29/03/2008

Reads for the Weekend

If you share my enthusiasm and admiration for the works of Anthony Berkeley, then you have to read Martin Edwards' fine new article on the author of Trial and Error, Jumping Jenny and (as Francis Iles) Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact.
 
And after that, you can test your deductive skills with this real-life puzzler. (via Sarah Weinman)

28/03/2008

A Letter

This blog may not be the most popular on the web but the quality of its readership more than makes up for that. I just received this well-thought, well-argumented mail from Henrique Valle which I reprint here with the author's permission as it's just too good not to share:
 
In the interesting post "Die Hard" you wrote: «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.»

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.

 

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.

10/03/2008

Take Your Meds, Sherlock

Though primarily a comedy show with the mystery element taking an increasingly tinier backseat, Monk actually makes a quite serious point about the Great Detective figure, namely the apparent impossibility of being both a supermind and a normal being with a normal life. Adrian Monk at the end of the day is not substantially different from glorious predecessors such as Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe or Philo Vance. Alike them, he is basically an eccentric loner with hard-working grey cells but comparatively poor social skills. What makes him, unlike them, a comedic, and occasionnaly tragic, figure is that he's lost control. Great Detectives from the past were defined by their quirks; Monk on the other hand is dominated by his.
 
Despite a popular conception fueled by lazy scholarship, a Great Detective is not necessarily a flamboyant individual ridden with eccentricities: think of Miss Marple, Commissaire Maigret, Uncle Abner, Father Brown, Anthony Gethryn or Ellery Queen's later incarnations. Still, that particular brand of sleuths has long been predominant and starting with the father of them all, C. Auguste Dupin, gave the genre some of his most memorable and recognizable characters. But isn't "eccentricity" rather mild a word to describe the aforementioned Chevalier's love of night for its own sake which prompts him and his anonymous friend to literally live into obscurity? "At the first dawn of the morning we closed all the messy shutters of our old building; lighting a couple of tapers which,strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams -reading, writing, or conversing, until warned by the clock of the advent of the true Darkness."* The narrator readily admits that "had the routine of our life at this place been known to the world, we should have been regarded as madmen - although, perhaps, as madmen of a harmless nature."*
This would apply just fine to many of Dupin's followers, though the actual harmlessness of some - one Sherlock Holmes comes to mind - is questionable. Maybe Monk isn't the first mentally-disordered detective; he's just the first to be diagnosed as such.
 
He is also the first to be seriously impaired. Hercule Poirot may have been every bit as obsessive-compulsive in his own way as Monk, but he was able to function in an admittedly limited yet autonomous way. His relationship with Hastings was one of condescensive friendship, not dependance, as evidenced by the fact that he didn't seek a replacement when the good captain went off. Monk, on the other hand, relies on his assistants; he needs them even in the most trivial aspects of everyday life, blurring the usual Holmes/Watson hierarchy. Monk's intellect doesn't make him a superior being, and is closely related to his disorder, so much so as it is hard to see which one proceeds from the other. In season 3 episode Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine, a change in Monk's treatment removes both his OCD... and his deductive skills.
 
Is some sort of mental illness a prerequisite for being a Great Detective?
This is a fascinating question indeed, which Monk's writers are to be commanded for asking, even unwillingly.
 
 

Still Here

It's been two months since I last posted on this blog; I apologize to my few faithful readers for that long silence motivated by several family and health problems that left me not much time or desire for writing. Now I won't say everything is back to normal now (it isn't) but I have regained impetus enough to return to a regular routine of, say, one or two posts every two weeks. So stay tuned; the Villa Rose is definetely not closed.