27/08/2011

Ink, Blood and Celluloid

The differences between the American and British schools of mystery fiction - what makes them so different despite a common ancestry - is an old favorite topic of mine which I think over now and again. One of the main dividing lines, in my opinion, is the influence of movies - American mystery writers seem to have absorbed and embraced the new medium sooner and faster than their British colleagues.

Typically American genres such as hardboiled, noir or psychological suspense with their ebullient rhythm and terse, elliptic narration are unimaginable in a world without movies; conversely, they received a great deal of attention from the film industry. But the influence of the silver screen can also be observed in the traditional mystery genre; despite basically obeying the same rules, the American whodunit is extremely different from its British counterpart, even when trying to imitate it.

The standard British Golden Age mystery was basically about linking two points - murder and solution. The detective patiently interviewed suspects, collected evidence and then named the culprit in the end. This is not to say that nothing happened as the frequent and seemingly indestructible stereotyping of the genre would have us to believe; it's just that authors saw no reason to hurry up and took the time to delineate the elements of the problem and the path to its solution. The Yankees, on the other hand, were more interested in the spectacular, exciting aspects of the genre; their books started on a high note and tried to keep it to the end. Baroque situations and unexpected twists abounded, the detective often had to do some leg work and the pacing was significantly faster. The game element remained, but detecting was no longer a serene, merely intellectual demeanour - it was action. In short, these were mysteries influenced by, and suitable for, the silver screen and it's no surprise the works of Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer, Erle Stanley Gardner, Baynard Kendrick or Rex Stout found a positive echo in Hollywood.  America having a stronger film industry and culture than Britain at the time certainly accounts for that; though a sociological explanation is possible as well. British mystery writers were mostly upper-class and college-educated and thus tended to shun movies which they saw as trivial entertainment for the masses. (A good reflection of that attitude can be found in Robert Altman's Gosford Park.

Of course, this rule like all rules has its exceptions. Agatha Christie for instance was much more "cinematic" than S.S. Van Dine though the latter's popularity (and William Powell's portrayal of Philo Vance) also made him a Hollywood darling for a time. The case of John Dickson Carr is a good illustration of the divide, however. Even though most of his work is set in Britain and he was an ardent and sincere anglophile, Carr was still a quintessentially American author writing quintessentially American books, as evidenced by the comparatively faster tempo and roller-coaster nature (each chapter ends on a revelation or a twist) of his stories and his relatively low interest in the proper mechanics of detection. Also, movies are a strong influence on his writing, whether in the guise of his screwball-like romances or the expressionism of his early work (I have always thought The Lost Gallows or Castle Skull would have made nice Murnau or Fritz Lang films) Why he failed to generate any significant interest from Hollywood or the film industry at large is a mystery.

The love story between the American school and the silver screen has been going strong for decades, and shows no sign of wearying out. The British school's celluloid incarnations have been more scarce including at home*, television proving to be a more welcoming and suitable medium - but its fortunes might change as the divide between American and British mystery fiction increasingly narrows with the latter adopting some of the attitudes and themes of the former. For better? For worse? Don't miss the next episode. 

* Though films like Green for Danger or The Woman In Question proved the British detective story, in capable hands, could work beautifully on the screen. 

6 commentaires:

Martin Edwards a dit…

I share your puzzlement that Carr's books weren't regularly filmed.

John a dit…

The most telling influence of the movies in most popular American fiction including detective fiction is the change in dialogue. Compare books written prior to the late 1920s to those from about 1927 and onward. Slang, wisecracks, witty repartee, double entendre show up more frequently. Straight narrative is abandoned, long descriptive passages fade into the background making way for more and more novels told primarily through dialogue. Those writers with a great skill in this kind of dialogue fled to Hollywood. Some, like Harry Kurnitz, wrote books modelled on screenplays hoping to be recognized by Hollywood. Kurntiz wrote one mystery novel and headed West. Compare the dialogue in FAST COMPNAY to that in the THIN MAN movies he later wrote. Exactly the same. Other mystery writers whose skill at cinematic dialogue, slick characterizations and lots of action who headed for Hollywood were Jonathan Latimer, Daniel Mainwaring (Geoffrey Holmes), and of course Chandler. Even Leigh Brackett, after the publication of NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE, was wooed to the land of movies by Howard Hawks who was shocked when he met a woman and not some tough guy.

Sextonblake a dit…

Martin: I suspect that the reason that Carr wasn't filmed more was the comparative complexity of the plots. Something like the denoument of THE HOLLOW MAN would take a good deal of explaining on screen. In comparison, the explanation of the murders in DEATH ON THE NILE is clever but simple to explain. I think that this is the reason that explanation heavy stuff like the Ellery Queen novels don't tend to be adapted to the movies.

Dorte H a dit…

A fine and clear post.

Murder and solution: exactly why I prefer British crime fiction :)

Sextonblake a dit…

Xavier: Your analysis seems pretty spot on. I would suggest that young British writers like Edmund Crispin writing just after the war were probably more influenced by the American writers than those of the previous generation. A book like THE MOVING TOYSHOP is a whodunnit, but the increased action and comedy elements are more in line with the US books. The ending on a runaway merry-go-round was used by Hitchcock for STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

vegetableduck a dit…

Good article about the general American influence of tone (not just in hard-boiled). It's a point I make as well in this new book project. I query the point about most British mystery writers being "upper class" and college-educated in the Golden Age. I think a serious study of the hundreds and hundreds of them might indicate they were pretty middle class, like writers in general. Guess it depends on how we identify middle class relative to upper class.