17/11/2007

Better Late Than Never

Bill Pronzini is the next Grandmaster.

After decades of ignoring him, the MWA have finally realized that he "is not only a passionate author and reader of crime fiction - he is also one of the most ardent proponents of the genre [...] For forty years he has distinguished himself with consistently high-quality writing and editing in all areas of the field, including creating one of the longest lasting detective series ever."

Congratulations, Mr. Pronzini.

On Rex Stout

Classics most often fall into one of four categories: the ones you admire, the ones you dislike, the ones you don't give a damn about and, finally, the ones you just can't make your mind up. Rex Stout, as far as I'm concerned, belongs in the fourth. I have read (and occasionally enjoyed) several of his books, tried reading many others. I know his virtues, and his flaws don't escape me. I recognize his profound originality and individuality, his importance to mystery fiction. The man himself I even find quite sympathetic. Still, I can't get the jury to decide if he was genius, good, average or just plain crap.

That's why I was so hopeful about The League of the Frightened Men. A book heralded by as differently-minded people as John Dickson Carr and H.R.F. Keating as one of the best mystery novels ever written sure had something special. Maybe it would be the turning point I had been waiting for all those years? Maybe I'd finally get, possibly share, the enthusiasm felt by so many readers?

As you can gather from the tone of this article, that epiphany didn't come. Frightened Men, as a matter of fact, just joined the long list of Rex Stout books I couldn't finish, and for the same reasons than the others.

My primary objection to the Wolfes, as I'd better label them since I haven't yet read any of Stout's non-series works, is about the formula. I don't object to formulas as such: only the outcome matters, and the outcome here is badly flawed in my view. Being an armchair detective as well as an eccentric curmudgeon, Nero Wolfe does almost nothing at all, and the "almost" - drinking beer, eating, looking after his orchids, dictating letters, giving orders and pushing his lips in and out - is not that enthralling. Another feature most harmful from a dramatical viewpoint is Wolfe's reluctance to leave his house but under nuclear threat, resulting in his summoning witnesses and suspects. Instances of the doorbell ringing, Fritz opening the door and announcing the visitor, he or she sitting in the red armchair and Wolfe asking nebulous questions make for a large, and to me rather tedious, part of the books. Not only does little actually happen, but it's astonishingly repetitive.

Fans will retort I'm bypassing what makes the books so fun: the witty dialogue, the wisecracking narration, the conflictual relation between Archie and Wolfe, but I'm not. I just happen to think they often drag the books down. There is no denying that Stout could write. The problem is he knew that, and too often left his gifts a free rein at the expanse of story progression or as a substitute for it. Much talk in the Wolves is padding - clever, highly enjoyable, but padding nevertheless. And since the world outside barely exists and most of the stories take place within the walls of the brownstone house, the books end reading like novelizations of plays.

The novellas tend to avoid those problems, however, and that's why I like them better as a rule: the plots are tighter and more varied, the routine takes a lesser place, and the writing benefits from the (relative) brevity. Stout's forte may have been that form rather than the novel, but the publishing industry being then what it still is now forced him into the latter. So sad.

All that being said, I haven't lost my faith in Stout and I have high hopes on the next I plan to read, Some Buried Caesar, which is said to be excellent on all counts. Then maybe I'll give a second chance to the books of his I gave up on, including Frightened Men. For now, however, I can't but shake my head, wondering why Carr put it, of all books, on his list, along with The Valley of Fear or Death on the Nile (well, he also included the dreadful S.S. Van Dine and his Greene Murder Case but hey, nobody's perfect)

Sometimes you really regret not to have a good medium among your acquaintances...

09/11/2007

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.

06/11/2007

Alan Grimes, Public Benefactor Number One

Though some efforts had been made in recent years, as evidenced by the international success of Fred Vargas, French mystery fiction remains little-known in the anglosphere except for a few household names such as Gaston Leroux, Maurice Leblanc or Georges Simenon - who was actually a Belgian. Only the die-hard francophile mystery buff has heard of René Reouven, Jacques Decrest, Stanislas-André Steeman (another Belgian) Louis C. Thomas, Jean-François Coatmeur, Noël Vindry, Georges-Jean Arnaud, Brice Pelman, Frédéric Dard or Gaston Boca. That's why fans should be grateful to hematologist-turned-translator Alan Grimes for finally introducing to English-speaking readers one of the greatest French mystery writers of all time, Pierre Véry.
While Golden Age is most often associated with the American/British likes of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellery Queen, French authors of the time did produce some outstanding detective fiction. Along with Pierre Boileau (of later Boileau-Narcejac fame) and the aforementioned Decrest, Steeman and Vindry, Véry was one of the Big Four and certainly the most popular, as several of his books were made into successful films, eventually prompting him to quit mystery fiction and become a full-time screenwriter.
As a result of the genre not being taken very seriously, French Golden Age was much more freewheeling than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart; there was no Ronald Knox or S.S. Van Dine to promulgate rules and no one would listen anyway. Every author went his own way, according to his own tastes and imagination, with little regard for orthodoxy, which doesn't mean they were lacking in the plotting department.
Véry tellingly always favored his own neologism "roman de mystère" (novel of mystery) rather than the generic "roman policier" as a label for his books. Mystery and the atmosphere surrounding it were more interesting to him than the solution and the deductive process. Another term he used to describe his work was "contes de fées pour adultes" - fairytales for grown-ups. In accordance with those views, a typical Véry novel is as irreal (surreal?) as you can get: people doing nonsensical testaments before hanging themselves, gangs using crystal vipers as their signature, criminals specializing in the destruction of clocks are standard fare. Protagonists are just as quirky. Ever-broke lawyer Prosper Lepicq, first appearing in Meurtre au Quai des Orfèvres, is one of the oddest detectives in literature, investigating cases so that he can take the culprit as his client. Véry's heroes tend to be dreamy, wildly imaginative and it's no surprise they are often children or adolescents like in Les Disparus de Saint-Agil, probably his most famous novel thanks to Christian-Jaque's remarkable film adaptation, or the exquisite Les Métamorphoses. All that gives Véry's works a charm found nowhere else in the genre, either in France or abroad.
Good, I hear you say, but the plots? Do they live up to their weird premises? Well, yes and no. Anyone expecting to find Christie-like deceptions will be sorely disappointed, though Véry was quite able to manage brilliant tricks when he wanted to - see Les Quatre Vipères, arguably one of the best locked-room mysteries ever written, and a positive stunner. But Véry could write, could tell a story, could create memorable atmosphere and characters, all that in a distinctive poetic fashion. I won't say you cannot be a fulfilled mystery fan if you haven't read anything of him, but it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration.
So, if my plea made you curious to see what the fuss is about, I suggest you ask Mr. Grimes; he has already translated provincial drama Goupi Mains-Rouges and its sequel Goupi Mains-Rouges à Paris and plans to release two more vintage Vérys, Le Thé des Vieilles Dames et L'Assassinat du Père Noël next year. A benefactor I told you.

05/11/2007

Paul Halter - La Toile de Pénélope

French crime writer Paul Halter is what mathematicians call a singleton. Back in the eighties, when social noir reigned triumphant on Gallic crime fiction, it took damn guts to proclaim one's allegiance to John Dickson Carr and specialize oneself in locked rooms and other impossible crimes: Halter's literary fate, as he swimmed against the tide, seemed to be doomed from the start. And yet Halter won the Cognac Prize (one of the major local mystery awards at the time, sponsorized by publisher Le Masque) and went on to write over thirty novels all dealing with his favorite subject matter, to increasing acclaim. Twenty years later, noir is still a major force in French crime writing - so much so that "noir" is routinely used as a synonym for the genre as a whole - and Le Masque, once a pillar of the traditional mystery, has moved to darker (trendier?) territories, but Halter is still part of its catalogue, imperturbably churning out his annual puzzler with a supreme disdain for fashion. He has readers in Italy, Germany and Japan and recently made his entry into the English-speaking market with a collection of his best short stories, gaining a Barry award nomination in the process.
His dedication to impossible crimes is not the only feature that makes Halter's work outstanding. While often dubbed as the only heir to John Dickson Carr, Halter is not a docile follower, he has an universe and an approach of his own and is not afraid to experiment, even though the result is not always convincing or successful. Carr for instance never thought of rooting a locked room mystery in Greek mythology - Halter did, and this odd mix gave us books such as Le Crime de Dédale or Le Géant de pierre. Likewise, Carr, while often giving pseudo-supernatural overtones to his stories and being an enthusiast reader of M.R. James, always kept mystery and horror separated bar for a few short stories and the famous tour-de-force known as The Burning Court. Halter, on the other hand, has no problems with crossing genres and leaving the door of the unexpected wide open. Finally, Halter's imagination is way much darker than his master's and he doesn't shrink from graphic violence and bleak endings. He is definetely not a cozy writer.
As I said above, Halter's decoctions have uneven effects, due in a large part to his flaws as a writer, not helped by his prolificity and enthusiasm. Nick Fuller made a good summary of Halter's strenghts and weaknesses and I won't parrot him. I'd like to add, though, that Halter's puzzles tend to be lacking in the motivation department; too often his impossible crimes seem to be impossible... because they have to.
La Toile de Pénélope was published in 2001 and is one of Halter's most straightforward works. No hint of the paranormal, no attempt to "push the envelope" or play the mad scientists of detective fiction, no psychopaths in sight: just a plain locked room mystery in a traditional setting with everything worked out and back to order in the end.
It all begins with Frederick Foster rising from the dead. The rich and famous entomologist had left to Amazonia three years ago in order to study local spiders and hopefully discover some still unknown to science. Alas, everything went wrong: he and his partner went lost and he was finally declared dead after the river brought back a corpse with his papers on. His family mourned him, then resumed life. You can thus imagine how shocked they are when Foster turns to be alive, if not exactly kicking. The corpse was actually his guide's; Foster was captured by indigens and spent the following two years in captivity before finally escaping and finding his way back to civilization - with his precious spiders. Needless to say, this "resurrection" is not necessarily good news to everyone, most particularly his wife, Ruth, who was about to re-marry. Still, Foster slips back in his ancient life and everything would be fine - well, almost - without a troubling photo found in his luggage. It represents Foster, but the name behind is his partner's, which raises doubts: would the miracle man be an imposter? The family sets to extensively interview Foster on the most obscure aspects of his life, with no probing results either way, and the only specimen of the entomologist's fingerprints vanishes mysteriously.
Climate progressively deteriorates as no solution is likely to be found, 'Foster' being not the least frustrated one at this uncertainty. It thus comes off as the logical output of the whole affair that he is found dead at his desk, with a revolver near his hand and a bullet in his head; the impostor brought justice to himself, case closed. But of course this ain't suicide and now things are getting really interesting, for the door was locked from the inside and the only practicable window was obstrued by an intricate and unfakable web meticulously woven by Foster's favorite spider, the aptly-named Penelope. How did the murderer get out of the room? And who really was Frederick Foster?
La Toile de Pénélope, I said, is one of Halter's most orthodox detective novels - that it was born out of a challenge (from Belgian scholar Vincent Bourgeois, to whom the book is dedicated) may partially account for that. Because he has to deal with only one impossibility, which he solves brilliantly, Halter has more time for the larger plot which is more elegantly and soundly devised than usual with him. For once the reader has his chance to work parts of the truth out of the physical and psychological clues, and the guilty party is not arbitrary nor thrown out of thin air. The writing is tightier, with only occasional slips into clichés and some typos which suggest editors at Le Masque are paid way too much, and some characters are reasonably well-sketched, most particularly Major Brough. In the end, the book looks more like Christie than Carr, though neither would've condoned the second murder - a reminder that Halter-the-Bleak is always lurking in the backstages and that he takes no prisoners.


Further reading:
Paul Halter, a Master of Locked Rooms, by John Pugmire

03/11/2007

Hello and welcome at the Villa Rose.
I borrowed the name of this blog from A.E.W. Mason's seminal detective novel first because it's a favorite of mine and second because the book is set in France which is my country. My name is Xavier Lechard, I am thirty-two and I live in Noisy le sec, a little town near Paris. My many interests include mystery and horror fiction, movies, traditional pop and soul music. On this blog I plan to share my enthusiasms, indignations and thoughts on various topics (bar politics) with the vast world outside. Feel free to comment or send feedback, I want to hear from you.

French-speaking readers might want to visit mon blog en français.