01/09/2009

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.

Wow.

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.

1 commentaire:

Anonyme a dit…

But the point is so what if you disagree with their views? They clearly loved the genre so much as to plough through so many books in the genre!