19/01/2009

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?

18/01/2009

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.

15/01/2009

Goodbye, Lieutenant Morales

Ricardo Montalbàn died on Wednesday, he was 88. Though better-known for his musicals and his TV work, most particularly the long-running Fantasy Island, Montalbàn also deserves to be remembered for his decisive contribution to the "ethnic detective" as a credible rather than just picturesque figure in the seminal films noirs Border Incident and Mystery Street, respectively helmed by Anthony Mann and John Sturges. He was also memorable in a darker register as a corrupt cop in Burt Kennedy's The Money Trap. This is well-worth a tribute on this blog.


Further reading:
"Oh, No. Not Him Too!" (The Rap Sheet)

01/01/2009

Sometimes the best choice is not to choose

Having struggled all day and part of the night to decide which of my two nominees was the very best book I read in 2008, and finding myself this morning with no conclusive verdict in sight, I went with the easier solution - I split the award in two. So lady and gentlemen, let me introduce to you the proud winners:
 
An English Murder by Cyril Hare
 
and
 
The Beckoning Dream by Evelyn Berckman
 
These are very different books by very different authors. One is a traditional mystery, the other is more of a suspense novel, and both are somewhat at odds with their respective genres as we shall see. No surprise I found it so hard to decide between them.
 
Let's start with Hare's. This was my first introduction to this author, and boy do I regret I didn't check him sooner. What makes An English Murder so fabulous is that it's both orthodox to a fault and quite subversive. While omitting none of the required components of that quintessentially English form, the country house mystery, Hare delivers a biting satire of the old British class system in a time of collapse - well, sort of,  for old habit( die hard despite social reform and ideological affiliations. Aristocrats remain aristocrats even when members of a government committed to equalitarianism and the 'exploited' can be counted upon to play their due part in this masquerade. The murder and its motive no surprisingly turn to stem from this particular system and mentality for quintessentially English people can't kill but for quintessentially English reasons. I don't know whether Hare was a film-goer and saw Renoir's Rules of the Games but his book has more than a flavour of it. All in all, it's perfection on every level. The plot, albeit simpler than your average whodunit, is exquisitely logical and drives the novel's point nicely, and the characterization is excellent, with a wonderful detective in the person of Dr. Bottwink. So sad that, like Dermott Kinross, his greatest case turned to be his only outing. And, finally, Hare's writing is a marvel of understatement. Such a book would be said nowadays to "transcend the genre" but Hare, unlike many of his followers, never lets his preoccupations get in the way of the plot - and reciprocally.
 
Now with Berckman's, and we move from cozy Britain to America - and to another territory altogether. Its French title, Enquête sur un cauchemar - roughly "Investigating a Nightmare" - sums it up perfectly, which is rare enough to be mentioned. Some years ago, Archibald Gedley did something he's not proud of and it now comes back under the form of a cryptic, terrific nightmare to haunt his last days. When he dies of natural causes, his personal effects fall into the hands of his niece by marriage Connie. Archibald wrote extensively about his dream, hinting that his brother and two sisters may have contributed to his wrongdoing. Connie who is seeking both money and revenge from her much-hated stepmother thinks this affair provides her with a good occasion to achieve both goals, and sets on deciphering her late uncle's dream. Bad conscience seems to be inheritable, though, as the surviving forfeiters suddenly find themselves plagued with nightmare, each one providing another piece of the puzzle until the big picture finally appears in the last chapter, complete with a final ironic twist. I had read two other books by Berckman, the second making my list for 2006 but none matched the originality and power of this one. The Beckoning Dream is as good as anything written by Millar, Armstrong, Curtiss or any other suspense queen of the era, thanks to an original premise, a flawless execution and a protagonist you won't forget, though not for the same reasons as Hare's Dr. Bottwink. Egoistical, greedy, ruthless, Connie is almost entirely devoid of any kind of conscience and the reader follows her with both repulsion and something akin to fascination and whether she'll get her comeuppance ends being just as important as the usual questions of who, how and why. Of course I won't answer none - the book is hard to find, but it will repay your efforts.
 
 

2009

2008 was not that good - it was even terrible on many counts.
 
Let us hope its successor is better.
 
I wish you and the people you care for a happy new year, filled with all of the good things you may want - including, of course, some great mysteries!