15/03/2008

A Great Book. Oh, It's a Mystery Too.

Sometimes blurbs tell more about "state of the art" than the sharpest reviews or the book themselves:
"A new detective novel by P D James is always keenly awaited and The Private Patient will undoubtedly equal the success of her world-wide best-seller, The Lighthouse. It displays the qualities which P D James's readers have come to expect: a masterly psychological and emotional richness of characterisation, a vivid evocation of place and a credible and exciting mystery. The Private Patient is a powerful work of contemporary fiction." (via EuroCrime)
You read it correctly: the mystery element of the book, though "credible and exciting", takes third place to the "masterly psychological and emotional richness of characterisation" and "vivid evocation of place" which make the Baronness' latest offering a "powerful work of contemporary fiction". In other words, The Private Patient is great because, while technically a mystery, it isn't too much of a mystery, it isn't too much genre fiction. Just take away the murder and the detective and it's quite the kind of stuff they rave about at the London Review of Books (ok, the LRB rarely raves about anything, but you get the idea) That mystery is more popular than ever and taken increasingly seriously in literary circles doesn't mean the old prejudices against it have been defeated; quite to the contrary it's precisely because the genre has internalized those prejudices that it is so successful.
Would Anthony Boucher rise from the dead and get back to work, he'd be surprised at how the job evolved over the last forty years. Many reviewers no longer regard plot as paramount, or even important - some proudly affirm that whodunit is "no longer an issue". What they like is books that "transcend the genre" and offer unflinching explorations of "traditions of sexual sadism in a Louisiana bayou town" or stark portrayals of the "disintegration of a socially dysfunctional neighborhood in gritty Glasgow" (all this, and even worse, coming from the NYT's list of best mystery novels of 2002) Sounds not like sheer entertainment, does it? That's the point: not only do contemporary mysteries have to "transcend the genre" but they also have to be serious and deal with serious issues in a serious way. The jolly days of light-hearted homicide, gratuitous shivers and escapist crime are over; it's time to grow up. Cozies are out, hardboiled/noir is in. This character-driven, realistic, socially-conscious approach make contemporary mysteries more palatable to the mainstream, hence their appeal to people who'd never read mysteries otherwise and some literary heavyweights paying a visit. It depends on where you stand whether it is a long-overdue recognition or a selling-out of the genre's identity, but it accounts for blurbs praising a mystery for its least mystery-like features while downplaying the most distinctive.

1 commentaire:

Mike Grost a dit…

As far back as "The Poisoned Chocolates Case" (1929), Anthony Berkley was complaining about the absence of plot and "construction" in mainstream fiction.
But since 1970, this has penetrated into popular culture. Post-1970 prose mysteries, films, TV, comic books - all suffer from a drastic shrinking of plot. At least in the English-speaking world. It is creepy.
This can be known as "The War on Plot".