Unpopular Opinion: Down with Series Characters

They're popular with both readers and critics. 
They keep the books selling. 
They're ruining the whole crime fiction genre. 
Who's that? Series characters.

Faithful readers of this blog as well as of my ramblings at Yahoo or Facebook know that I'm of the Julian Symons persuasion on this (and this alone!) and I'd like to explain why. I'm perfectly aware that mine is a minority position in the fandom, even an unpopular one, hence the sayersian title - which is quite ironic given that DLS was partially responsible for the evolution that led to me taking this stance.

Series detectives are as old as the genre itself: the founding text was the first instalment in a  trilogy featuring a Parisian detective. Then came Monsieur Lecoq, Ebenezer Gryce and of course Sherlock and his many rivals and followers. Do I think the genre would have been better off without them or the likes of Ellery Queen, Gideon Fell or Albert Campion? Obviously not. So why don't I extend the same courtesy to James Rebus or Alan Banks? Because these are different series characters inhabiting a different kind of detective stories.

The Canon for instance is not about Sherlock Holmes - we learn very little about him over the course of the stories - but about Sherlock Holmes investigating. Same goes for most of the Great Detectives, including tough guys like Marlowe or Lew Archer. Those characters have distinctive personalities, they are sometimes personally involved in the case at hand and/or are personally affected by it, but their main purpose is to investigate and to solve. They evolve only marginally over time, and each case is forgotten at the beginning of the next book. 

Modern detectives, on the other hand, are the raison d'être of the stories in which they appear. Their personalities, their issues, their relationships, their reactions to the case they're working on are the real subject of the book and the reason why readers follow them. This is in line with the modern crime novel's emphasis on character over plot, in line too with the modern love of serialized fiction - think of how TV shows have evolved from self-contained episodes to complex storylines running over whole seasons, or how the Marvel Shared Universe has completely redefined the very concept of a blockbuster. The effect in most cases however is rather that of a long-running and bloodier than usual soap opera than of "serious" novels. Another drawback is the danger of becoming too formulaic, which already existed with "old" series characters but becomes even more threatening and visible when the necessities of the feuilleton bar you from experimenting with viewpoints and structure. Finally, this brand of crime fiction attracts a kind of reader that is not primarily concerned with the criminal element but with "what happens next" to the detective, which in turn encourages writers to focus on the latter at the expense of the former.

My main criticism, however, is of an artistic order. While I'm (correctly) seen as a lover and defender of vintage crime fiction, I want modern crime fiction to be modern, which it is not, at least on a literary level. The contemporary crime novel, with its clearly delineated characters and social realism, not to mention its impressive lengths, harks back to the Victorian, at best Edwardian, era. The novelties of the twentieth century have mostly bypassed it, probably because of the hostility of writers (I've lost a count of the times I've read crime writers patting themselves on the back for not succumbing to the modernist/postmodernist sirens that according to them killed literary fiction a long time ago) It wasn't always that way: Golden Age and psychological suspense writers were not afraid to experiment and learn from their literary colleagues; it was the hardboiled school that refused to go with the times and ultimately imposed a naturalistic framework upon the whole genre, a rare case of a successful counter-revolution in the field of the arts. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Philip MacDonald in the Thirties was more modern than John D. twenty years later.

Series characters as they do exist now stand in the way of the crime novel becoming fully modern, whatever that means to you. They must either become again what they used to be and leave the spotlight to the people involved in the case, or go the way of dinosaurs. It is of course wishful thinking as neither will happen; everyone from writers and readers to the all-(too)-powerful editors and publishers are okay with the state of things - and that's what makes this post an "unpopular opinion". 

4 commentaires:

dfordoom a dit…

I agree with you, and I'm going to venture an even more unpopular opinion. The problem with crime fiction is that it's become overly feminised.

Men love puzzles. Women love reading about emotional dramas. Of course it's not quite as cut-and-dried as that. Some women do enjoy puzzles as well, and men do have some interest in emotional dramas. But as a general tendency men are more likely to lean toward puzzles and women are more likely to lean towards emotional content.

In the golden age the balance seems to have been just about right, since the crime fiction of that era seemed to appeal to both men and women. The emphasis was on the puzzle-solving but the crimes were not motiveless and the motives involved emotions (revenge, greed, jealousy). The emotions were however mostly confined to the suspects. The detective was (mostly) a dispassionate observer.

From the 50s onwards my impression is that crime fiction was aimed more and more at a female audience. Men switched to reading thrillers rather than detective stories.

OK, it's just a theory and I haven't fully thought it through so feel free to pick holes in it!

Carola a dit…

I disagree with dfordoom about men leaning toward puzzles. These days
male writers and readers--and some women--like lots of action and lots of bodies (dead and/or female) and don't care much about clues and puzzles.

dfordoom a dit…

I disagree with dfordoom about men leaning toward puzzles. These days
male writers and readers--and some women--like lots of action and lots of bodies (dead and/or female) and don't care much about clues and puzzles.

As I said it's only a half-formed theory of mine. Something has definitely changed and I'm not quite sure exactly what it is. My suspicion is that it's not a change in the nature of crime fiction but a wider cultural change. Look at the extraordinary popularity of comic-book movies, not just among kids but among adults.

So why do you think puzzles no longer appeal? Something significant must have changed. Is it the dumbing down of education? Are the puzzle-plots of writers like Christie, Carr, Crofts, etc, too complicated for modern readers? Is Christie too "male" for modern tastes? The essence of the puzzle-plot mystery is that the world can be understood by the use of logic and reason. Are reason and logic out of fashion?

What intrigues me about modern crime fiction is that the most disgustingly depraved stuff seems to be written by women for a mostly female readership. Why do women want to read about sex killers and psycho killers?

yetanothermysteryblog a dit…

I agree, Xavier, though would it be fair to say that you’re not oppose to series character per se but rather to what you described as “series characters as they exist now”? I’ve long argued that books, movies, etc., especially in the genres of which I’m particularly fond (mystery, adventure, thriller, etc.) used to be outward-focused—what the characters did, where they went, whom they met. Now nearly every genre is inward-focused: who a single character, usually the protagonist, is.

Both approaches have their place, obviously, but the latter has taken over the former, which works against the very essence of material; that is to say, we have moved from an outward-focused Raiders of the Lost Ark to an inward-focused Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and both story and original character get lost in the process. (That’s why I’m very wary about the Marvel series—it’s all about itself, which is ultimately decadent.)

At the risk of more unpopular opinions, I agree with some parts of dfordoom’s theory. As Dr. Daniel Olson at the excellent “Long Forgotten” blog phrased it, “For men, life is a test, a proving ground, an arena.” Men have to face decided obstacles in an unfriendly world and overcome them. Such, in a way, is the very essence of manliness (see the Art of Manliness blog, or Kipling’s “If—“). “The female outlook on life is quite different. The emphasis is on being rather than doing.” That is to say, one has to co-operate, work together, etc., to make home happy—but home ultimately will be happy, not out to get me.

The classical detective-story is very “male,” in this analysis: we are given a problem, something fundamentally wrong that we have to beat back and overcome—to puzzle through, in other words. Carr is probably the exemplar here: we have to keep going, we have to solve this thing, we have to overcome the chaos of wild situations (corpses with fake beards, hollow men, vampires, etc.) via objective reason and logic. Even the female Golden Age authors have something of this, albeit filtered through a female lens (for Christie, it is ultimately about the restoration of order [’not the guilty who matter but the innocent’]; for Carr, it is about the overcoming of obstacles). Olson sums it like this: “YOU as main character + THE WORLD as an ordeal you pass through = masculine view of reality.” (This recalls Xavier’s point about series characters.) That’s definitely Carr.

I’m not sure to what degree this speaks to modern crime fiction, of which I don’t read much, except that the lack of focus on the plot does seem, for lack of a better word, feminine—as do the small-town settings and focus on emotion and relationship. I’m not sure about the modern thrillers, sex and psycho killers, et al.—not exactly my cup of tea!

Apologies for the digressions, Xavier, but many thanks for the post.


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