crime writers but puts him a lot closer to American colleagues such as Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson (both were close friends) Fredric Brown or even Mary Roberts Rinehart - there is a whole study to be written on HIBK influence on Carr. There's no way to know whether he himself was aware of that, but this was, in a way, acknowledged by his fellow-compatriots as his influence proved stronger and more enduring in America (where most of his literary progeny hails from) than in his adopted country. 

This is not to say that there are no British ingredients in the Carr mixture - there are actually quite a few, from Conan Doyle to Montague Rhodes James - but the result tastes very American. Or should we say, "Carrian"? 


Eliot in Murderland, cont'd

You may recall the post I did four years ago about Curtis Evans's discovery of the T.S. Eliot's mystery criticism. Well, the news has finally reached the mainstream media in the guise of an article by Paul Grimstad on The New Yorker website. As they say: Better late than never.

To the amateur, Grimstad's piece brings nothing new to the subject, but it is worth reading as a capsule of literati thinking on the question. Like Wilson before him but in a much gentler manner, Grimstad appears to be genuinely baffled that Eliot could find any interest in so minor and artistically poor a genre - "mere puzzles" as the received wisdom has it - and is frustrated that he didn't write instead on hardboiled fiction, certainly a much more deserving endeavour in his eyes. Challenging Wilson and Chandler and admitting that "mere puzzles" may have their virtues being not an option, Grimstad goes for an "ideological" explanation of Eliot's bizarre detective mania:

It’s possible, though, that Eliot’s affinity for Golden Age detective stories had only partially to do with the genre’s literary merits. During the year he wrote his mystery reviews, Eliot was undergoing a sharp turn to the right politically, and was steeped in dense works of theology in preparation for his baptism into the Anglo-Catholic church. (In a June, 1927, letter to his friend Virginia Woolf he described himself, only half-jokingly, as a “person who specializes in detective stories and ecclesiastical history.”) His conversion to a man of royalist proclivities and religious faith, after which he attended Mass every morning before heading off to work in Russell Square, was at least in part a matter of giving order to a world he saw as intolerably messy. At the end of his 1944 essay, Edmund Wilson suggested that it was no accident that the Golden Age of detection coincided with the period between the two World Wars: in a shattered civilization, there was something reassuring about the detective’s ability to link up all the broken fragments and “know just where to fix the guilt.” Such tidy solutions were to Wilson the mark of glib and simplistic genre fiction. But to Eliot, who in “The Waste Land” wrote of the fractured modern world as a “heap of broken images,” it seems possible that Golden Age detective stories offered above all a pleasing orderliness—a way of seeing ghastly disruptions restored to equilibrium with the soothing predictability of ritual.

In short: if you like that "glib and simplistic" stuff then it's because you are a right-winger, not because of its non-existent literary merits. No matter that this vision of Golden Age mysteries as conservative fairytales where order is invariably restored in the end doesn't bear close scrutiny. No matter that the argument cuts both ways in that it could be said with reason that hardboiled/noir is so popular with the Literati because the genre leans left or appears to do so, not because it is artistically superior. Traditional mysteries remain a province of the philistine and the easily entertained, beguiling the sophisticated reader only by accident or a momentary lapse of reason and taste. Nothing to see here. 

This is the mentality that serious mystery criticism has to conquer. The walls have been shaking lately with the reappearance in print and success of "lost classics" and some seminal critical/historical work by helluva scholars such as Martin Edwards (congratulations on his Edgar nomination, by the way) but they have by no means fallen down. It will take even harder work to convince the brilliant and advanced that no, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd was not the last word on the question. Heck, it wasn't even the first.


Rétrospective (bilingual/bilingue)

Chaque année depuis 1994 je décerne un "prix" au meilleur roman de mystère que j'ai lu dans l'année écoulée. En les passant en revue vingt ans plus tard certains choix me laissent perplexe mais je suis assez fier de certains autres. Pour ceux que cela intéresse, je poste ci-dessous la liste complète des gagnants et des nominés les années où il y en eut, vos commentaires sont les bienvenus. (Soyez prévenus que ma définition de "roman de mystère" est assez large, ne vous étonnez donc pas de la présence d'un roman fantastique et d'un autre de science-fiction parmi les lauréats)

Every year starting in 1994 I have been giving an "award" for the best mystery novel I've read. Some choices I find puzzling today, some I'm reasonably proud of. For those interested I post the list of winners (in bold) and nominees when any below; your comments are welcome
. (Be warned that my definition of "mystery novel" includes any novel with mysterious elements, so don't be surprised to find one or two sci-fi/horror novels among the winners)
1994 - Robert Bloch, Night World (Monde des Ténèbres, Série Noire)
              Fredric Brown, The Night of the Jabberwock (La Nuit du Jabberwock, J'ai Lu)
              John Dickson Carr, The Case of the Constant Suicides (Suicide à l'écossaise, Le Masque)
              Ellery Queen, There Was an Old Woman (Il était une vieille femme, J'ai Lu)
              René Reouven, Le Détective volé (Denoël)
1995 - Paul Halter, La Malédiction de Barberousse, Le Masque
1996 - Lucille Fletcher, Eighty Dollars to Stanford (La Belle dame sans merci, Le Masque)
             Michael Crichton, A Case of Need (Extrême urgence, Pocket)
1997 - Nicholas Freeling, King of the Rainy Country (Le Roi d'un pays pluvieux, 10/18) tied with/ex-aequo avec Fritz Leiber, Our Lady of Darkness (Notre-Dame des Ténèbres, Denoël)
              Dick Francis, Whip Hand (A la cravache, 10/18)
              William H. Hallahan, The Search for Joseph Tully (Les Renaissances de Joseph Tully, Pocket)
              Margaret Millar, How Like an Angel (D'entre les morts, Livre de Poche)
1998 - Stanley Ellin, The Eighth Circle (Le Huitième cercle de l'enfer, NéO)
              Stanley Ellin, The Valentine Estate (La Succession Valentine, PdlC)
              William H. Hallahan, Catch Me, Kill Me (Attrapez-moi, Le Masque)
              Margaret Millar, A Stranger in My Grave (Un étranger dans ma tombe, Livre de Poche)
              Margaret Millar, Vanish in an Instant (La femme de sa mort, Le Masque)
1999 - Doris Miles Disney, The Chandler Policy (Une rude journée, Le Masque)
              John Blackburn, Broken Boy (Les Maléfiques, Un Mystère)
              Oliver Bleeck, No Questions Asked (L'Entremetteur, Série Noire)
              Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal (Chacal, Folio)
              Mark McShane, The Girl Nobody Knows (L'Inconnue, Série Noire)
2000 - Charlotte Armstrong, A Dram of Poison (Une dose de poison, Rivages/Mystère) tied with/ex-aequo with Charlotte Jay, Beat Not the Bones (Au coeur de la jungle, Le Masque)
               Bill S. Ballinger, The Longest Second (A gorge déployée, Un Mystère)
               Thomas H. Cook, Tabernacle (Du sang sur l'autel, Série Noire)
               Ira Levin, A Kiss Before Dying (La couronne de cuivre, J'ai Lu)
               Margaret Millar, Beyond This Point Are Monsters (Le Territoire des monstres, Le Masque)
               Jean Potts, Death of a Stray Cat (Le petit chat est mort, Un Mystère)
2001 - John Dickson Carr, The Blind Barber (Le Barbier aveugle, Le Masque)
              Charlotte Armstrong, Mischief (Troublez-moi ce soir, J'ai Lu)
              Anthony Berkeley, Not to be Taken (Sans remords, Le Masque)
              Peter Lovesey, Rough Cider (Cidre brut, Le Masque)
              Ellery Queen, The Finishing Stroke (Le mot de la fin, J'ai Lu)
              Ellery Queen, The Murderer is a Fox (Le Renard et la Digitale, J'ai Lu)
2002 - Helen McCloy, The Slayer and the Slain (Le Bourreau et la victime, NéO)
               Ursula Curtiss, The Staircase (Une carpette sur une tâche de sang, L'Aventure criminelle)
               Andrew Garve, Murder in Moscow (Meurtre à Moscou, L'Aventure criminelle)
               Leo Perutz, The Master of the Day of Judgment (Le Maître du Jugement dernier, 10/18)
               René Reouven, Elémentaire mon cher Holmes (Denoël)
2003 - Jennifer Rowe, Lamb to the Slaughter (Lagneau à l'abattoir, Livre de Poche)
               Hilda Lawrence, Blood Upon the Snow (Du sang sur la neige, Optic)
               Michel Lebrun, Pleins feux sur Sylvie (J'ai Lu)
               Philip MacDonald, Mystery of the Dead Police (Rex, Le Masque)
               Pierre Véry, Les Métamorphoses (Le Masque)
2004 - George H. Johnston, Death Takes Small Bites (A petit feu, Opta)
               Claude Aveline, La double mort de Frédéric Belot 
               Gaston Boca, Les Usines de l'effroi (Le Masque)
               Jonathan Stagge, Death My Darling Daughters (La mort et les chères petites, J'ai Lu)
               June Thomson, Shadow of a Doubt (Claire... et ses ombres, Livre de Poche)
2005 - D.M. Devine, Three Green Bottles (L'épaule du diable, Le Masque)
               Frédéric Dard, L'Homme de l'Avenue (Fleuve Noir)
               Peter George, Cool Murder (Meurtre à froid, L'Aventure criminelle)
               Martin Russell, Backlash (Choc en retour, Le Masque)
               Henry Woodfin, Virginia's Thing (Tempête sur le campus, Le Masque)
2006 - William SloaneThe Edge of Running Water (La Rive incertaine, Marabout)
               Agatha Christie, The Hollow (Le Vallon, Le Masque)
               Agatha Christie, Taken at the Flood (Le Flux et le reflux, Le Livre de Poche)
               Estelle Thompson, The Lawyer and the Carpenter (Pour deux initiales, Editions Mondiales)
               Pierre Véry, Le Thé des vieilles dames (Le Masque)
2007 - Maurice Leblanc, 813 
               Stephen Booth, Black Dog (Le Livre de Poche)
               R. Austin Freeman, As a Thief in the Night (Arsenic, Le Masque)
               Maurice Leblanc, Monsieur Victor de la Brigade Mondaine (Le Livre de Poche)
               Mark McShane, Seance for Two (Fluides, Série Noire)
2008 - Evelyn Berckman, The Beckoning Dream (Enquête sur un cauchemar, L'Aventure criminelle) tied with/ex-aequo with Cyril Hare, An English Murder (Meurtre à l'anglaise, Rivages/Mystère)
               Maurice Leblanc, La Vie extravagante de Balthazar (Le Livre de Poche)
               Pierre Darcis, L'Estompe (Le Masque)
               Doris Miles Disney, Room for Murder (Miss Scanlon suit son idée, Le Masque)
               Jean Stubbs, Dear Laura (Chère Laura, Le Masque)
2009 - F. Addington Symonds, Smile and Murder (Un sourire assassin, Le Cachet)
               Edmund Crispin, Swan Song
               Dolores Hitchens, Sleep with Slander (La Victime expiatoire, Rivages/Noir)
               Stuart Palmer, The Puzzle of the Blue Persian (L'énigme du persan gris, 10/18)
               René Reouven, La raison du meilleur est toujours la plus forte (Le Livre de Poche)
2010 - Philippe Claudel, Les Ames grises (Grey Souls/By a Slow River) 
2011 - Albert Harding, Death on Raven's Scar (La Tragédie de Ravenscar, Le Masque)
             Thomas H. Cook, Red Leaves (Les Feuilles mortes, Série Noire)
2012 - Keigo Higashino, Mukashi boku ga shinda ie (La Maison où je suis mort autrefois, Actes Sud)
2013 - Prix non décerné/No award given
2014 - Prix non décerné/No award given
2015 - Georges Simenon, Cécile est morte (Maigret and the Spinster)
              Simon Brett, Dead Romantic (D'amour et d'eaux troubles, Le Masque)
              Michael Butterworth, The Black Look (Le Noir est à la mode, Le Masque)



Pendant des années, les amateurs de roman d'énigme ont prêché dans le désert. Ils faisaient effet de gentils excentriques à chanter les louanges d'auteurs et d'un genre frappés, les autorités compétentes ne cessaient de le répéter, de désuétude. Franchement, qui pouvait bien avoir envie de nos jours de lire Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr ou Gladys Mitchell quand le roman policier (non, pardon, le "polar") actuel était si riche et incomparablement supérieur sur le plan littéraire? Les critiques étaient unanimes et les éditeurs traditionnels acquiesçaient bien volontiers: le roman d'énigme était mort et enterré.

Alors vint la British Library et sa collection "Crime Classics" - et toutes les certitudes furent chamboulées.

Voilà-t-y- pas que la vénérable institution décidait de rééditer des ouvrages oubliés (y compris des amateurs) de l'Age d'or du roman d'énigme - et d'user de tous les moyens qu'offrent les médias modernes pour leur donner une visibilité qu'un éditeur spécialisé aurait été bien incapable de leur offrir. Le succès, à la surprise générale, fut au rendez-vous pour culminer quand Mystery in White de J. Jefferson Farjeon (publié à l'origine en 1937) s'invita dans la liste des best-sellers fin 2015.

Tout s'emballa dès lors. La British Library nomma le romancier et historien du genre Martin Edwards directeur de collection et annonça une flopée d'autres rééditions pour les années à venir. Sur une plus petite échelle, des petits éditeurs numériques comme Black Heath ou Dean Street Press s'engouffrèrent dans la faille et commencèrent de rendre vie à des auteurs jusqu'alors oubliés ou négligés comme Ianthe Jarrold, Annie Haynes, Fergus Hume ou E.R. Punshon.

Autre événement de première ampleur, la parution de The Golden Age of Murder du précédemment cité Martin Edwards, copieuse et exhaustive histoire du Detection Club et plus particulièrement de ses activités dans l'entre-deux-guerres. Le livre connut un retentissement et un succès public et critique que nul n'aurait pu prédire encore quelques mois auparavant. Après plusieurs décennies d'éclipse relative, le roman d'énigme était de retour.

Le rôle de la blogosphère dans ce "revival" ne doit pas être négligé. Des blogs comme The Passing Tramp de l'historien et critique Curtis Evans ont largement contribué à ramener le genre et ses classiques sur le devant de la scène. 

Un phénomène similaire serait-il possible en France? Je l'appelle de mes voeux, mais la situation est différente. Les fans sont clairsemés et sans influence face à un Landerneau massivement gagné au roman noir, les éditeurs au premier rang. Il n'y a pas d'équivalent français de Martin Edwards ou de Curtis Evans pour porter la "cause" et je vois mal la Bibliothèque Nationale, si soucieuse de respectabilité, se lancer dans l'édition de romans policiers. Et quand bien même elle le ferait, le succès serait-il au rendez-vous? La domination du roman noir en France est aussi le fait du public, comme en témoignent les palmarès des prix spécialisés qui lui donnent la parole. 

Faut-il désespérer? Je ne le pense pas. Le succès d'Agatha Christie et de séries télé comme Les enquêtes de Murdoch prouve qu'il existe un public pour le roman d'énigme; il faut juste faire preuve d'un peu d'audace et aller le chercher. Ce ne sera pas le fait des éditeurs traditionnels. L'édition numérique serait-elle la solution, comme elle l'a été dans les pays anglo-saxons?


Tuesday Night Bloggers: Me & Mr. Queen (A Brief Autobiographical Interlude)

This article is my contribution for this week to Tuesday Night Bloggers, a weekly event conceived by Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp and hosted by Noah Stewart of Noah's Archives. After being on Agatha Christie for all of October, the group's focus is now on Ellery Queen.

As I said in my previous article on the subject, Ellery Queen is one of three writers who inoculated me with the mystery bug - but it hardly was love at first sight. It took a physician and a TV series to make me a fan. 

The first EQ book to enter my home was The Roman Hat Mystery, bought by my mother who loved the cover art (she put a great emphasis on such matters) I didn't express much interest for it - I had never heard of Ellery Queen and 14-year-old me didn't care for anything that wasn't written by Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr. On my mother's insistance I started reading it, only to stop circa page 20. The book just wasn't for me: it had no impossible crime and the detective was nothing like Hercule Poirot.

Things could have stayed there had not my then otorhinolaryngologist chimed in. I had severe asthma back then and had to see him regularly but it was not too much of a chore as he was a very erudite man who happened to be an avid mystery reader, much better-read and eclectic than I was at the time. We often took time to discuss our respective reads and one day he mentioned Ellery Queen as one of his favorites: Had I tried him yet? No? Well, I should. I was intrigued and back home tried again to read The Roman Hat Mystery, to no avail. But I was curious enough to go to the local bookshop and buy another book of theirs (there was a batch of them, paperback imprint J'ai Lu having undertaken to reprint the whole catalogue) this time A Fine and Private Place. EQ scholars regard this one as minor but to me it was a revelation. The plot and its solution floored me, the characters were more modern than Christie's or Carr's and Ellery Queen was really a great detective. I went back to the bookshop, bought all the other Queens they had in store and read them ravenously. Move over, Agatha and John! There was a new kid in town.

Some time later the French TV channel FR3 (now known as France 3) began airing a new* series in its afternoon slot. I missed the first two or three episodes and caught the fourth by sheer chance. Imagine my surprise when I found that the series's protagonist was none other than Ellery Queen himself! I became a faithful viewer at once, never again missing an episode. Ellery and his father now had faces - and even today I still imagine the former as Jim Hutton and the latter as David Wayne - and the plots were great (my only experience with mystery shows at the time was Murder, She Wrote which may account for my enthusiasm) I remember I was very disappointed when the series ended and was replaced by Poirot. 

Since then my tastes have broadened if not dramatically changed and A Fine and Private Place is no longer my favorite Queen (though I keep a soft spot for it) but the Brooklyn cousins remain key figures in my personal pantheon - and I look forward to reading those books of theirs that I haven't yet read. It's the French equivalent of Veterans's Day tomorrow and I may do my own celebration by finally reading The Player on the Other Side which I've postponed for years as I wanted to be in the right mood. Or maybe The Siamese Twins Mystery? Queen fan forever. 

* As you've probably figured out if you did the math the series took a long time (15 years!) to cross the Atlantic. It first aired here in 1989 and I didn't know at the time that Jim Hutton had died in the meantime. I was very sad when I learned about it.