UPDATE: Jeff Turrentine sent me a reply which you can read here.
It is 1938 and Europe is on the verge of war. Pierre Garnier, a brilliant young French academic and specialist of Edgar Allan Poe, and his wife Solange are in Switzerland to participate in an international symposium about the mystery novel. The symposium takes place in Ascona, a town located in the fringes of the Monte Verita (in Italian, Mountain of Truth) by the Lac Majeur. In the early 20th Century, a mystic that proclaimed to be the reincarnation of Christian Rosenkreutz, the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, lived in the mountains among his followers. Under siege by the hostile population and the police, the magus imitated the original Rosenkreutz locked himself in a grotto to meditate and pray to the telluric powers to show him a solution to the crisis. The grotto's entrance was then blocked with heavy rocks and there was no other way out. On the fourth day the populace went in – but there was nobody inside.
The whole plot develops under the spell of impossibility cast by this legend. During the symposium, a lecturer claims that impossible crimes do not occur in real life. Dr. Hoenig, a German psychiatrist and police consultant (and also a nasty Nazi) claims the opposite, and announces that he will prove it in the course of his lecture, even if it involves the exposure of some of the persons present. Afterwards, Dr. Hoenig tells Pierre Garnier that he has positive proof that his wife has been previously married to three other men, at least two of which had been murdered in seemingly impossible ways, implying that Simone is the murderess. Pierre is plunged into a whirlwind of doubts, fuelled by his wife's mysterious past. And then, before his lecture, dr. Hoenig is stabbed to death in a hermetically sealed room where nobody else was found, the murder having occurred in front of two witnesses who were watching by the window and who swear not to have seen the murderer go out. Nevertheless, when supposed to be dead, Dr. Hoenig is seen walking in the outside with a knife sticking out of his chest. The body finally appears inside the Rosenkreutz grotto – which only entrance was covered with solid iron bars.
The plot is typically Carrian, and in fact its main idea seems to have been derived from Till death do us part (1944, published as by Carter Dickson), in which a mysterious woman is also suspected of having murdered three hitherto unknown husbands. Carrian are also the main characters of Phillipe Garnier, a "sound bright lad" whose point of view is adapted by the narrator in most instances, and of Solange Garnier, a damned woman in the tradition of Carr's Lesley Grant (in the aforementioned Till death do us part), Fay Seton (He who whispers, 1946) and Marie Stevens (The burning court, 1937), as well as the atmosphere of constant tension suggested not only by the supernatural allusions but also by hints of inner psychological discomfort of the protagonists. This is all extremely well done and well told, with only a few noticeable signs of self-consciousness. Commissioner Brenner of the Swiss police and the acting deus ex machina, an impossible crime writer with some HM mannerisms and the unequivocal name of Andrew Carter Porges, are in charge of detection. The other characters are subservient to the plot but lively and interesting.
The book, however, has some letdowns, several minor and a major one. The minor ones are the occasional lack of accuracy (it is unforgivable to mention Sherlock Holmes address as "217B Baker Street"!), some anachronisms (for instance, it is highly unlikely that an academic symposium on the mystery novel, such as described in the book, would have been held as early as 1938) and, most of all, the constant academic repartee between the characters. This latter is always erudite and witty, mostly relevant to the plot and very seldom pompous – therefore, we are not in the presence of a pseudo-intellectual take on the detective novel. But this kind of Michael Innes' donnish silliness doesn't go very well with the sombre background. The major letdown lies in the alternative solutions, both of them far from original in the annals of mystery fiction, which any experienced reader of impossible crime mysteries will reach well before the end of the book (they are even more obvious if one considers the literary-theoretical subtext of the novel). Moreover, the solutions are not completely (even if they are mostly) fair-play. The winks at historical facts and characters (one of them is an obvious parody of Umberto Eco, and some other portraits can be spotted by an attentive and informed reader) are superfluous but unlikely to distract.
All in all, this is an interesting and elegantly written book that doesn't show it's frailties until the end, therefore making for a pleasurable and stimulating read. Despite of being a pastiche, and to some extent a satire, of mystery novels, it holds reasonably well as a detective story in its own right, unlike most of the similar attempts made by exiles from other quarters of literature. Furthermore, it's also very effective in sending a few shivers down the reader's spine along the way. This book also makes a strong case for those who think that the future of mystery fiction now, more than ever, lies outside the realm of the massified and standardized Anglo-American publishing markets.
Jean-Paul Török, L'énigme du Monte Verita (France Univers, 2007, 214 pp., 19€)
(via Sarah Weinman)
Curiously, the same point has been made by Howard Haycraft in an article entitled "The whodunit in World War II and after" (collected in The art of the mystery story, 536-542). In this article, Haycraft also points out that the number of new (British and American) published authors decreased radically during WWII. Thus, the popularity of mystery fiction during WWII was essentially due to a prolific establishment of writers whose creativity was then in full-fledge.
I have often thought about this issue, and suggest that the explanation of the phenomenon you mention lies in this: such an establishment of writers didn't exist during WWI.
Not only there were much less popular mystery authors to start with, but the vast majority of them were already past their prime and must even then have been perceived as something of the past, when compared to emerging writers such as Chesterton, Bentley, Mason or even Philpotts; these, in turn, were too recent to be contemporarily perceived as immediately significant; they would form the basis of the post-war mystery establishment, but weren't already part of it. One only has to think about writers like Morrison, Ottolengui, Orczy, Jenkins, Meade and others to understand this clearly; your beloved Freeman is, I believe, the exception rather than the rule.
The war-time decay in publishing by typically pre-war authors (by this I mean the ones that conformed to pre-war conventions) must have been caused not only by the war itself (according to Haycraft, the number of published mystery titles has also decreased during WWII) but by the progressive creative exhaustion and old fashiondness of most of those writers. Time would confirm this: after the war, only a small number of typical pre-war authors have continued to produce significant works; the next years of mystery writing would be dominated by the new school of direct heirs of the writers I mentioned above.
Of course, the decadence of the pre-war authors alone doesn´t explain the almost complete disappearance of the mystery story in English speaking countries during WWI. This factor, nonexistent during WWII, must be combined with another one: the non-emergence of new published writers during the war. As I mentioned, the same seems to have occurred during WWII.
This may be explained generally by a natural retraction of the publishing market during the wartime effort. But one could also point out that the formal artistic changes (from the short-story to the novel) that were taking place in the mystery story at the outbreak of WWI also demanded significant commercial changes in the publishing industry (from magazine to book publication). So, the market was also in a transitional period, and the accomplishment of this evolution would have been virtually impossible during the war.
That the issue may well have had a commercial aspect to it is suggested by the fact that such an important book as The mysterious affair at Styles has been written in 1916 but published only in 1920. The lack of a market for the new kind and format of mystery fiction that was being written at the time may have discouraged a number of other authors from writing at all. Significantly, Christie only wrote her second book after the war (and after she published her first).
So, I don't think that WWI properly killed the mystery story; WWI only delayed the transition, which was already in motion, from the Victorian whodunit to the inter-wars fair-play school of writing. In other words, it has only delayed the inevitable birth of the new mystery story.
But of course this is only my own view on this complex subject.
Then, two years ago, I found at a yard sale a Lupin I didn't know, La Barre-Y-Va, which attracted my attention: it was about an impossible crime, one of my péchés mignons. I had to read it, no matter Leblanc and Lupin and even though I didn't expect anything carrian in terms of cleverness and innovation. The solution to the problem was unsurprisingly a let-down, though it may be have groundbreaking back then, but then it didn't really matter, for the book was loads of fun. I went on to read another Lupin, La Demeure Mystérieuse, and enjoyed it even more. I had to confront the awful truth: I was hooked. A Lupinian I had become.
Slowly, very slowly so as not to run out of books too soon, I made my way through the Geste of the unique son of Théophraste Lupin and Henriette d'Andrézy and the more I progressed the more I realized what a dogmatic fool I had been. Since then I feel a little - but only a little - more understanding for the late Julian Symons. I had been wrong on all counts and for no reason other than my adolescent refusal and condemnation of anything not in the Christie/Doyle/Carr tradition.
The stories are no infantile fluff. They are fresh, youthful, and fun, which doesn't preclude some gravity on occasion. Above all, they're extremely varied in tone and style. While most focus on Lupin's schemes, many of them have puzzles and the gentleman-thief often acts as a detective. Leblanc's plotting, though definetely not orthodox and some crude
at times, is usually very good and sometimes even brilliant (Victor de la Brigade Mondaine in particular is a masterpiece of bamboozlement)
Lupin is not the arrogant schmuck I remembered, but one of the few characters in mystery fiction that can genuinely be called a hero - someone you can root for and whose every appearance (or non-appearance, since he is most often in disguise, unknown to everyone but the reader) is an event in itself. He is also a real three-dimensional character with a distinctive presence and "voice", both magnificent and vulnerable, genius and fallible, outlandish and sentimental. Most of the time he wins, but sometimes he loses. Hard.
813 is his greatest recorded fiasco, his own Scandal in Bohemia - and Leblanc's probable masterpiece as well as one of the few undisputable summits of the genre. Apparently bored with "just" being a thief, Lupin dabbles into geopolitics, which gets him into serious trouble. To give a full summary of this long, apparently rambling yet fully controled book would take as many pages as it takes Leblanc to tell his story. Let us just say that Lupin meets one of his most dangerous enemies, finds love once again, gets charged for a murder he didn't commit and goes to jail, owing his final release only to the personal intervention of the Kaiser, and loses everything in the end. Quite modern for a book written in 1910 - but then, as I said in a previous post, our favorite genre has changed very little ever since.
I still have some Lupins left on my shelves, including the weirdest of them all, L'Ile aux Trente Cercueils, and when done with them I'll re-read Needle and Stopper. As the old French proverb has it, only the fools never change their minds.
For me, a good detective story is also a good story in its own right. Story-telling, atmosphere, characterisation, and theme are as important as, if not more important than, the problem. The problem is crucial, but ideally, it should be the result of the theme and the characterisation.
I agree - to an extent.
As a firm believer in art for its own sake, I don't see the need for detective stories or any other kind of fiction to be "about" something. The masterful plotting of And Then They Were None and the haunting atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles are sufficient justifications for the existence of the books. So "theme" to me is an irrelevant notion.
Also, while I value story-telling, atmosphere and characterization as much as anyone else, I don't think they should be given as much importance as the problem when it comes to assess the quality of a detective story, for the problem is the core, the identity of the genre. Vivid characters, convincing atmosphere and good story-telling are very rare things indeed but can be found in other genres, while the puzzle plot is a trademark of detective fiction and real mystery fiction. Call me a genre nationalist, but I think it's worth preserving and defending.
Now, as I said above, I basically agree with Nick that a detective story with not only a brilliant plot but also good story-telling, atmosphere and characterization is certainly better than one which is abysmal on all counts but the problem - and is much more frequent than critics of the genre would have us to believe. That's indeed why I like R.A. Freeman better than, say, S.S. Van Dine. But I also believe a loosely-plotted detective story cannot be quite redeemed by fine writing or sense of character. It may be good as general fiction, but as mystery fiction it's just bad.
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