08/07/2012

It's Complicated

One of the most enduring misconceptions about the mystery genre is associating traditional mysteries with Britain whereas hardboiled would be something uniquely American. As with most misconceptions it has some truth to it. The best-known, best-selling traditional mystery writer ever, Agatha Christie, was British, and nearly all of the major names in hardboiled fiction are American. But a closer look shows things are not so clear-cut. 

First, it has to be noted that the traditional mystery originated in America, though it failed to make an immediate impact there (or anywhere else for that matter) The genre then grew and matured in Europe before finally making it home in the late nineteenth century, thanks in large part to the runaway success of a certain Sherlock Holmes. If American mystery writers at the turn of the century were greatly indebted to Conan Doyle, they soon found their own voices and a distinctively American school emerged. 

Second and consequence of First, the Golden Age was not a solely British affair. The Americans too craved for great detectives, convoluted plots and quirky modus operandi - and local authors were all too happy to oblige. As difficult to believe as it may seem to us now, Philo Vance and Thatcher Colt actually coexisted with the harder-edged Sam Spade and Race Williams. American Golden Age fiction tended to be more outlandish and less serious and  "protocolary" than its British counterpart; some of the most innovative, original and sometimes radical Golden Age mysteries were written by Americans.

Third, British crime fiction between the wars was much less uniform than the perusal of the Crime Queens would have one believe. The Detective Novel was not the only form competing for readers' attention; it had to deal with a cruder yet extremely popular rival, the Thriller. Now most often associated with the blood-and-thunder stakhanovist Edgar Wallace, this genre was actually extremely varied in style and tone - and some thrillers (David Hume's Mick Cardby novels for instance) with their emphasis on action, violence and somewhat confused plotlines bore more than a faraway resemblance to hardboiled fiction. 

Only after WWII did the lines become firmly (or more firmly) entrenched. Both the American and British school sensed a need for change, but they reacted differently. While the Americans ushered in the newfound territories of hardboiled and psychological suspense, the Brits mostly stuck to their guns - fallible police detectives replaced amateur detectives and the setting moved from the upper class to the lower ones, but the traditional apparatus remained - only in the Nineties would hardboiled/noir become a significant force on the British mystery scene. 

07/07/2012

Rêver, peut-être...

Alors que plusieurs blogs anglophones consacrés en tout ou partie au roman d'énigme sont apparus depuis le lancement d'A La Villa Rose en 2007, c'est peu de dire que le domaine francophone ne fait pas preuve de la même activité. Le seul blog en français qui parle de romans policiers classiques ou apparentés est, à ma connaissance, l'excellent Sur les lieux du crime de l'ami Patrick.

Est-ce à dire que les Français n'aiment pas le roman d'énigme? Agatha Christie demeure très populaire, et Paul Halter bénéficie d'un lectorat fidèle et enthousiaste. Le grand public fait des triomphes à des auteurs et des séries télévisées très proches du genre. Alors pourquoi ce relatif désintérêt?

Il y a d'abord le rejet ancien d'un roman d'énigme - forcément "anglais" - qui serait aride, mécanique, ennuyeux. Le roman policier français, même dans sa forme la plus classique, s'est toujours voulu libre de tout carcan formel et porteur d'ambitions "littéraires" a priori incompatibles avec un modèle jugé stérile et trop contraignant. Il y a ensuite la longue et persistante hégémonie du noir sur le paysage policier français. Même si la situation a un peu évolué au cours des deux dernières décennies, le noir - ou ce qui passe pour tel - continue de se tailler la part du lion dans les rubriques spécialisées comme à la saison des prix. Et le terme "roman noir" englobe désormais toutes les formes de littérature criminelle, au prix de contresens flagrants (je me souviens notamment d'un journaliste parlant de P.D. James comme de "la reine du roman noir"!) 

Tout cela aboutit à la marginalisation d'un genre qui mérite pourtant beaucoup mieux que les clichés auxquels le réduit une certaine critique qui pense en avoir fait le tour en lisant quelques romans d'Agatha Christie (et qui découvre Margery Allingham avec soixante ans de retard...) 

Que faire? En parler, pour commencer. Et c'est pourquoi je vais tâcher à l'avenir de bloguer davantage en français. Qui sait? Je ferai peut-être école, et inciterai les autres fans francophones de whodunits et de chambres closes à sortir du bois. Après tout, il n'est pas interdit de rêver.



06/07/2012

A Little Game

Who said this?

"I have been more interested as the years go by in the preliminaries of crime. The interplay of character upon character, the deep smouldering resentments and dissatisfactions that do not always come to the surface but which may suddenly explode into violence."

One clue: S/He was British. 

The first person to come up with the right answer will win... my sincerest admiration.