I wish all readers of this blog a happy new year. May it bring you all of the good and none of the bad.


Golden Age, Delayed

Recurring computer problems and even more recurring bouts of writer's block mean, I guess to no one's surprise, that I won't meet the announced deadline of December, 31 for the publication of the articles on Middle and Late Golden Age. I'm currently in the middle of Middle, which should hopefully appear somewhere in January.
I sincerely apologize to my readers for this delay.


Early Golden Age (1920-1926)

This article is the first instalment in the Golden Age(s) series.

There are at least two reasons to choose 1920 as the beginning of Golden Age. The first and more obvious is that it saw the first published efforts of two of the giants of the period, namely Agatha Christie (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and F.W. Crofts (The Cask) The second is that it follows one of the dreariest periods in the history of the genre. The Detective Story had been one of the unsung casualties of the Great War, all but disappearing from the literary landscape during the conflict. Not only does 1920 herald a new era but it also marks the rebirth of the genre, a new start - but not a start from scratch. Authors from the previous era were still there and picked up where they had left before the war while newcomers progressively rejuvenated a formula that had been mostly left unquestioned for the last forty years; the ancient merged into the modern. The first six years of the new era is a period of transition, which we'll call "Early Golden Age" from now on, and it's revealing of the stature of the First Lady of Crime that it opens and closes with a Christie book.

To a 2009 reader Styles looks astonishingly modern whereas The Cask is a thing of the past if an extremely enjoyable one, and he may find hard to believe they were published the same year. Styles's elaborate architecture and misdirection are striking announcements of things to come; The Cask on the other hand harks back to pre-WW1, even pre-holmesian (Gaboriau's influence is sensible throughout) detective fiction with its emphasis on detection rather than deception. Still, they are both transition works, at the crossroads of two eras. The Hercule Poirot of Styles, for instance, is not quite the one most readers are familiar with. He has the same appearance, most of the same personality traits, but he is a comparatively more "physical" sleuth and pays a greater attention to material clues, in line with detective mores of the time when the book was written (1916). Conversely, the complex criminal scheme and alibi-breaking of The Cask set it apart from its models' simpler, more straightforward narratives. So none of these books is entirely modern, but none is entirely "primitive" either. It is a fair summary and assessment of the whole period.
Early detective fiction but for a few exceptions was short, relatively linear (expose of the problem - investigation - solution) and cared little for whodunit, placing the emphasis instead on the "how" and "why" of the case. Astonishing as it may seem to a modern reader, murder was not the capital offence it would later become; sleuths might just as well deal with thefts, disappearances, blackmail or any insolit chain of events. But the most striking difference from later mystery fiction was with regard to the place and role of the reader. Since detective stories were thought of as exercises in logic, the thrill of the game was to be found in the puzzle and the detective's mental prowess; the reader was to be a spectator, not a player, let alone a partner. Fair-play was thus scant, and misdirection almost non-existent.
High Golden Age writing shares some of the previous era's characteristics: whodunit was still regarded by most as a secondary issue and detectives were still expected to make spectacular deductions based on physical evidence or arcane knowledge. What changed is that authors set to write detective novels rather than stories, and longer works require meatier content: problems became more "spectacular" while plots got more complex and twistier. Detectives too "evolved", getting increasingly "ideosyncrastic" personalities. The genre as a whole shifted slowly away from the previous era's nominal realism to a more avowedly "stylized" approach.
The relationship between the author and the reader underwent some changes as well. No longer was the latter expected to just sit and marvel, starry-eyed, at the master sleuth's exploits. R. Austin Freeman insists in his Art of the Detective Story that he must be given the same chances as the detective to solve the case, and no clues must be hidden from him:
This failure of the reader to perceive the evidential value of facts is the foundation on which detective fiction is built. It may generally be taken that the author may exhibit his facts fearlessly provided only that he exhibits them separately and unconnected. And the more boldly he displays the data, the greater will be the intellectual interest of the story. For the tacit understanding of the author with the reader is that the problem is susceptible of solution by the latter by reasoning from the facts given; and such solution should be actually possible. Then the data should be produced as early in the story as is practicable. The reader should have a body of evidence to consider while the tale is telling. The production of a leading fact near the end of the book is unfair to the reader, while the introduction of capital evidence — such as that of an eye-witness — at the extreme end is radically bad technique, amounting to a breach of the implied covenant with the reader.
This is the stone on which the concept of "fair play", a cornerstone of Golden Age and later detective/mystery fiction, would be built. Freeman unlike Van Dine didn''t regard the genre as a simple mind-game and neither did he belittle "literary" endornments such as character or atmosphere. He believed, on the other hand, that detective stories must be somewhat "interactive". Chesterton in the past had already expressed similar views, but they had remained a dead letter. Now those ideas were finally catching on, but old habits die hard. Most "Ancestors" as well as some newcomers kept using the good old tricks and would still do for a long time.

This formative period, as I've written earlier, ends in 1926 with another Christie novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This book, possibly the most famous detective story of all time and also one of the most controversial at the time of its publication because of the trick it played on readers, put its author definetely on the map. Perfecting the approach initiated in Styles six years earlier, Christie makes her novel a trap - her aim is not to demonstrate, to solve, but to deceive. Critics and colleagues alike faulted her for not playing fair - and this, too, was something new. Neither Van Dine (whose Benson Murder Case was published the same year) or Knox had yet written their "commandments" but the existence and necessity of rules was being increasingly accepted. Another period, the one most of us associate with "Golden Age", was about to begin.


The Age Before Golden Age

Henrique Valle, commenting on my initial post, asked an important question:
"Are Trent´s Last Case and the earlier Chesterton, Mason (of At The Villa Rose fame!), Freeman and Philpotts works, among others, outside the Golden Age?"
This raises once again the definition problems I highlighted in my article. Is Golden Age a period, a style, or both?
If we choose the first option and stick to the commonly accepted chronology (Golden Age beginning somewhere in the early Twenties and ending either before or shortly after WW2) then the issue looks settled once and for all: Trent's Last Case, being published in 1913 and probably written sooner, is not part of the Golden Age and neither are works by Chesterton, Mason, Freeman and others that were published prior to the Great War.
Things are less clear by the second option, as many of these works exhibit features associated with GA-style detective fiction and, indeed, exerted a decisive influence on it. As to the third option - regarding Golden Age as a certain period dominated by a certain model of detective stories - it leaves our candidates out of the picture once again since neither Trent's Last Case or The Eye of Osiris for instance are typical products of their era; one of the reasons of their enduring appeal is how ahead they were of their time.
Now even these apparently firm answers generate further interrogations: If it's not yet Golden Age, what is it then? How do we call the period that preceded, and led to, proper Golden Age?
Some scholars including Julian Symons have called it "the first Golden Age" and there is justification for this. The thirty or so years between the first publication of A Study in Scarlet and the outset of the World War I saw the genre coming to maturity - as I've written elsewhere, all of mystery fiction as we know it was either in germ or full-blown by the early 1910s - as well as conquering a vast audience. Most of all, it was marked by some of the earliest and most lasting triumphs of the genre - its relative novelty as well as the absence of firm rules (soon to be remedied to, alas) boosted authors' creativity. That it most often manifested in the guise of short stories rather than novels, something we've lost the habit of, makes it all the more impressive.
To call such a period a Golden Age would certainly not be an exaggeration, but it is somewhat confusing in my view, especially if you think like I do that GA in its traditional acception is already a plural entity. If we start numbering Golden Ages like we do with World Wars and French Republics we end up emptying the whole notion. Why not a third or a fourth Golden Age? Is not each period a Golden Age of sorts? Also, I like the that when I'm talking about GA in the broadest sense, I don't need to specify which one I'm referring to. It makes discussion and debate much easier. Silver Age then? This might do, but the appellation might apply just well to the period immediately following the standard GA and preceding the thriller boom of the early Sixties...
I welcome any suggestion.


Happy As A Censor

Given that Harlequin - yes, that Harlequin - has been squewering romance for decades, it's not surprising they now apply the same treatment to mystery. What's more, they are proud of themselves!

"Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership. Also, grammar and spelling standards have changed quite a bit in sixty years. But that did entail a text edit, which we had not anticipated. AND, we had to clear those adjustments with the current copyright holders, if we had been able to locate them. And of course, the covers: Though we used the original covers, they had to be scanned and touched up."

I don't dispute that vintage mysteries often include stuff that is hard for the modern reader to stomach, and while I don't think it should necessarily invalidate the corpus delictii's artistic value, I can see why readers and publishers might prefer to stay away from it. Had Harlequin finally decided not to reprint material it deemed offensive, I wouldn't have minded - more adventurous publishers might have taken the relay and it was just fine.

But this is not  what Harlequin chose to do, instead they decided to butcher books from another era to make them palatable to modern readers deemed too stupid or too sensitive to tackle "hot stuff" from the past.

Yes Virginia, the past is a foreign country, people do - and write - things differently there and you won't change that by deleting words and editing content. What you will do, however, apart from a disservice to both literature and history is emasculating a story and thus depriving it from a vital part of its interest and importance. That the whole thing seems to have been done without asking anyone's permission is further testimony to the moral quality of the enterprise.

I said in a recent post that preservation of the classics of the genre was up to fans, be them readers, critics or independent publishers, and that story provides further confirmation of it. That mystery is now the top-selling genre in the world doesn't mean it's taken more seriously and respectuously by people with money (and nothing much else) on their minds and will resort to anything to make some bucks - the kind of people, in short, who run the publishing industry.


Better Late Than Never

Eons ago, I wrote a post suggesting that Golden Age be divided in three periods, with a brief outline of each stratus and its main characteristics. I would, I promised, expand on that in future posts. As procrastination, oblivion and lack of inspiration played their ordinary nefarious role, those future posts never came up. Even worse, I let a typically perceptive comment by Henrique Valle without the answer it deserved. As this blog has recently entered its third year of existence, it's time to get the work done and start this long-promised series. If I don't get writer's block and keep a good health it should be completed by December, 31. First instalment will take place on next Sunday.
Stay tuned...


Our Job

Les Blatt over at GAdetection mourns the loss of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, John Rhode, Emma Lathen and others whose works have been out of print for eons, with no better future in sight:

This thread hits on a very sore point for me - the fact that so many classic authors are completely (or nearly so) out of print, at least in the US. As far as I know, all of Sayers's, nearly all Christie's and a fair percentage of Marsh's books are still in print. Allingham, as you say, is being reprinted by Felony & Mayhem, who also has been reissuing most of Crispin (curiously excluding The Moving Toyshop) and Elizabeth Daly. So much for the good news. Once you get past Rue Morgue Press and, of course, Crippen & Landru, however most of the other publishers seem to have only a very limited assortment available, particularly of GAD authors. Poisoned Pen Press in Arizona has some available; ditto Merion Press, and I've found some Leo Bruce books published by Academy Chicago Press. I guess I should note that the Mystery Guild does have a handful of classics (usually multiple-novel volumes) available, amid the usual "blockbuster-hits-only" lists. I suspect that the problem too often is orphan rights. It seems criminal (pun, I suppose, intended) to me that Carr and Queen are totally out of print, not to mention Arthur Upfield, John Rhode and even later authors, including Emma Lathen and Patricia Moyes. I'm not sure I can offer an easy solution - but I do think that today's readers are being cheated. And I'm grateful to Doug Greene and to Tom and Enid Schantz, among others, for their work in trying to bring some excellent authors back.

The distressing gap between the huge popularity of the genre and the widespread ignorance of whole strati of its past is a familiar topic of this blog. It is not helped by classics going extinct. How can you fault someone for not knowing John Dickson Carr, or having never read anything by him, when the only way to do is to dig in the dusty shelves of some back-alley used book store? Availability is the first condition of notability.

The big question of course is why those once well-regarded authors fell off the train whereas their companions continued their travel more or less comfortably. Some will say it's estate's fault, others will insist that it's publishers'; still others will say that it's just because their works have not stood the test of time. They all have a point. Some estates are indifferent at best, provided that you can locate them. Publishing is a notoriously risk-averse industry and it's no coincidence that Rue Morgue, C&L and others are independents. Finally, times have changed and so have readers and their expectations, which to me is the most important factor.

Like it or not and for better or worse (no need to tell you which side I'm on) readers nowadays have a wholly different attitude to mystery fiction than they had back in the first half of the last century. Golden Age and later authors whose works have not faded into oblivion are those who satisfy the new standards or just provide a not-too-guilty pleasure.

Christie admittedly owes a great deal of her popularity to her amazing plotting skills and the legendary figures of Poirot and Marple, but an even larger part of her enduring appeal lies in what has come to be called "Christie-land", that quiet and gentle rural England with its retired majors and inquisitive spinsters. It is of course an oversimplification of her work and one of the reasons why she still fails in some quarters to be taken as seriously as she should, but this oversimplification is what makes the brand survive and the books sell.

The appeal of the other Crime Queens - Allingham, Marsh, Sayers and Tey - is of a different, more highbrow sort. While Christie is often (unfairly) chided for that modern capital sin, poor characterization, her sisters in crime are essentially lauded for their literary merits, in keeping with the contemporary liking for mysteries that "transcend the genre". Hardly anyone reads Tey or Allingham for the puzzles; their appeal lies in the elegant writing and the comedy of manners; Marsh and Sayers are stronger plotters but the dynamics are the same with, in the latter's case, a phenomenal plus in the person of Lord Peter Wimsey.

The forgotten men (and women) of mystery have none of all those advantages. John Dickson Carr for instance also wrote about rural England, but in a decidedly unquiet way no bound to please the cozy reader. Ellery Queen built several of their stories on psychology and the characterization in the Wrightsville books is superior but their plots (nor Carr's) had the deceitful linearity of Christie's - it takes much more attention and concentration to read Ten Days' Wonder or The Mad Hatter Mystery than And Then They Were None. Their books sometimes pushed the envelope but they didn't transcend the genre; they weren't character-driven, were scant on direct social comment and worse of all to a modern audience, they were doggedly unrealistic.

This is not to say that any revival is impossible; fortune may sometimes have happy reversals. But it will take time as the potential audience will not be easily won. Time being money, it is something big publishers are not readily prodigal of so don't expect them to lead the way in the rescue of the lost classics of mystery fiction; and while the aforementioned independent presses do a marvelous job, the bulk of the work is up to fans - it's up to us. Fans don't have money, they don't have power, but they have a plenty of that thing that move mountains: enthusiasm. Let's use it to enhance the visibility of our favorite writers, either by promoting them to our friends and relations or using the new tool we have been given or any other venue we can find. I can't say for sure it will result in the reprint of E.R. Punshon's complete works, but every travel begins with a single step.


Lost in Translation: René Reouven

To write about René Reouven is for this blogger a source of both greatest pleasure and deepest frustration. Pleasure, because the man happens to be one of my all-time favorite mystery writers. Frustration, because readers of this blog unless they are fluent enough in French will never be able to read any of his books. Despite being one of the most important authors to emerge in the genre in the second half of the twentieth century and having won both of his country's top awards for crime writing, Reouven remains a French-French phenomenon. This makes him a logical choice to inaugurate this new feature.

René Reouven was no debutant when his first mystery, Octave II, appeared under Denoël's famous Crime-Club imprint in 1964. As René Sussan (his real name) he had already published two mainstream novels, La Route Des Voleurs (Thieves' Road, 1959) and Histoire de Farczi (The Story of Farczi, 1964) which received the Prix Cazes, starting a long series of prizes and accolades. He had also made a foray into science-fiction with Les Confluents (1960) and would become a noted writer in this genre under both his real name and his pseudonym.

Crime-Club, later to be known as Sueurs Froides, was home to what has come to be called "suspense à la française" a homegrown genre which emphasized clever plotting, usually revolving around complex machinations, and elegant writing in the fashion of the imprint's locomotives Boileau-Narcejac. CC's regulars included authors relatively familiar to English-speaking audiences such as Hubert Monteilhet or Sébastien Japrisot, but also less lucky ones such as Louis C. Thomas or Jean-François Coatmeur. Alike them, Reouven would stay faithful to Denoël and its crime imprints for the whole of his career.

Reouven's works of the first period are elegantly-crafted exercises which blend murder, dark humor and satire, most often of the upper and middle classes or civil servants; the writing is brisk, literate and filled with puns and allusions to literature and pop culture. Theatre is a strong influence on the books: Reouven's plots often revolve around quid pro quos and the clever, deliberately unrealistic dialogue reminds at times of Guitry or Wilde. Highlights of the period include the locked-room mystery Les Humeurs Assassines (The Murderous Humors, 1968) L'Assassin Maladroit (The Awkward Murderer, 1970) which earned him the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière
, Cinq Personnages En Quête de Meurtre (Five Characters in Search of a Murder, 1972) and Le Bouton du Mandarin (The Mandarin's Button, 1976)

The half-historical, half-contemporary Les Confessions d'un Enfant du Crime (The Confessions of a Child of Crime, 1977) and the "Biblical mystery" Tobie or not Tobie (Tobiah or not Tobiah, 1980) are turning points as they herald the direction Reouven's work would take for most of the next two decades. A largely self-taught man of Renaissance erudition, Reouven uses his vast culture to re-write history or literary works, sometimes blending both. Like Tim Powers of whom he is somehow the mystery fiction counterpart, he sticks scrupulously to facts and sources but links and interprets them in a way all his own, with such mastery that you end up wondering where fact ends and fiction begins. Nowhere is this genius as evident as in the cycle of holmesian pastiches this registered member of the French Sherlock Holmes Society wrote in the eighties and this is why I will discuss it in detail in the rest of this article.

The first book in the cycle, Elementaire, mon cher Holmes (Elementary My Dear Holmes, 1982) does not directly feature Sherlock despite its title. Reouven postulates the survival of the first draft of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a book that is such a concentrate of pure evil that it turns everyone who reads it into a murderer. The masterfully constructed plot follows the book's "adventures" in reverse from his last owner to the first, better-known under the nickname "Jack the Ripper" and whose surprise identity is but one of the book's many pleasures. This is arguably one of Reouven's masterpieces, and deservingly won the Prix Mystère de la Critique.

Holmes appears in person in L'Assassin du Boulevard (The Boulevard Assassin, 1985) which takes place during the Great Hiatus and takes Sherlock to the Gay Paris where he becomes a civil servant and meets the originals of Georges Courteline's play Messieurs les ronds-de-cuir while tracking down Huret, the Boulevard Assassin - as one of his victims called him in a last breath, in a Paris plagued by anarchist attacks. The identity of the criminal is well-hidden and well-clued, though the main clue lies on a pun which may not be easily translatable.

Holmes' next appearance is in the episodic novel Le Bestiaire de Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes' Bestiary, 1987) which deals with untold stories such as the Giant Rat of Sumatra or Isadora Persano and its worm unknown to science. Joseph Conrad, Beryl Baskerville and H.H. Holmes co-star as well as an evil scientist whose name begins with M - no, it's not Moriarty. While the solutions brought to the individual cases are uneven, the way Reouven fuses them in a single narrative and points the finger at an unlikely enemy is properly astounding.

Le Détective Volé (The Stolen Detective, 1988) is certainly the most unusual and daring item in the series. Tired to see comparisons being made between his creature and Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sends Holmes and Watson in the past via H.G. Wells' time machine to find the real-life person who provided Poe with the inspiration for his character. Holmes and Watson first "travel" to early nineteenth-century France to meet Vidocq then to New York and Baltimore to work out the murder of Mary Rogers and the mystery of Poe's death. As to the "real" Dupin... send me a mail if you want to know the answer.

The cycle ends with Les Passe-Temps de Sherlock Holmes (The Pastimes of Sherlock Holmes, 1989) which sees Holmes solving three "literary" mysteries including the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, pointing a rather surprising author, and the death of Gérard de Nerval. I didn't like it as much as the previous four, but it's certainly an engrossing experience.

A full coverage of René Reouven's output would require a much longer article - the man is also responsible for a delightful Dictionnaire des Assassins and his science-fiction work, which often includes mystery elements, would deserve a entire post. I regret not to have place enough to tell you about another masterpiece of his, La Raison du Meilleur Est Toujours La Plus Forte (The Best One's Will is Always the Strongest, 1986) which doesn't fit in any of his usual veins.

What I hope is to have made you curious about Réouven, and make you feel why he is in my view one of the best mystery writers around even though I don't think any translation will occur soon as his brand of civilized, erudite mysteries is not "marketable" enough, not to speak about the difficulties in translating the many puns in his writing. Also, as Michel Lebrun pointed out, Reouven is an extremely cultivated writer aiming at a similar audience; much of the zest of L'Assassin du Boulevard passes you out if you don't know Courteline and/or don't know about the anarchist attacks that stroke France and the rest of Europe in the late nineteenth century. Still, it's worth sampling the work of the man who, in the words of Jacques Baudou, "makes the parallels meet".

Further reading:

Reouven's holmesian pastiches have been collected as Histoires Secrètes of Sherlock Holmes, while his revisionist histories have been gathered in the two volumes of Crimes Apocryphes.


Lost in Translation

Anglo-Saxon publishers and readers have shown an increasing interest in foreign-language mystery fiction over the last decades. Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Idriodarson, Andrea Camillieri and my fellow-compatriot Fred Vargas have now achieved notability outside their respectives spheres, some of them winning prestigious awards in the process. I can't but rejoice of this, no matter my personal feelings about these authors. Still, they are only the top of the iceberg and a lot of great stuff remains to be uncovered, most particularly a lot of great French stuff. Gallic mystery fiction, despite having followed sometimes paths which I find to be regretable or at least objectionable, has a tradition of excellence that long predates the creator of Commissaire Adamsberg, and certainly deserves to be better known.
A new feature of this blog, "Lost in Translation" will focus on those of my fellow-compatriots who, despite being popular and/or celebrated in their country, have never made it in the Anglosphere. Some had a handful of their books translated but failed to build an audience. Others were initially acclaimed then slipped into obscurity. Still others were too original. Most, sadly, were just never given a chance. Have you ever heard of Frédéric Dard, Michel Cousin, Noël Vindry, Madeleine Coudray, Jean-François Coatmeur, Jacques Decrest, Pierre Siniac, S.A. Steeman or Martin Méroy? No? That's what "Lost Translation" sets to correct. I have no hope that it will move publishers, but it should at the very least arouse some curiosity and, who knows...
The series will be irregular but I'll try to make it as frequent as possible. Don't hesitate to use the comments section to inquire about an author or suggest a name; I'll be happy to oblige as far as my readings and information allow me to.
Don't miss the premiere this Sunday. Our first guest will be René Reouven.


A Belated Obituary

One of this blog's policies is to remain polite even in the face of events and behavior that defy politeness, so I'll refrain with extreme difficulty from using stronger words than "shameful" to describe the media's abysmal coverage of the death of Celia Fremlin.  It took two months for the mystery world to know of the sad event thanks to the invaluable Martin Edwards who proved thus to be a more reliable news source than The Times and The Guardian. We tend to think our genre enjoys a better treatment nowadays than it once did, but stories of this kind remind one the path is still a long one.
Not that the whole thing is entirely surprising: Celia Fremlin was never a best-selling writer, she was not very prolific and most of her output was out of print.  Her kind of books - psychological suspense - was no longer "hip" and was always somewhat marginal in her own country. It's telling that the only award she ever got was from a foreign organization, the MWA.
Even more saddening in a way is that the few people remembering Fremlin do so because of just one book, the Edgar-winning The Hours Before Dawn and mostly because of its feminist overtones. I don't dispute the validity of such a reading but it is way too narrow in my view. Hours Before Dawn is first and foremost a splendid piece of craft, especially if one considers that it was Fremlin's debut. The characterisation and the depiction of suburbian life are superb and the writing is sharp and quietly ironic. The plot may sound familiar to the modern reader, but it's only because it has been much recycled on both print and screen since 1958. Even so, Fremlin plays the reader's nerves with expertise and the book is hard, almost impossible to put down - I, for one, couldn't. That it appealed so much to Edgar voters comes as no surprise: Fremlin's blend of the ordinary and the creepy probably reminded them of their homegrown school of domestic terror, most notably Charlotte Armstrong and Ursula Curtiss with whom Fremlin has a lot in common.
The not-that-young newcomer seemed poised for great things, and she delivered in the dozen books (including my own favorite, The Long Shadow ) and the many short stories that followed. Unfortunately she never became a household name despite admirers as prestigious as Ruth Rendell or P.D. James. Now that she's gone, let us hope that her work won't go the same way and that interest, even misguided, for her best-known work will bring the rest of her output back in print. It's way overdue.
Further reading:
Her obituary in The Times, alas more concerned with her stance on euthanasia than her crime writing.
Her obituary in The Guardian, somewhat more detailed and interesting.
A review of The Hours Before Dawn on Steve Lewis' MysteryFile blog.
A profile of Fremlin and another review of Hours on the Tangled Web site.


A Quizz Just For You

Its title is "How Well Do You Know Mystery Classics?" and you can it take it here.

Feedback much encouraged.


Some Thoughts on Barzun & Taylor's Catalog of Crime

Mystery scholar Douglas G. Greene once described the CoC (as it is now known in the community) as a "supremely quirky book" which is a masterpiece of understatement. A review of it done in the authors' oh-so-distinctive style would go something like this:

A pretentious hogwash of arbitrary judgements, haughty dogmatism and proud narrow-mindedness, cooked by two academic sourpusses. Best read as a companion piece to Julian Symons' equally obnoxious Bloody Murder.

Rather abrupt and somewhat unfair? But then these epithets apply exactly to the CoC for its most part, which wouldn't be too much of a problem were it given as a polemical essay rather than a scholarly work. Despite Barzun's typically modest assertion that his book "should not only help to steer clear of dull imitations [but] should also help to develop [...] needful critical standards", ultimately the CoC tells the reader only about the own very particular tastes of those who wrote it and while it may arouse curiosity, only the converts in the end will be won to its cause. All in all, it is basically the flipside of Bloody Murder, which is not surprising since Barzun & Taylor and Symons share the same premises; they only differ with regard to their conclusions.

Both B&T and Symons display for instance conservative conceptions of "literature" which preclude mystery fiction from being part of it, either because of the genre's innate inferiority (Symons) or of its fundamental alterity (Barzun & Taylor) They also agree on the importance of realism - though B&T's definition of it is not quite the same as Symons's - characterization and credibility taken in its narrowest sense; it won't surprise anyone thus that both the CoC and Bloody Murder frown on John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen and praise the serious and civilized who keep their fancy under control. Wild humor is not the genre de la maison either, of course.

Where our killjoys part, however, is on the question of books that push the envelope (Symons would probably say "transcend the genre") or at least don't quite follow Mgr. Knox's Decalogue. Symons predictably endorses them and give them highest marks while B&T stick to the orthodoxy, which is their absolute and inalienable right but doesn't quite put them in the proper frame of mind to appreciate mysteries that are "different". Their devotion to tradition, coupled with their belief that the genre can't and mustn't be about matters deemed to be the Novel's province leads them to rather extreme statements such as this condemnation of A.E.W. Mason's classic
The House of the Arrow:

Romance, melodrama, good characterization, and by no means negligible humor cannot compensate for Hanaud's failure to play fair with his Watson.


Similarly, John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court, while avoiding its author's usual "failings" still misses B&T's approbation because of its "hybrid" nature.

Another B&T's own feature is the rampant misogyny, though it may not be the more apt word to describe their attitude which reminds this reader of French mystery criticism in the Fifties: female authors are OK, some are even great, but only as long as they don't write in a "feminine", "ladylike" way - both words being invariably used in a derogatory fashion.

Now I wouldn't give an impression that the CoC is a total wreck, not worthy of one's time. The authors' erudition is quite impressive and their judgements, when not overly opinionated, are quite sound and interesting. Also, they are much more exhaustive than Symons and include some authors that inexplicably failed to get a mention in Bloody Murder such as Robert Bloch, Fredric Brown, Joel Townsley Rogers or Charlotte Armstrong. Granted, none of them gets high marks but B&T at least are aware of their existence and significance.

Still, we are left with one question: why is the mystery genre so fertile in authoritarian folks whose conception of criticism consists in trashing anything they don't agree with and tell others what they should write, and how? As infuriating as they were, neither B&T nor Symons started the trend and, sadly, neither did they end it.

Further reading:

A more charitable review of the CoC by Martin Edwards.


A Fiction of Dreams

Readers of this blog know the lack of theoretical thinking in contemporary mystery fiction is one of my pet-peeves. Modern authors, talent notwistanding, have often nothing or little of substance to say about the genre. China Mieville's featured article on Jim Scalzi's blog makes a refreshing exception. There are many good points there, but the most important might well be this one:
"[...]Crime novels are not what they say they are. They are not, for a start, realist novels. Holmes's intoxicating and ludicrous taxonomies derived from scuffs on a walking stick are not acts of ratiocination but of bravura magical thinking. (Not that they, or other 'deductions', are necessarily 'illogical', or don't make sense of the evidence, but that they precisely do so: they make it into sense. The sense follows the detection, in these stories, not, whatever the claim, vice versa.) The various manly Virgils who appear ex nihilo to escort Marlowe through his oneiric purgatories are not characters, but eloquent opacities in man-shape: much more interesting. Dalgliesh's irresistibility to hyperrealised moral panics du jour – the poor man manages to contract SARS – is an elegiac opera of Holland Park angst, rather than any quotidian gazette of a policeman's unhappy lot. Detective fiction is a fiction of dreams. Not only is this no bad thing, it is precisely what makes it so indispensable."
One of the reasons why I am skeptical of any kind of "realism" in mystery fiction is that I think the genre actually belongs in the realm of imaginative literature, up there with ghost stories, fantasy, sci-fi, chansons de geste and fairy tales to which detective stories have so often been compared. Today's conception of the mystery genre as an offshot of naturalism to me is a profound and in many ways tragic misunderstanding. I may elaborate on this later.


Edgar Week: the 2000s

Here we are in a new century and a new millenium. Edgar voters celebrate this double event by doing some changes of various amplitude and desirability, mostly in the demographic department, while remaining faithful to the core principles outlined in the previous two decades - what French politicians call "changement dans la continuité".

The Eighties and the Nineties were marked on one hand by older laureates with no pressing need for an(other) award, and better showings of female writers (especially in the latter decade) on the other. The 2000s see a relative rejuvenating and renewal of the average winner, which is welcome, and an almost complete eradication of women, which is much less so. S.J. Rozan (Winter and Night) is the sole female winner of the decade, taking us back to the jolly good days of the Sixties and Seventies. Let us hope the next decade will be kinder to the better half of mankind, though I wouldn't bet on this.

Nor would I bet that Edgar in the 2010s will make a greater place to foreign offerings. Ian Rankin (Resurrection Men) and Jason Goodwin (The Janissary Tree) are the only non-American, continuing the trend towards insularization started in the Eighties. A repeat of the 60's British Invasion is unlikely to occur any time soon, though Karin Alvtegen's nomination (and Stieg Larsson's much-talked-about snubbing) might indicate a Scandinavian invasion is possible.

While Dick Francis doesn't win any award in the decade, the flame of multiple-winning is still shining on the Edgar Awards. S.J. Rozan makes history by winning Best Short Story in 2002 for Double-Crossing Delancey and Best Novel the following year, while T. Jefferson Parker follows in Dick Francis' and James Lee Burke's steps by winning the prestigious statuette twice in four years* (Silent Joe in 2002, then California Girl three years later)

As far as books go, voters keep favoring literary, character-driven, realistic fiction and increasingly ignore genre distinctions as evidenced by Jess Walter's win for Citizen Vince. They show much less enthusiasm for series than they had in the previous decade, however, and the main event of the 2000s might well be the return of standalones as Edgar's darlings: only two of this decade's winners are part of a series, one of which (Rankin) is clearly a Grand Master in disguise. This, as well as the increasingly insular nature of the award, reminds strongly of the Fifties except for the place of women.

Has the Edgar come full circle?

* He has since added a third Edgar to his collection, winning Best Short Story last night for "Skinhead Central". The rumor has it that he is busy writing a new novel to be published in paperback, so that he can compete next year in that category, the only one to date missing in his curriculum. Mr. Parker declined to comment.

Edgar Week: The Nineties

This decade is an oddity in Edgar history as it continues the previous one instead of repudiating it. As we browse the list of the winners, we find the same trends, the same demographics and in some cases the same people as in the Eighties.
The most remarkable event of the decade is the massive presence of female writers, especially American female writers. Julie Smith becomes the first local to win since Charlotte Armstrong thirty-four years before and the mid-decade sees three women (Margaret Maron, Minette Walters, Mary Willis Walker) winning in a row. The Fifties may be proportionally the most female-friendly decade in the history of the award, but the Nineties come close second. The following decade, however and in true Edgar fashion, would be another setback for the fairer sex.
Some choices in the previous decade had suggested Edgar voters were in love again with books that "push the envelope" after two decades of ignoring them. The Nineties confirm this as well as reveal a slight change in the meaning of "pushing the envelope". Edgar voters in the Fifties were seeking books which expanded the boundaries of the genre by offering deeper characterization, tackling unfamiliar subjects, experimenting or revisiting its conventions. Their successors on the other hand are interested in works that transcend the genre and look like "serious" literature. This new approach accounts for winners of this decade being comparatively more earnest and displaying greater "awareness" than their predecessors and found its logical outcome with the crowning of a mainstream novel with only formal connections to the genre, Mr. White's Confession by Robert Clark.
"No Country For Young Men" was a tempting title for the Eighties; so it is with respect to the Nineties. Dick Francis in 1996 not only breaks his own record by winning a historic third award, but he also sets another one: at 76, he is the oldest winner ever*. While no other laureate of the decade is that old, at least four of them are quinquagenarians and none to my knowledge** is under 40. Also in keeping with the Eighties, some winners are actually multiple winners: Francis of course, but also Lawrence Block who had won for Best Short Story in 1985 and went to score twice more in that category in 1994 and 1998, and of course James Lee Burke whose Cimarron Rose made him the second author to win the Best Novel Award more than just once.  All but three (Walters, Walker and Clark) of the laureates had been around for at least one decade, Block being the one with the longest career, and only two are of foreign origin.
Finally, series are as popular in the Nineties as they were in the Eighties: only three books not featuring or introducing a recurring character. Which changes would the next century bring (or not)? We'll see that tomorrow in the sixth and final episode of this series.
   * He is also the only author to have won both Best Novel and Grandmaster in the same night, and Sid Halley to date is the only series character to appear in two Best Novel winners.
** The dates of birth of some authors are unknown or at least not available on the World Wide Web.


Edgar Week: The Eighties

The main event of the Seventies had been American writers coming back from an almost decade-long exile. The Eighties confirm that they're back for good, and that Britain's glory days are definetely over: seven of the decade's winners are of local origin, the highest number since the Sixties. A less spectacular yet just as remarkable return is that of female writers, who had all but disappeared during the Seventies, with two women finding their way to the statuette. Both of them, however, are foreign.
Stylistically, the decade may be divided into two parts. First half is yet again dominated by thrillers, though of a very different kind than those popular with voters of the Seventies. They tend to be darker, more violent and are definetely not "comfort reads". William Bayer's Peregrine may be the most emblematic book of this period. Second half is more varied, with police procedurals (L.R. Wright's The Suspect and Stuart Kaminsky's A Cold Red Sunrise) a psychological crime novel (Barbara Vine's A Dark-Adapted Eye) a more or less traditional mystery (Aaron Elkins' Old Bones) and the only third P.I. novel to win the award since its creation (James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues) That several of these books deal with unusual subjects and/or play relatively loose with the conventions of the genre suggest voters are back to their early "progressive" ways, which the next decade would confirm. The aforementioned A Dark-Adapted Eye is certainly the most ambitious and challenging work to take the award home since, say, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Other phenomenons worth-noticing as they, too, would persist in the following decade are the comparatively higher age of laureates, and the blossoming of series.
Dick Francis was 61 by the time he won a historical second Edgar for Whip Hand* becoming the first sexagenarian winner since Raymond Chandler twenty-five years before. It was a sign of things to come. With seven of them being over 50 at the time of their crowning, Edgar-winning authors of the Eighties are on average markedly older than their predecessors and their careers no surprisingly span a much longer time: Elmore Leonard, the most seasoned of them, started writing in the Fifties. Forty-six-year-old L.R. Wright is the only writer in the decade to win for a debut.
Some post-war critics thought series were a thing of the past, a purely commercial device that kept the genre from achieving real artistic grandeur by trapping it into formula. Standalones, they said, were the format best suited to mature mystery fiction. Edgar voters agreed - to an extent. Books introducing series were ok since they set formulas rather than just following them; those being part of series, on the other hand, were to be taken cautiously. The Sixties had been rather series-friendly with five winners introducing or featuring recurring characters, while the Seventies had heavily favored standalones. The Eighties are the first decade where series are clearly dominant: only three books (La Brava, Briarpatch and A Dark-Adapted Eye) are proper standalones. The rest either begins (Peregrine, Billinsgate Shoal, The Suspect) or continue (Whip Hand, Old Bones, A Cold Red Sunrise, Black Cherry Blues) a series.
* While Francis was the first and, until 1998, the only author to have won the Best Novel Award more than once, he was not the only laureate of this decade to already own a specimen of the ceramic bust. Both Ross Thomas and Ruth Rendell had already won Edgars in other categories, respectively Best First Novel in 1967 and Best Short Story in 1975 and 1985.


Edgar Week: The Seventies

If "Rule Britannia" was the humiliating motto of the previous decade, "America is back" might be that of the one we examine today - though the simpler "Action!" might fit just well, too.

The Seventies are marked on one hand by the spectacular comeback of American writers and on the other by the ubiquitousness of thrillers in all guises and stripes. Voters in those days liked their books to be rife with guns, gangs, chases, kidnappings, assassinations, spies, transfuges and the ilk. As a result, very few of the period's laureates are proper mysteries even in the broadest sense - and bestowing an award for the best mystery novel of the year on Brian Garfield's Hopscotch certainly requires a very broad conception of the genre. Another side-effect of this thriller-craze is that major authors who debuted, came to proeminence or penned their best works during this period, but didn't specialize in the boom-bang-a-bang vein, went ignored. Some got their belated due in the following decades while others stayed empty-handed or had to content themselves with consolation prizes.

One might get an impression from what precedes that Edgar winners of the Seventies are all disposable Cold-War actioners. It would be wrong. First because, as I said, some of them are "real" mysteries, if not always of the traditional sort: Sjöwall & Wahlöö's The Laughing Policeman, Tony Hillerman's Dance Hall of the Dead and Robert B. Parker's Promised Land, the first P.I. novel since Ellin's The Eighth Circle two decades before to win the precious ceramic bust. As to the proper thrillers, at least two have become classics: Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal and Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle, while the others remain eminently readable if sometimes a little dated, a frequent trapping of the genre. The problem with this period is not one of quality. It's one of ambition.

Edgar voters of this otherwise stormy decade are much more conservative than their predecessors: only the crowning of Sjöwall & Wahlöö may be considered a (relatively) risky move. Other winners are well-crafted (and often commercially successful) pieces of storytelling but their eventual attempts at innovation are shallow and inoffensive: Dance Hall of the Dead's originality rests almost entirely on its setting and characters, and Spenser brings nothing really new to the Shamus figure.

Would the Eighties confirm this trend, or would they mark a return to first principles? Stay tuned.


Edgar Week: The Sixties

In 1960, for the first time since the Best Novel Award's inception, none of the nominees were American: both Philip MacDonald and winner Celia Fremlin hailed from the United Kindgom. While The Hours Before Dawn was very much a 50's book, it was a fit prelude to a decade marked by a British Invasion even more ferocious as the one striking pop music around the same time; it was also the last bow of a genre - psychological suspense - which had been dominating the mystery field for the last ten years.
Except for Charlotte Jay's inaugural win, the Edgar in the Fifties was largely what it has sadly become again over the last decade: a local award for local writers. Only three foreign writers achieved a nomination between 1956, the first year for which we have a list of nominees, and 1959. This makes the 1960-67 British takeover all the more impressive, though not that surprising. The Sixties were not exactly American mystery writing's brightest hour, and natives didn't fare much better abroad as a quick glance at the other two major awards of the time, Britain's Gold Dagger and France's usually americophile Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, shows. The British on the other hand experienced a spectacular ressurection after a period of relative lethargy and suddenly sounded "edgier" to both readers and critics than their colleagues from across the pond. Donald E. Westlake's win in 1968, nine years after Stanley Ellin, may have sounded like a restoration confirmed the following year by the crowning of Jeffery Hudson/Michael Crichton. This restoration, however, didn't last as another three years of foreign occupation followed, culminating with the unprecedented (and, to this day, unique) victory of a translated book.
Whatever may be, voters seem to have drifted away from their earlier commitment to "progressive" mystery writing - only a few of the decade's laureates can be said to "push the envelope" and bring something new - in favor of a greater eclectism: police procedurals (J.J. Marric's Gideon's Fire, Nicholas Freeling's King of the Rainy Country) spy novels (John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Adam Hall's Quiller Memorandum)  thrillers (Crichton's A Case of Need, Dick Francis' Forfeit) a mystery comedy (Westlake's God Save the Mark)  a caper (Eric Ambler's The Light of Day)  an ambitious crime novel (Julian Symons' The Progress of a Crime) and finally, incroyable mais vrai, a whodunit (Ellis Peters' Death and the Joyful Woman)  That Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby could find its way to a nomination is further proof that ideas about what constitutes an Edgar-worthy novel had significantly loosened over the decade.
All this came at the expense of the ruling class of the previous decade: Ross MacDonald's unfruitful three nominations marked the beginning of a long eclipse of the P.I. novel while psychological suspense went the way of dinosaurs - a demise most certainly hastened by the progressive marginalization of female writers. Only in the Eighties and the Nineties would some equilibrium be (temporarily) achieved again but that's another story.


Edgar Week: The Fifties

Since the first Edgar Award for Best Novel was given in 1954, the Fifties are the shortest decade in this survey. It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate its significance on this sole basis; size isn't everything and we're having yet another proof there.

The fifteen years following World War II were, at least in America, a period of tremendous change and innovation in the mystery field. Authors, breaking free of the largely self-imposed limits and conventions of traditional mystery writing, eagerly ventured into new territories. This "Atomic Renaissance" as Jeffrey Marks called it largely benefited from the rise of a new genre, psychological suspense, whose relative absence of rules left more room for experimentation. Best Novel winners of the decade reflect this state of mind.

The choice of Charlotte Jay's Beat Not the Bones as inaugural laureate almost amounts to a declaration of intent. This oppressive, slow-paced "exotic thriller" (for lack of a better term) closer in mind and tone to Conrad than Christie looked like nothing else in the genre at the time or, for that matter, ever since. The MWA from then on and for the rest of the decade would bestow their top prize on authors who broke new ground and "advanced" mystery fiction either in form or content, or both: Raymond Chandler and Stanley Ellin brought the private eye novel to full maturity, Margaret Millar explored abnormal psyche, Charlotte Armstrong conclusively demonstrated the possibility of writing a suspense novel without any violent death and Ed Lacy gave the world the first convincing African-American private detective.

This progressive approach largely accounts for the extremely high overall quality of the decade's winners, but also had its shortcomings: some books depended so much on the novelty aspect that a great deal of their initial charm went lost as time passed and their audacities became public domain. Millar's Beast in View is a case in point: it is as good as you might expect from the author of How Like an Angel or A Stranger in My Grave and well worth your time, but even the dimmest modern reader is likely to work out the surprise ending halfway through the book. The same is true of Celia Fremlin's suburbian gothic The Hours Before Dawn* which has elicited a sheer number of remakes over the years with a peak in the early nineties, in the wake of the success of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

Another feature of post-war mystery fiction reflected by the Edgars is a sociological one: the domination of female authors who from Charlotte Armstrong and Ursula Curtiss to perennial Edgar-loser Patricia Highsmith were responsible for some of the edgier, most original stuff of the moment. The Fifties are arguably if somewhat counter-intuitively the most female-friendly period in all Edgar history; four out of the seven winners of the decade belong to the so-called fairer sex. The same phenomenon is found at the nomination level. Female authors outnumber their male colleagues in 1956 while both 1957 nominees are women. Only in 1958 do men (temporarily) take the advantage. This "Golden Age" of female mystery writing proved to be short-lived, though, and was followed by a long and severe setback as psychological suspense made way for grittier fare... written by men.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that jurors at this stage distinctly favoured standalones rather than series, in keeping with their commitment to "progress" in mystery writing . Only Chandler's The Long Goodbye feature a recurring character (Ed Lacy would revive Room to Swing's Toussaint Moore only once, seven years later)

* The years of reference for this series are those of publication. The Hours Before Dawn, which was published in 1959, is thus included in this article even though it won in 1960.


Introducing At The Villa Rose's Edgar Week

I guess you all know next week is Edgar week: the most famous mystery awards in the world will be given on Thursday. As a way to commemorate this event (and, hopefully, boost this blog's traffic) I'm launching tomorrow a six-part series on the Edgars focusing on the top prize, the Best Novel Award, over its half-century of existence. For better or worse, the MWA's choices and non-choices provide a fascinating overview of the definetely nonlinear evolution of the genre during the last five decades. Which period was the most female-friendly? Why were Donald E. Westlake's and Robert B. Parker's wins near-historical events? Are series more popular with voters than standalones? You will find answers to these questions and many others you didn't even think of asking in this breathtaking series (being modest never helped getting more readers)
See ya tomorrow.


Upside Down

Just found a one-year-old interview (in Molière's language) of Edgar-winning author Tana French, and the following passage got me, well...

"Moi-même, je reprends les traditions du polar mais je les chamboule. Par exemple, mon narrateur parle à la première personne, une coutume du roman policier, sauf que là, il ment."

Rough translation:
"I myself carry on the traditions of mystery fiction but I turn them upside down. For instance my book is narrated in first person, which is an old convention of the genre except that in this case the narrator lies."

I'm no scholar, but it seems to me unreliable narrators have been a feature of mystery fiction for a long, long time. It can even be tracked back to a relatively obscure twentieth-century British author going by the name of Agatha Christie and her almost completely forgotten 1926's book "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd". Turns out Ms. French may not turn conventions as way upside down as she thinks.

But then isn't that a predictable result of the presentism currently prevailing in the mystery field? It's a rather fascinating paradox that the more popular the genre gets, the less known it is. A lot of critics, readers and writers have what may charitably be called a perfectible knowledge of its history, and classics are often more revered than actually read. What we have as a result is books praised for allegedly groundbreaking originality while they have in fact many predecessors. And authors congratulating themselves for breaking rules that were broken long before they were born.


A Review of a Review, Cont'd

In the wake of my article on his review of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, critic Jeff Turrentine sent me a thoughtful reply which I post here with his permission:

Hey there. I just came across your review of my review of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, the novel I reviewed for the Washington Post some years back. I very much enjoyed your spirited rebuttal. As a critic, which is to say someone who likes to believe that people still care enough about books to argue about them, I'd much rather encounter friction than silence, which is what most of us encounter after our reviews are published. (You seem astonished to learn that my review has, in the four years since it was published, elicited no comments or responses. In fact, though I still dream that my book reviews will spark controversies and lead to literary bar brawls, the only person who ever has anything at all to say about them -- positive or negative -- is my mother.)

In any case, I'm sitting in a coffee shop right now, where I'm supposed to be working on a novel of my own. Which means that I'm supremely grateful for the opportunity to ignore my responsibilities and write to you in a highly caffeinated defense of my review.

As I'm sure you have, I've devoured the works of Chandler, Hammett, et al., and hold them all in the highest regard. But I don't find it at all ridiculous, or indeed defamatory, to assert that a defining characteristic of detective fiction is the happy subservience of character development to plot. Indeed, this is why I read detective fiction, and I'd be willing to bet it's the reason most people do. Which isn't to say, of course, that writers of thrillers or detective fiction haven't, over the years, given us great characters like Holmes, Spade, or Marlowe. But I'd maintain that the modes of character development are so qualitatively different from the modes of character development in so-called "literary" fiction that my assertion can be justified. John Updike -- or Dickens, or Cervantes, for that matter -- are allowed to, indeed are required to, spend paragraph after paragraph and page after page burrowing into the psyches of their characters, in long expository passages that implicate personal history, past and present relationships, etc. Typically -- and I'm choosing that word very consciously, as I did in my review, aware that it allows for plenty of exceptions to the rule -- detective fiction doesn't grant its authors as much expository freedom or flexibility. They're expected to reveal character more immediately: through hard-boiled dialogue, for example, or through clever displays of deductive prowess, or through their response to exigent crisis. I think there is a very good reason for this: namely, that the point of a puzzle is to solve it. We read mysteries for different reasons than we do character-driven literary fiction. I realize it's easy to see a statement like that and simply figure that, if it comes from a mainstream literary critic, then it must be assuming some sort a hierarchy -- that said critic must be assigning unequal values to the two styles of fiction. But I swear to you that I love Raymond Chandler every bit as much as I love John Updike. (I love Chandler more, actually.)

I wouldn't go as far as Todorov does in his oft-cited structuralist analysis of detective fiction, but I think he's basically correct when he writes that the "story" of the detective (as opposed to the "story" of the crime he's investigating) is "a story which has no importance in itself, which serves only as a mediator between the reader and the story of the crime." He goes on to say of these two parallel stories -- that of the investigated and the investigator -- that "one is absent but real, the other present but insignificant." Like I said, he goes too far. But he's essentially acknowledging the same point, that the conventions of the genre are fairly strict in the sense that they don't allow too much time for a detective's personal reflection, e.g., musings on his unhappy childhood, sexual insecurities, mental replaying of emotional traumas, etc. There's a murder to be solved, goddamnit.

I also think it's fair to claim, as I did in my review, that the multiple-narrator structure of Case Histories is formally atypical. I'm certain that you've read many more thrillers than I have, and are ready to counter that claim with dozens of notable examples, but even so: Perhaps we can stipulate that the vast majority of thrillers are written as first-person accounts or are narrated by an omniscient third-person voice who follows the detective's progress, and no one else's, very closely. I can't help but think that the reason this is so is that the smartest of these writers know that, fundamentally, detective fiction is so much fun to read because it suggests that we, as individuals, are somehow capable of solving even the most intractable riddles by ourselves, through our wits and our reasoning. Single narrators, be they first-person or third-person, reinforce this epistemological link between reader and detective. (I also think this is why detectives are so often cast as lone wolves, working in solitude, operating outside of legal or social norms.) By limiting the narrative voice to one and only one, these writers acknowledge the primacy of the investigation -- Todorov's "second story" -- and, in a way, make their books all about the ability of one person to decipher and comprehend systems of gargantuan complexity. In this way, I think, the best of these writers are not unlike the great existentialist philosophers.

Well. That's quite enough, as I'm sure you'll agree. Back to anemic novel-writing for me. Keep up the good work, even if the good work means skewering me from time to time. I love to learn that there are people out there who still care enough about literature to blog about it.

All best,
Jeff Turrentine
Los Angeles, USA


Necessary Distinction

It had to happen. After the Daily Telegraph and the London Times, it's the Guardian's turn to issue a list of the supposedly best in crime, as part of a series on the 1000 novels everyone must read - no less. Purists will certainly be surprised by the first entry, Nelson Algren's The Man With The Golden Arm. Let them be warned that it's only the beginning as other surprise-guests (some of them very surprising) include Joseph Conrad, Fedor Dostoevsky, Alexandre Dumas, Theodore Dreiser, Ian McEwan, Mark Twain and - no kidding - Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park*. For some reason Victor Hugo's Les Misérables did not make the final cut and Honoré de Balzac's Murky Business was similarly discarded even though it's arguably much more of a crime story than Native Son (a "landmark thriller" according to Xan Brooks)
But then this is the kind of macedonia to be expected from a list that purports to "reflect as much of the crime spectrum as possible, as well as the regularity with which literary novelists have made evildoers their theme" even though "the latter break genre rules, typically eliminating the hero who solves or prevents crime." It is also a predictable outcome of using as broad and nebulous a term as "crime novel" which can be applied to virtually any kind of novel dealing with a crime or a criminal, regardless of the author's intentions and priorities or the actual importance of the criminal element to the book. The crime/detective/mystery/suspense/thriller genre is so diverse and fragmented that it's better to stick to multiple categories with genuine meanings rather than a single one that means nothing at all.
*Apparently unbeknownst to the Guardian, Michael Crichton actually started his career writing proper thrillers under the aliases Jeffery Hudson, John Lange and Michael Douglas. Some of them went recently back into print thanks to Hard Case Crime. Are The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park more seminal crime novels than A Case of Need? Really?


Edgar Allan Poe On Mystery Fiction: "I Found the Recipe, I Didn't Cook the Meal"

Being 200, even by the relaxed standards of our jaded times, is quite an achievement. It comes as no surprise, then, that Edgar Allan Poe was literally flooded with interview requests as his two-hundredth birthday approached. It's a great honour for At the Villa Rose that ours was the only one he granted.

Let's start with a stupid question: how does it feel to be 200?
Well, very much like being 100 or 150. You know, the first hundred years are the really hard ones. After that, your reputation is secured and you can stop worrying. Not that I, for one, ever worried. I knew people would recognize my genius sooner or later but I'd sure have preferred it to be sooner.

Mystery writers, critics and readers are particularly active in the celebrations as they regard you as the founding father of the genre; it is common wisdom that your "The Murders on the Rue Morgue" launched the whole thing on. Was it voluntary on your part?
It will probably pain a lot of people in the mystery community, but the answer is no. I had no intention, as I wrote "Rue Morgue" and my other tales of ratiocination, to set up a new genre. I realized they were something new, and so did the readers, but that was all and I never held them in much esteem. If you'd ask me at the time what part of my work I thought would last for the ages, my picks would have been my poetry and my critical work. I would have been half right as some of my poems survive, but hardly anyone reads the Marginalias today - and I'd dare to say that it shows. Returning to your question, I think my actual contribution to the mystery genre is not to have first cooked the meal, but to have found the recipe. All the ingredients later used by my "heirs" can be found in the tales of ratiocination, but their handling and the general purpose are not the same.

May you elaborate?
The "tales of ratiocination" label sums it up perfectly. Dupin's reasoning are the subject and the motor of the stories; one might say they are demonstrations rather than narrations. Everything else, including the puzzle and Dupin themselves, is subservient. Had for instance Sir Arthur Conan Doyle written The Hound of the Baskervilles following my method, the actual case would have been briefly outlined in the first chapter, with Sherlock Holmes spending the rest of the book explaining the logical process by which he discovered the truth. Holmes, by the way, would be a much less distinctive figure, just a name, one or two quirks and a brain to reason.

So who, according you, is the real father/mother of the mystery genre?
I don't think there is only one progenitor. All of the pionneers made significant, decisive contributions. I'm not even the first one to have written about cases solved by detectives, as your listmate Bob Schneider has found out. But if you really want one and only one name, then it has to be this fellow-compatriot of yours, Emile Gaboriau. He made actual if not always good fiction out of my little exercises and is fully responsible for the definitive form of the genre, including some of its worst features such as the need to fill hundreds of pages with unnecessary details about surroundings and people's lives.

You may know that the Mystery Writers of America have chosen to honour your memory by naming their annual awards after you?
It's very kind from them, but every year as the nominees then the winners are announced I wonder what it has to do with me. It's not only because of my weak ties to the genre; I have grown accustomated to be referred to as the Great Ancestor. No, the problem I have with the Edgars is that most of the works they reward are in almost total contradiction with my ideas on writing. Think of one Robert Louis Stevenson award given to Margaret Drabble and you will see how I feel.

What are your main objections to your namesake awards?
Well, first, they have four prizes for novels and only one for shorter fiction - I don't count the Robert L. Fish award. Now I have nothing against novels as such; I managed to complete one in my lifetime, though considerably shorter than most recent Edgar winners. But I repeatedly hailed the short story, the tale, as the purest of all art forms - which was not innocent in a time when novels reached and sometimes went beyond phone-directory sizes. So you might expect awards bearing my name to make some place for the miniature. The Hugos or the Bram Stoker awards have categories for short stories, novelettes, novellas and anthologies; why can't the Edgars? Also they like their crime fiction to be realistic, character-driven and socially conscious. My work was none of that. I wrote stories that were improbable at least and set them in places where I'd never been and knew next of nothing of. So much for realism. I didn't have much time for characterization either, at least if you use this word to mean three-dimensional, believable characters. Mine were nebulous entities, with only minimal physical and personality traits - most of the time I didn't even bother to give them names! My work, if anything, has always been effect-driven and characters as well as places and even situations were nothing but parts of that effect, mere cogs in the wheel. As for social consciousness, well, I am definetely not the author to read if you are looking for a reflection of American society in the early nineteenth century. My tales are atemporal, concerned only with themselves and, once again, the effect they seek to produce. This is, I guess, the reason why the late Jorge Luis Borges was such a fan of mine; we are kindred spirits.

Don't the Edgars just reflect the dominant mood in crime/mystery fiction today?
Absolutely. Modern crime and mystery writing is balzacian, dickensian, jamesian, hemingwayian, faulknerian, what you want, but definetely not "poesque" if this barbarious word ever had any sense. I have no problem with that, but maybe it would be more honest from the mystery community to acknowledge this fact, bid farewell and let me go.

Further reading:
Poe at 200 by Nick Mamatas.
The DNA of Detection by Andrew Taylor.
And don't forget the Poe Bicentennial Blog.

And also:
A beautiful slideshow on the New York Times website.

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