Progress in Mystery Fiction

Martin Edwards' post on the Boileau-Narcejac team prompted me to track back and re-read their essay Le Roman Policier, long lost in the arcanes of my bookshelves. I was an adolescent when I bought it and felt an outburst of juvenile anger at the judgements expressed there, and for years this book to me was nothing but an object of contempt until Julian Symons' Bloody Murder replaced it as my favorite target.

It doesn't mean I have mellowed somewhat and now agree, or simply accept, Boileau-Narcejac's condemnation of most of the traditional detective story in the name of realism and psychology or their assertion that the genre cannot reach the level of 'high literature' because the characters are not free to act out of... character rather than contrivances of the plot. That struck and still strikes me as pretty conservative a view of fiction and 'literature'. Also, their treatment of the hard-boiled school is rather one-sided. Yet there are some interesting insights to be found as well, and you just can't hate people so fond of R. Austin Freeman.

Boileau-Narcejac's most important point in my view is the one they make in their conclusion:

"It has been believed that mystery fiction was an evolving genre, because it has successively taken on many different forms. This was seen as progress, while in fact it was merely the flowering of the many natural variations of the genre. But assuming there is actually progress inherent it, can mystery fiction handle further metamorphoses? That is the question many critics ask: whither now? Where is mystery fiction going? It is going nowhere. It is an apple-tree which gives a great variety of fruit, but those fruits are still apples nevertheless."

This was a minority view back then, and even more so today. Historians of the genre from Howard Haycraft on have always had a finalistic view of its 'evolution' with mystery fiction 'growing' over the years to finally find its definitive, mature form - usually the one the author sympathizes most with. The aforementioned Bloody Murder is a good example of that approach. Symons has no doubt that his beloved 'crime novel' is the logical outcome of the long process started by Poe in 1841 and is thus in some different ontological league than, say, cosies or adventure stories. A consequence of such a view is the failure to contextualize and treat other approaches with equal respect. Haycraft for instance criticized Doyle for not playing fair, not taking into account that 'fair play' was not a issue back then. In the same way, Symons blamed Golden Agers for their unwilling to tackle social issues or get deeper in characterization, never explaining why they had to in the first place.

But facts don't support that beautiful tale. Mystery fiction has refined, updated its ways over one century and a half; some rules once regarded as paramount have been softened or abandoned; Barbara Vine doesn't write like Mary Elizabeth Braddon, nor Ian Rankin like Fergus Hume. But it doesn't mean the genre is different, that it has changed. All the subgenres we know - from the amateur detective to hard-edged noir through police procedural and gothic suspense - and their sets of themes and conventions were already there or in germ by the early twentieth century and have remained pretty much the same ever since. Worse, most authors thought to have "transcended" the genre actually transcended little or nothing at all, for the only way to "transcend" mystery fiction, to move beyond its natural borders, is... leaving it, as Boileau-Narcejac repeatedly point out. Conversely, people like Georges Simenon or Patricia Highsmith who really pushed the envelope, never really regarded themselves as belonging to the genre despite warm support from the fandom. If we are to seek for a genre in perpetual evolution and progress, then maybe science-fiction would be a better pick.

The finalistic-minded partly realize that, as they often complain about the rigidity of conventions and the difficulty (impossibility?) to get rid of them, blaming that state of affairs on the publishing industry which admittedly does nothing to promote works challenging the status quo. The problem, however, runs deeper. Mystery fiction is a static form, has always been and will always be. Some authors manage to make something individual out of it but never something new. We have to deal with it and remind ourselves that being both apples don't keep Granny Smith and Golden from having their own virtues.

Thanks to John Pugmire for his help.

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