Over at the Facebook Golden Age of Detection group, Jeffrey Marks said something which, I think, deserves closer examination:
"Science fiction has a fandom that knows its history. Mystery does not. I would love to see that change to honor all the incredible writers of the past 150 years."
Sci-fi fans are indeed very knowledgeable about the history of their favorite genre. So are horror/fantasy and western buffs. I would venture to say that crime fiction is the only genre with such a blatant lack of interest in its past. Why is it so? I can think of several factors:
1°) The influence of the hardboiled school which convinced everyone that all crime writing prior to the advent of Dashiell Hammett was utter rubbish and that a "good" mystery must be realistic, gritty and socially and politically conscious. As most vintage crime fiction fails to pass that arbitrary test, it is deemed to be uninteresting and left to rust by fans and critics alike.
2°) The mystery community's longstanding craving for respectability. Vintage crime writers rarely took themselves or their work "seriously" and very few attempted to "transcend the genre"; their aim was to entertain and that they did very well. In short, they were not "literary" and, to the modern mystery fan, are artifacts of an embarrassing past that is thankfully behind us. Better to let them buried deep.
3°) A significant lot of contemporary mystery fans are not fans at all. They come from the mainstream (much like the authors they most admire) and the kind of mysteries they enjoy most is the one that has all the trappings of mainstream fiction. They're not interested in plots and puzzles or only very peripherically; what they want first is characters they can "relate" to, hence their enthusiasm for series and character-driven crime novels. They also want substance which for them is measured by length. They are not averse to vintage crime fiction, but they mostly stick with the valeurs sûres like Doyle or the Crime Queens. They have no desire to go further.
Needless to say, that is a situation that I don't like. But how can it be fixed? Most people don't even see that as problem, and it is a logical result of the evolution of the genre in the last sixty years from pure escapism to "literary significance". We lovers of vintage crime fiction must learn to accept our minority status and support those brave publishers who keep the old stuff alive or bring it back to light. They may ultimately come in handy someday to today's presentists: if the "tradition" is to hold, maybe no one in 2070 will know who Gillian Flynn and Dennis Lehane were.
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