29/01/2012

The Problem With "The Final Problem"


While one of the pivotal tales in the Canon - Sherlock Holmes dies! - The Final Problem is also one of the weakest. Despite its misleading title, this is not a detective story at all and the plot upon close examination makes little sense. Moriarty in particular is little more than a deus ex machina which Doyle conveniently pulls out of his hat so as to cause Sherlock's death; that he came to become one of the most famous characters in the Holmesverse is thus extremely ironical.

Of course these weaknesses may be explained away by the simple fact that Doyle was looking for the easiest way to get rid of a cumbersome character but even as a hatchet job The Final Problem is rather feeble; by no producing a corpse it leaves the door open to a possible "resurrection". Which leads us to the Big Question: Did Doyle really want to kill his creature? He could have settled the matter once and for all by giving him a proper "burial"; Holmes certainly would have had difficulties rising of the dead had his body been found and taken to the grave. Agatha Christie did this with Poirot and it's certainly one of the reasons why we don't see pastiches and continuations popping up on the shelves.

Doubts are furthered by the way Holmes was ultimately "revived". He had first returned with The Hound of the Baskervilles which Doyle stressed was set prior to the detective's "death". This approach was a sensible one and Doyle might have kept up with it; it was certainly simpler and more "realistic" than asking readers to believe Holmes had survived and spent years in hiding across the world before reappearing in a somewhat melodramatic fashion. So why did Doyle choose this latter option? And why does this "resurrection" fit so well with the events in The Final Problem, looking like their logical outcome rather than a later, recalcitrant change of heart? Is it possible Doyle knew all along that Holmes might be back someday?

22/01/2012

The P-word


Like it or not, mystery fiction is a very plot-driven genre. This is not to say that plot trumps everything - characterization, writing, setting have their importance as well - but plotting is more crucial to mystery fiction than it is to, say, sci-fi or western; one might even say that it is a defining feature of it. How comes then that modern critics tend to focus on a mystery novel's literary virtues, while either downplaying or ignoring outright plot?

An obvious answer is that many contemporary mysteries tend to be stronger in the literary department than the plotting one, not necessarily because their authors are weak plotters but simply because their interests are elsewhere. And yet "literary" mysteries with strong plots get the same treatment. A good example is Thomas H. Cook who is regularly (and rightly) praised for the elegance of his prose and the depth and richness of his characterization but almost never for his plots even though he is arguably the finest plotter in American crime fiction since Margaret Millar (with whom he has a lot in common, but I'll leave that for another post) I do agree with critics that Instruments of the Night or Red Leaves are fascinating studies in character and tragedy, but they're also masterful exercises in bamboozling and their final twists are central to the books' effects.

One of the mistakes that dragged so much of "literary" fiction into the pit of irrelevance and self-indulgence was to discard plot as unimportant. It is thus worrying to see mystery critics follow in the same trap. A good plot, as any serious mystery buff knows, is a hard thing to find - and it should be celebrated rather than swept under the rug. The P-word is not a dirty word.


19/01/2012

And The Nominees Are.../Et les nominés sont...


The nominations for the 2012 Edgar Awards are out. My thoughts:

- I've been complaining for years about the awards being too insular so I'm glad to see that four out of five Best Novel nominees are foreign; what's more, two hail from non-English-speaking countries! Let's hope it translates into an actual foreign winner, the last one to date being Jason Goodwin's The Janissary Tree in 2007.

- The Edgars should contemplate renaming themselves the Arthurs or the Conans, for they really seem in thrall of anything doylean. Michael Dirda is nominated in the Best Critical/Biography category for his latest book on Doyle and Neil Gaiman lands a (way overdue) nomination for Best Short Story with a sherlockian pastiche whereas both Best Play nominees reference the Great Detective. This makes Anthony Horowitz's much-hyped and critically acclaimed The House of Silk failing to get a nomination all the more surprising!

- The apparent absence of any Best Picture nominees tells probably a lot about last year's cinematic offering, though I can think of one worthy nominee or two.


On connaît à présent les nominations pour les Edgars; voici quelques pensées en vrac.

- Le grand évènement est sans aucun doute l'ouverture sur le monde après plusieurs années de relative insularité: quatre des cinq auteurs nominés pour le prix du meilleur roman sont étrangers; mieux, deux d'entre eux (Hagishino et Holt) viennent de pays non-anglophones! Rappelons que le dernier auteur étranger - non-américain si vous préférez - est l'anglais Jason Goodwin (Le complot des Janissaires) en 2007 et qu'aucun ouvrage traduit n'a été couronné depuis 1971 (Le policier qui rit, de Sjöwall & Wahlöö).

- Les Edgars devraient sérieusement envisager de changer de nom et de s'appeler les Arthurs ou les Conans, car rien de ce qui est doylien ne leur est étranger! Ainsi, le critique Michael Dirda est nominé dans la catégorie Meilleur Ouvrage Critique ou Biographique pour son dernier livre consacré à Doyle tandis que Neil Gaiman reçoit une nomination (bien méritée) pour une nouvelle sherlockienne; sans parler des deux pièces nominées pour le prix de la Meilleure Pièce, dont les titres se passent de commentaire... On ne peut donc que s'étonner de l'absence dans la liste de La maison de soie de Anthony Horowitz, dont la sortie s'est pourtant accompagné d'un vaste battage publicitaire et médiatique.

- Pas de nominés dans la catégorie Meilleur Film cette année. Cela en dit long sur la qualité de l'offre en 2011, quoique l'on aurait pu aisément sauver un film ou deux.

16/01/2012

A Historical Event

Historical mystery fan (and fellow GAD-er) Alan Cassaday-Bishop has just started a blog which he intends to be a "forum for comment" on his readings. Alan is the man behind Criminal History, a fine website about - you've guessed it - historical mysteries; need I say that I strongly advise you to visit it?

The Great Detective is back... on TV


I haven't seen the British crime drama Luther for which Idris Elba just won a Golden Globe but its premise and creator Neil Cross admitting he took inspiration from Sherlock Holmes make it part of a most interesting trend in current television: the return of the Great Detective.

It's fair to say that the concept hadn't been very popular in the last decades, mostly because television's focus had increasingly moved away from the individual. Whereas most crime shows from the 50's to the 70's had been built around a single, often eponymous, character, ensemble police procedurals had dominated the airwaves in the 80s and 90s. The motto was realism, with cops being shown as everyday, flawed people working as a team to solve "regular" cases. The often impersonal titles of those shows - Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets or Brooklyn South - reflected that new direction.

Then came a new century and all of a sudden everything changed. Adrian Monk, Robert Goren, Charlie Crews, Brenda Leigh Johnson, Shawn Spencer or Richard Castle - to name just a few - returned the eccentric detective with golden little grey cells to the small screen. Even a non-mystery show like House, M.D. featured a protagonist explicitly modelled after Sherlock Holmes. This ongoing phenomenon is all the more interesting as the Great Detective (for lack of a better term) has scarcely been seen on print recently and its revival as of now remains confined to television. It probably has a lot to do with practical concerns: obviously it is easier to create and manage a show with a single protagonist than an ensemble; also, the modern Great Detective almost always comes with the quasi-contractual angst and personal problems. But it's still good news to the traditional mystery fan as it suggests the genre keeps its appeal and can adapt to the times; it also suggests than not all revolutions (and the rise of the ensemble, modular procedural was undoubtedly one) are irreversible.

13/01/2012

Pour saluer Reginald Hill


C'est peu de dire que Reginald Hill, qui vient de nous quitter à l'âge de soixante-quinze ans, n'est pas très connu du public français, bien qu'il ait remporté le Prix du Roman d'Aventures en 1990 pour "Un amour d'enfant" (Child's Play en VO) Il fut ensuite l'un des auteurs-maison du Masque pendant une quinzaine d'années, sans jamais devenir une de ces figures "cultes" que l'on invite dans les festivals et auxquels les revues branchées consacrent leurs numéros. Hill avait le tort d'être étiquetté "classique" - anglais, qui plus est! - dans un pays qui ne jure que par le noir.

Classique, pourtant, Hill ne l'avait jamais vraiment été. Le mot ne peut s'appliquer sans rire à un personnage aussi hénaurme que son héros, le superintendant Andrew Dalziel ("Fat Andy" pour les intimes) Vulgaire, cynique, peu soucieux des règles et des convenances, le bonhomme est une offense permanente au politiquement correct et aux valeurs bourgeoises. Il forme un tandem merveilleusement mal assorti (et donc indestructible) avec le très "civilisé" Peter Pascoe. Tous deux évoluent dans une Angleterre très éloignée du petit monde douillet auquel ceux qui n'y connaissent rien réduisent trop souvent le roman policier anglais. Les thèmes abordés, leur traitement n'ont rien d'édulcoré, bien au contraire. Hill fait preuve du même esprit frondeur dans ses intrigues, et son approche du genre. Si ses premiers livres suivent assez fidèlement les sentiers du police procedural, les oeuvres ultérieures deviendront de plus en plus inclassables, Hill multipliant les expériences narratives, les références littéraires, les emprunts à d'autres genres: l'un de ses derniers romans traduits en français, Soeurs d'armes, réécrit l'Illiade! Toutes ces qualités se retrouvent en mineur dans son oeuvre "non-dalzielienne" comme la série de romans humoristiques mettant en scène le détective privé Joe Sixsmith ou les thrillers signés Patrick Ruell.

Alors oui, certes, ce n'est pas du noir. Ce n'est pas Ian Rankin. Mais il n'y a pas que le noir dans la vie. Et lire Reginald Hill est de ces choses qui la rendent plus belle. Espérons qu'un éditeur nous donne un jour de nouveau cette chance.

Suggestions de lectures:

Le partage des os (Bones and Silence, 1990 - qui valut à Hill le Gold Dagger Award)
Retour vers le présent (Recalled to Life, 1992)
Un si beau tableau (Pictures of Perfection, 1994)
Au bois mourant (The Wood Beyond, 1996)
Les chemins de l'enfer (On Beulah Height, 1998)
Les dialogues des morts (Dialogues of the Dead, 2002)
Good Morning Midnight (2006, inédit en France)

07/01/2012

Some Modest Proposals

One of the blogger's most cherished prerogatives is that he can give his opinion even when no one is asking - especially when no one is asking. So, as the time nighs when the nominees for this year's Edgar Awards are announced, I'd like to give the MWA some unrequited advice. Readers of this blog know I've long been interested in the most famous mystery award in the world (I even did a six-part series on the Best Novel prize some years ago) despite often scratching my heads at the comittees's choices. My aim in making these suggestions is to make the Edgars more reflective of the scope and variety of the mystery field while correcting some glaring injustices in the current process. The MWA are free to ignore them (which they'll probably do) or pick those they see fit or even the whole lot (I can dream, can't I?)

So here we go.

1°) Shorter fiction matters. There are currently five competive awards for novels but only two (counting the Robert L. Fish award) for shorter works. Considering that the Edgars honour the memory of one of the greatest short-story writers of all time, that's rather odd. Create distinct categories for proper short stories, novellas and novelettes would be a nice way to set the balance right and recognize the crucial importance past and present of short fiction to the genre.

2°) Stop discriminating against paperbacks. Why should a terrific novel be barred from competing for the Best Novel just because it was published as a paperback? It's discrimination plain and simple and like all discriminations it has little basis in fact. Whatever shape a book takes is irrelevant to its quality.

3°) Internet is here to stay. Few would deny that some of the most knowledgeable and perceptive writing on the genre is now done online - and that's why greater recognition in the form of a distinct category is badly needed. I realize it's hard job to monitor all of the many great crime/mystery blogs and websites around and pick a year's best; but it would definetely be worth it.

4°) Don't forget translators. The past decade has seen the American market finally opening its gates to foreign (i.e., non-English-speaking) crime fiction and it's a good thing. None of this would have happened without those admirable people who translate, and their work deserves recognition.

5°) What about critics? The Outstanding Mystery Criticism should be revived. With the genre being more and more popular, sound criticism is more needed than ever and must be recognized.

6°) Judge books by their covers. And give those who design them their due.


The Traces of Rinehart


Sarah at Crimepieces had her first introduction to Mary Roberts Rinehart, and she liked it:

I have to admit I was a completely ignorant of the writings of Mary Roberts Rinehart and read it without any preconceptions. What immediately struck me was how modern the book was. Written in 1908, in England this is the period of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles and the Victorian era has not yet been shaken off. However, in the US, Rinehart wrote this book which seems to me to be firmly set in twentieth century America. Embezzlement, revolvers in the shrubbery, young women fleeing across the country by railroad. This is a country house mystery you couldn’t have written in England, although there is a whiff of Victorian (Wilkie Collins) melodrama about the plot.

The much-maligned (most often by people who hadn't read her books) Rinehart was indeed instrumental in bringing a distinctively American spin on the mystery tale, one that focused on the people affected by the crime rather than just those solving it. Such an approach, which was actually a throwback to the Sensation Novel of which Wilkie Collins was the most illustrious exponent, may seem commonplace today but was revolutionary at a time when most American mystery writers took their cue from England. Also, Rinehart merrily dispensed with the rather turgid protocolary tone which had been associated with the genre ever since Poe - her characters are supposed to be ordinary people (well, almost ordinary people) in extraordinary situations, and they write/speak accordingly. But most of all, her books were meant to have the reader eagerly turning the pages to see what's next; they were definetely not purely cerebral affairs. In short, she sowed the seeds from which a whole new genre - psychological suspense - would be born three decades later. That she all too often fails to get credited for that and remains clouded in oblivion is crying injustice.

Non merci/No Thanks


Le livre numérique gagne du terrain, et ce n'est sans doute qu'un début. Certains parmi mes amis ont d'ores et déjà fait le grand saut, et s'en félicitent. Mais la révolution se fera sans moi. Je suis bien conscient qu'un jour viendra où je n'aurai plus le choix, et où je devrai m'adapter. Pour l'instant toutefois, je me cramponne à mes livres-papier.

Luddisme? Peut-être, et je ne le prends d'ailleurs pas comme une insulte. Mais le désaccord est essentiellement d'ordre "esthétique": je suis incapable de dissocier le support du contenu. J'aime une belle maquette, l'odeur et la sensation du papier et même s'ils ne me feront pas aimer un mauvais livre, ils participent à leur manière unique et irremplaçable de l'expérience de lecture. Les livres électroniques à l'inverse et quelque soient leurs nombreux avantages pratiques, sont avant tout des textes désincarnés*. A certains cela ne pose pas de problème (le nombre de gens qui considèrent le livre papier comme un simple support dont ils se passent sans problème ne cesse jamais de me surprendre) mais moi je ne peux pas, tout simplement. A chacun ses goûts, donc. Pour le moment.

E-books are all the rage now and it's only the beginning. Some people I like and respect have already made the jump and they say it's great. But as far as I'm concerned, it's still "no thanks". I know that sooner or later I'll no longer have a choice and I'll have to adapt - but in the meantime I prefer my books the old way.

Luddism? Maybe, and it's not a dirty word to me. But the core of the disagreement is an "aesthetical" one: I cannot dissociate the medium from the content, and the former is integral to my enjoyment of the latter. I love a beautiful cover art, I love the feel and smell of paper and while they can't make up for a poor book they enhance my reading experience in an unique, essential way. E-books on the other hand, no matter how their practical advantages, are texts devoid of any physical incarnation and while it can work for some (The number of people who don't need physical books nor care for them is a perpetual source of puzzlement for me) it doesn't for me*. To each his own. For now.

* Même s'il m'arrive d'en lire à l'occasion quand je ne peux pas faire autrement.

* Though I read them when no other option is available.


03/01/2012

Mystère à l'Italienne/Mystery, Italian Style


Le roman d'énigme, c'est dépassé et ça n'intéresse plus personne. C'est du moins ce que l'on nous répète en France, et il n'existe d'ailleurs plus de collection spécialisée dans notre pays depuis que Le Masque s'est converti à la "modernité" dans les années 2000. A quoi l'on pourrait répondre: "Regardez en Italie". Car non seulement les célèbres Giallo Mondadori rééditent ponctuellement des classiques du genre, mais l'éditeur Polillo a crée une collection qui rassemble les plus grands noms de l'Age d'Or, d'Anthony Berkeley à John Dickson Carr en passant par Christianna Brand et J.J. Connington. "I Bassotti" (Le Basset) compte déjà une centaine de volumes, joliment présentés et choisis avec un goût exquis - et le succès semble être au rendez-vous. Si le roman d'énigme est mort et enterré, visiblement les Italiens ne sont pas au courant... et c'est tant mieux.

The traditional mystery is outdated and no one cares about it. That's what we're often told here in France, and the last local specialized imprint, Le Masque, converted to "modernity" over the last decade, leaving a wide gap that has yet to be filled. One might advice those doomsayers to check what's going on in Italy. Not only is the country's oldest mystery imprint, Giallo Mondadori, regularly reprinting classics of the genre but publisher Polillo started an imprint called "I Bassotti" (The Basset Hound) gathering the greatest names of the Golden Age from Anthony Berkeley to John Dickson Carr to Christianna Brand or J.J. Connington. As of the writing of this post I Bassotti has over 100 volumes, all well-chosen and exquisitely conceived. News of the traditional mystery's demise seem not to have reached Italian shores yet... luckily.

Halter rebondit


C'est l'histoire absurde de ce début d'année: un auteur français de romans policiers, raisonnablement connu et détenteur de plusieurs prix, qui publie un nouveau livre... aux Etats-Unis. L'auteur en question n'est autre que Paul Halter, fréquent "invité" de ce blog, qui fait paraître ces jours-ci un recueil de nouvelles, "La balle de Nausicaa" via le service d'auto-édition américain Createspace. On pourrait croire que le torchon brûle entre Halter et son éditeur historique, Le Masque - 2011 n'aura vu la publication d'aucun inédit - si un nouveau roman, "Le visiteur du passé" n'était annoncé sous la fameuse couverture jaune pour le mois d'avril. Quoi qu'il en soit, "La balle de Nausicaa" est déjà en rupture de stock chez Amazon.fr, ce qui confirme la popularité d'un auteur que le Landerneau s'obstine à bouder. Espérons seulement qu'un éditeur traditionnel sache rattraper cette balle au bond et l'offrir à un plus vaste public...