13/12/2007

Die Hard

mNo, this post is not about John McClane - though it's about sequels of sorts.

Mystery fiction is so part of our landscape, so taken for granted, so popular, that it's hard for fans and non-fans alike to imagine a world without it. The genre, we think, is a "natural" thing and is here to stay. Crime being the real world's oldest profession and fascination for it being apparently encrypted in our genome, murder and mayhem will always be welcome on print and onscreen and purveyors of fictional felonies don't have to worry about the future. But a glance at the rocky history of our favorite genre shows that it has not always been so robust. Not only did it make several false starts but it actually died, the only kind of fiction in my knowledge to have ever been risen from the dead not just once but twice, hence the title of the present essay.

When reading the Dupin stories we tend to infuse them with our knowledge of what followed and re-interpret them as the beginning of a wonderful success-story. This is the finalist view I evoked some time ago: Poe influenced Gaboriau who influenced Doyle who in turn influenced Christie, etc. That rosy picture takes a different colour when you check the dates, as more than two decades separate The Murders in the Rue Morgue and L'Affaire Lerouge. Two decades during which nothing happened. A marginal author in his lifetime, Poe remained so in the years following his death, "thanks" mostly to Rufus Griswold's portrayal, and had little influence except for his horror stories. The ratiocination tales may have been a novelty hit on their first publication but they didn't catch on, which is not that surprising given that Poe himself didn't believe in their lasting power. His bet on posterity relied more on his poetry and criticism; it is much ironic that what he regarded as alimentary, secondary work is now wider-known than A Dream Within A Dream or the Marginalias. Mystery fiction might be labelled a stillborn or a child in so bad a condition that it spent twenty years in coma with a flatline EEG until a French writer brought it back to life.

It's unclear whether the new incarnation was best-suited to the times or reverse but nonetheless it caught on. The next fifty years saw the genre getting an increasingly high profile as it got rid of melodrama, refined its ways and, most important, proved commercially valid. Magazines opened their pages to the newcomer and intellectuals started taking notice; some prestigious mainstream writers thought they might give it a try. By the early 1910s, mystery was one of the dominant genres in popular fiction and most people agreed it was only the beginning.

Then the rapidly expanding genre went into near complete extinction as the world entered its first mass slaughtering. Well-established authors either enlisted (Freeman, Mason) or turned to patriotic fluff (Leblanc) and were not replaced. As a result, mystery's record during first world war amounts to nil. This comes as stark contrast to the frenetic activity it would display twenty years later; maybe Hitler was more inspiring than the Kaiser. The genre long kept an uneasy relation to that period, beginning to engage it in a serious way only in the last third of the century.

This second "death" was shorter than the first - only five years - and also resulted into a new flowering - the Golden Age. As of today it is the last time mystery "died". The spy-craze of the sixties doesn't count as mysteries kept being written - they were just not as popular as they had once been. Hopefully we won't see any other extinction soon but the phenomenon and its consequences are interesting to study if only because they exemplify why we like our genre so much: like its heroes, it falls sometimes, stumbles often but it never quits.

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