29/04/2009

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.

28/04/2009

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.

27/04/2009

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.
 
 
 

26/04/2009

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.

24/04/2009

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.
 
 

19/04/2009

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.