On Martin Edwards's Latest Article

Fellow blogger Martin Edwards has a brand new article on "The Detective in British Crime Fiction" which, as everything he writes, is well-worth a read.
Some remarks:
"Originally, Martin writes, detectives tended to be memorable for their eccentricities; now the emphasis is on in-depth characterisation."
This is way too sharply drawn a divide in my opinion.
1°) Early detectives were not defined only by their eccentricities - actually, most of them had none to speak of: neither Thorndyke or Father Brown or Gabriel Hanaud can be called eccentrics; what set them apart from the rest of mankind is their deductive abilities. Only when the Golden Age began did the Sherlock Holmes model of the detective as a quirky genius become prevalent.
2°) I don't believe things have changed as much as Martin claims. Sure, we know more about the private, inner lives of modern detectives than about those of, say, Dr. Fell or S.F.X. Van Dusen. They appear to be three-dimensional characters insofar as they are allowed to exist on a greater scale - they are not meant just to investigate a case, solve it and go back in the box until next time - but they too have eccentricities of their own, though of a different nature. One of the most overlooked features of the genre is its almost complete unability to deal with ordinary people. Mystery, even at its most "realistic", needs protagonists bigger than life in one way or another. Contemporary detectives with their complicated backgrounds, difficult lives and sometimes outlandish personalities, are as statistically improbable as their elders and betters. There are as few Dalglieshes and Rebuses in real life as there are Holmeses or Poirots.
"Anthony Berkeley's vain, erratic yet irrepressible writer-sleuth Roger Sheringham, Nicholas Blake's Nigel Strangeways, and Edmund Crispin's breezy don Gervase Fen are notable for the ingenuity which they bring to solving a string of elaborately contrived murders."
I am not a maven on either Blake or Crispin, so I won't comment as far as they're concerned, but Martin is some reductive with regards to Sheringham whose personality seems to me just as notable, and maybe even more so, than his ingenuity. Berkeley, like Sayers, quickly became frustrated with what he perceived as the limitations of the detective novel but, unlike Sayers, chose to go subversive rather than attempt to "transcend" the genre. Sheringham thus is both an embodiment and a scathing satire of the Golden Age detective, as evidenced by the wonderful Jumping Jenny where he gets everything wrong from the start and, thinking the victim had what she deserved, spends the whole book trying to clear the man he wrongfully identified as the murderer. That sets him apart from most other Golden Age detectives whose creators "played straight".


Die Hard: an exchange

As a follow to my "Die Hard" article I received this e-mail from Mike Grost:
Between Poe in the 1840's and Gaboriau starting in 1865, there were a whole host of crime writers.
In Britain, the Casebook writers created numerous short stories about sleuths:


The British also developed a branch of suspense fiction (not true mystery) called Sensation Fiction:


And some American writers wrote tales about puzzling mysteries - not always with detectives, or in the pure mystery format (notably Melville and Spofford):


Also, while British mystery writers seemed to vanish during World War I, some Americans such as Reeve and Rinehart produced some mystery fiction.

Admittedly, Poe and Gaboriau produced works totally in the mystery paradigm: books that are direct ancestors of all later mystery fiction. But the Casebook writers also contributed to the genre.
As I wrote back to him, I am well-aware of the casebook and sensation writers and their influence on the genre discussed on this blog, but my focus being on proper mystery fiction, they didn't make the final cut. There were undoubtedly stories about crimes and detectives written in the time between Poe and Gaboriau but there weren't any actual mystery stories. On the other hand I admit not having paid enough attention to the situation of American mystery fiction during World War 1 and asked Mr. Grost for some further information he kindly provided:
The two best US mysteries from 1915-1918 (that I know of), were published as magazine serials during that period - and only appeared in book form many years later. These are Mary Roberts Rinehart's "The Curve of the Catenary" (1915, I think!) and Johnston McCulley's "Who Killed William Drew?" (1917). Until your post, I never noticed anything about this. But now one wonders if the War delayed book publication in the United States, too.
Arthur B. Reeve kept publishing volumes of shorts throughout the war. Each volume usually has a few gems, and a lot of not so good material.
I thus stand corrected: mystery fiction didn't completely die during World War I, even though it admittedly went near extinguished in Britain and Continental Europe. The United States' late entry into the War more than probably accounts for the survival of the genre there; it would be interesting to know how the situation evolved after 1917. I'm also curious as to how mystery fared in other countries, most particularly Australia which already had a well-established tradition of crime and mystery fiction at the time. If you have any imput don't hesitate to send a mail or a comment.
It remains however unsolved why it took twenty years for mystery fiction to finally kick off, and why World War I almost killed it while World War II on the other hand was one of its peaks in terms of both quality and quantity. I keep thinking about it and more on the topic is sure to come.


Die Hard

mNo, this post is not about John McClane - though it's about sequels of sorts.

Mystery fiction is so part of our landscape, so taken for granted, so popular, that it's hard for fans and non-fans alike to imagine a world without it. The genre, we think, is a "natural" thing and is here to stay. Crime being the real world's oldest profession and fascination for it being apparently encrypted in our genome, murder and mayhem will always be welcome on print and onscreen and purveyors of fictional felonies don't have to worry about the future. But a glance at the rocky history of our favorite genre shows that it has not always been so robust. Not only did it make several false starts but it actually died, the only kind of fiction in my knowledge to have ever been risen from the dead not just once but twice, hence the title of the present essay.

When reading the Dupin stories we tend to infuse them with our knowledge of what followed and re-interpret them as the beginning of a wonderful success-story. This is the finalist view I evoked some time ago: Poe influenced Gaboriau who influenced Doyle who in turn influenced Christie, etc. That rosy picture takes a different colour when you check the dates, as more than two decades separate The Murders in the Rue Morgue and L'Affaire Lerouge. Two decades during which nothing happened. A marginal author in his lifetime, Poe remained so in the years following his death, "thanks" mostly to Rufus Griswold's portrayal, and had little influence except for his horror stories. The ratiocination tales may have been a novelty hit on their first publication but they didn't catch on, which is not that surprising given that Poe himself didn't believe in their lasting power. His bet on posterity relied more on his poetry and criticism; it is much ironic that what he regarded as alimentary, secondary work is now wider-known than A Dream Within A Dream or the Marginalias. Mystery fiction might be labelled a stillborn or a child in so bad a condition that it spent twenty years in coma with a flatline EEG until a French writer brought it back to life.

It's unclear whether the new incarnation was best-suited to the times or reverse but nonetheless it caught on. The next fifty years saw the genre getting an increasingly high profile as it got rid of melodrama, refined its ways and, most important, proved commercially valid. Magazines opened their pages to the newcomer and intellectuals started taking notice; some prestigious mainstream writers thought they might give it a try. By the early 1910s, mystery was one of the dominant genres in popular fiction and most people agreed it was only the beginning.

Then the rapidly expanding genre went into near complete extinction as the world entered its first mass slaughtering. Well-established authors either enlisted (Freeman, Mason) or turned to patriotic fluff (Leblanc) and were not replaced. As a result, mystery's record during first world war amounts to nil. This comes as stark contrast to the frenetic activity it would display twenty years later; maybe Hitler was more inspiring than the Kaiser. The genre long kept an uneasy relation to that period, beginning to engage it in a serious way only in the last third of the century.

This second "death" was shorter than the first - only five years - and also resulted into a new flowering - the Golden Age. As of today it is the last time mystery "died". The spy-craze of the sixties doesn't count as mysteries kept being written - they were just not as popular as they had once been. Hopefully we won't see any other extinction soon but the phenomenon and its consequences are interesting to study if only because they exemplify why we like our genre so much: like its heroes, it falls sometimes, stumbles often but it never quits.


August Derleth on R. Austin Freeman

The concept behind MWA anthology Murder by Experts (1947) may sound rather trivial for modern readers as it has been done to death ever since, but it was quite original at the time: editor Ellery Queen asked twenty major mystery writers to select their favorite short stories by someone else and write a foreward detailing the reasons for their choices. August Derleth picked Freeman's Mr. Ponting's Alibi and his brief introduction is well worth reading, as it perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the Thorndyke stories:
"Mr. Ponting's Alibi is surely one of the best examples of the straightforward detective story, free of atmospheric high-jinks and ornamental furbelows. It is therefore in the best tradition of the detective story which, I must confess, has always taken and will always take first place in my affections. The story makes a steady, uninterrupted progression from the setting-forth of the case to the solution of the mystery; there are no forays into blind alleys, no pretentious essays into obscure knowledge properly confined to works of reference, no tricks upon the reader, and finally no trying of his patience.
 Above all, it is throughout an entirely plausible story. Stories even less plausible have taken place in real life, but it is particularly noteworthy that Mr. Ponting's Alibi, making no attempt to confuse the reader, nevertheless holds him. In plain fact, there is little actual mystery about Mr. Freeman's plot; it is all rather obvious from the beginning, the gambit is a familiar one, and it is evident that the patent suspect is not guilty at all, leaving but one avenue of detection, and Dr. John Thorndyke carries the reader down it without a single deviation.
 All the trappings of the Thorndyke stories are evident in Mr. Ponting's Alibi but none is obstructive. This is all to the good; a first-rate detective story ought not to emphasize the mechanics of detection at the expense of character or plot, and this story admirably fulfils that condition. Moreover, it offers a satisfying picture of one of the great detectives in action and, for my part, there are few sleuths, apart from Holmes, to whose performance I would rather be a party than Dr. John Thorndyke."


More Dry Straw, Please

There are many instances in Bloody Murder of Julian Symons making an ass out of himself, but his infamous comments on R. Austin Freeman are among the most outrageous:

With Freeman we confront for the first time the crime writer who produced work of no other kind, and whose talents as a writer were negligible. Reading a Freeman story is very much like chewing on dry straw. (...) If readers were won (and they were), if some remain (and they do), it is because of his accuracy in detail, and because of the originality shown in one collection of short stories. In The Singing Bone (1912) Freeman invented what has been called the inverted story. In these stories we see a crime committed, and then watch Thorndyke discover and follow clues that lead to the criminal. There is no mystery, and not much surprise, but the interest of watching Thorndyke at work is enhanced by our prior knowledge. Freeman never repeated this experiment, which was developed, much later and with more skill, by Roy Vickers.

Symons makes here at least two factual errors, as Freeman actually produced works of other kinds - namely a memoir of his life in Africa, Travels and Life in Ashanti and Jaman (1898) and a non-mystery novel, The Golden Pool: A Story of Forgotten Mine (1905) - and repeated the "inverted" experiment in one novel, Mr. Pottermack's Oversight (1930) with which Symons was familiar since he briefly mentions it as part of the "one or two" Thorndyke novels that are not "markedly inferior to the short stories". One ends with an impression that Symons didn't do his homework or just didn't bother to check his facts.

Nor does he bother to substantiate his assessement of Freeman's "negligible talents" except for a rapid quote aimed to show how stilted his writing was - not much more than Doyle's as it turns out. No other argument is to be found. Symons obviously thinks the case is settled because he says so. No way.

Freeman may be forgotten nowadays - though he keeps a small yet loyal circle of fans, as Symons begrudgingly admits - but he was seminal to the growth and development of the detective novel and thus of mystery fiction as a whole. Had Freeman never existed or written romances or swashbucklers, a large part of the genre as we know it wouldn't exist or be quite different.

Let us turn back the hands of time and swim to the shores of early twentieth century. The detective novel has left infancy and is now a rather languid adolescent. Not much has happened since Conan Doyle came and both gave the genre its mature form and achieved the final synthesis of the Great Detective. Most authors follow on his path in a more or less individual way; the big deal is creating bankable Holmes-wannabes, not being innovative. The one exception, American proto-suspense writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, is not taken seriously and has thus no immediate influence: her offspring would come much later.

Things start to move on by the late 1900's with the appearance of two authors of diametrically opposed background and style but equal importance: G. K. Chesterton and Freeman. Both are not interested in creating the next "rival of Sherlock Holmes". They have firm, if way different, ideas on what the detective story is, what it is for and how it must be done. Chesterton emphasizes fantasy and cleverness, Freeman favors realism and rigour. Both approaches will turn to be astoundingly fecound and provide the basis for all subsequent mystery fiction.

Though the first registered detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, had an amateur sleuth as its protagonist, most early mystery fiction featured professionnals dealing with crime in a - more or less - realistic way. The success of Sherlock Holmes brought the genre back to its roots and interest in police procedures and forensics got lost in the process. Investigation became more and more of a purely cerebral thing which only enlightened amateurs could put to its fruition.

That is not the Freeman way. John Thorndyke is not a "thinking machine", he is a scientist and it is through science and common sense that he gets to the truth. His interest in physical evidence goes way further than that of his predecessors, and the conclusions he draws out of it run far deeper. Those are the only spectacular elements in otherwise quite moderate stories: Freeman has no interest in over-the-top, bigger-than-life plots and characters. In a time when eccentric detectives are increasingly becoming the rule, Thorndyke is utterly and refreshingly devoid of any quirks or ideosyncrasies. The cases he tackles are intriguing but don't stretch probability - well, not too much. And the people in them are everyday people whose feelings matter; they never take second fiddle to the plot. Freeman, though apparently most concerned with what Michael Gilbert called "technicalties", had a great sense of character and a real, if typically restrained, sensibility runs through his work. The Eye of Osiris (1911) offers one of the least mawkish, most mature love stories of the era, still moving ninety years after and As a Thief in the Night (1925) shows a great deal of empathy for his grieving narrator. Also, Thorndyke unlike his predecessors and most of his contemporaries, is a warm, friendly man who genuinely cares for people. His relationships with Dr. Jarvis, Polton and one-time assistants are free of any condescension and foresee later "equalitarian" pairings (Ellery Queen/Richard Queen, Wimsey/Parker, Alleyn/Fox) where the sidekick is as worth of respect as the hero. Finally, humor was no terra incognita to Freeman as evidenced by his take on contemporary art in The Stoneware Monkey.

His main appeal, however, is in the plots - though not in the same way one enjoys those of Christie, Carr, Queen and others. Because most of his ideas were later robbed and recycled by some major and many minor writers, most of Freeman's puzzles are no longer puzzling to the modern reader. They were never really intended to be anyway, as mystery writers of his generation were more interested in demonstration than misdirection - and Freeman's demonstrations are positively compelling in their faultless logic. Rarely in mystery fiction has reasoning taken such a central place and been so fascinating; watching Thorndyke collecting clues, examining them and then drawing the only possible conclusion is a tremendous experience, especially when you know or at least guess what that conclusion will be. If that's what dry straw tastes like, then maybe I'm gonna switch my diet to it.

That Symons, that unflinching promoter of realism and psychology, was so dismissive of Freeman is somewhat ironic, as Freeman was the one who brought them to the genre in a time when no one gave a damn. He can thus be regarded as the grandfather of the whole "realistic" side of mystery fiction from police procedurals to CSI-like forensics shows and even hardboiled, which a for once perceptive Chandler indirectly recognized when he praised him as a "magician". Magic and science, after all, are just distant cousins.

Further reading:

- Mysterylist
- Reviews by Nicholas Fuller
- Review of The Stoneware Monkey by Mary Reed
- Michael Grost on Freeman


Better Late Than Never

Bill Pronzini is the next Grandmaster.

After decades of ignoring him, the MWA have finally realized that he "is not only a passionate author and reader of crime fiction - he is also one of the most ardent proponents of the genre [...] For forty years he has distinguished himself with consistently high-quality writing and editing in all areas of the field, including creating one of the longest lasting detective series ever."

Congratulations, Mr. Pronzini.

On Rex Stout

Classics most often fall into one of four categories: the ones you admire, the ones you dislike, the ones you don't give a damn about and, finally, the ones you just can't make your mind up. Rex Stout, as far as I'm concerned, belongs in the fourth. I have read (and occasionally enjoyed) several of his books, tried reading many others. I know his virtues, and his flaws don't escape me. I recognize his profound originality and individuality, his importance to mystery fiction. The man himself I even find quite sympathetic. Still, I can't get the jury to decide if he was genius, good, average or just plain crap.

That's why I was so hopeful about The League of the Frightened Men. A book heralded by as differently-minded people as John Dickson Carr and H.R.F. Keating as one of the best mystery novels ever written sure had something special. Maybe it would be the turning point I had been waiting for all those years? Maybe I'd finally get, possibly share, the enthusiasm felt by so many readers?

As you can gather from the tone of this article, that epiphany didn't come. Frightened Men, as a matter of fact, just joined the long list of Rex Stout books I couldn't finish, and for the same reasons than the others.

My primary objection to the Wolfes, as I'd better label them since I haven't yet read any of Stout's non-series works, is about the formula. I don't object to formulas as such: only the outcome matters, and the outcome here is badly flawed in my view. Being an armchair detective as well as an eccentric curmudgeon, Nero Wolfe does almost nothing at all, and the "almost" - drinking beer, eating, looking after his orchids, dictating letters, giving orders and pushing his lips in and out - is not that enthralling. Another feature most harmful from a dramatical viewpoint is Wolfe's reluctance to leave his house but under nuclear threat, resulting in his summoning witnesses and suspects. Instances of the doorbell ringing, Fritz opening the door and announcing the visitor, he or she sitting in the red armchair and Wolfe asking nebulous questions make for a large, and to me rather tedious, part of the books. Not only does little actually happen, but it's astonishingly repetitive.

Fans will retort I'm bypassing what makes the books so fun: the witty dialogue, the wisecracking narration, the conflictual relation between Archie and Wolfe, but I'm not. I just happen to think they often drag the books down. There is no denying that Stout could write. The problem is he knew that, and too often left his gifts a free rein at the expanse of story progression or as a substitute for it. Much talk in the Wolves is padding - clever, highly enjoyable, but padding nevertheless. And since the world outside barely exists and most of the stories take place within the walls of the brownstone house, the books end reading like novelizations of plays.

The novellas tend to avoid those problems, however, and that's why I like them better as a rule: the plots are tighter and more varied, the routine takes a lesser place, and the writing benefits from the (relative) brevity. Stout's forte may have been that form rather than the novel, but the publishing industry being then what it still is now forced him into the latter. So sad.

All that being said, I haven't lost my faith in Stout and I have high hopes on the next I plan to read, Some Buried Caesar, which is said to be excellent on all counts. Then maybe I'll give a second chance to the books of his I gave up on, including Frightened Men. For now, however, I can't but shake my head, wondering why Carr put it, of all books, on his list, along with The Valley of Fear or Death on the Nile (well, he also included the dreadful S.S. Van Dine and his Greene Murder Case but hey, nobody's perfect)

Sometimes you really regret not to have a good medium among your acquaintances...


Progress in Mystery Fiction

Martin Edwards' post on the Boileau-Narcejac team prompted me to track back and re-read their essay Le Roman Policier, long lost in the arcanes of my bookshelves. I was an adolescent when I bought it and felt an outburst of juvenile anger at the judgements expressed there, and for years this book to me was nothing but an object of contempt until Julian Symons' Bloody Murder replaced it as my favorite target.

It doesn't mean I have mellowed somewhat and now agree, or simply accept, Boileau-Narcejac's condemnation of most of the traditional detective story in the name of realism and psychology or their assertion that the genre cannot reach the level of 'high literature' because the characters are not free to act out of... character rather than contrivances of the plot. That struck and still strikes me as pretty conservative a view of fiction and 'literature'. Also, their treatment of the hard-boiled school is rather one-sided. Yet there are some interesting insights to be found as well, and you just can't hate people so fond of R. Austin Freeman.

Boileau-Narcejac's most important point in my view is the one they make in their conclusion:

"It has been believed that mystery fiction was an evolving genre, because it has successively taken on many different forms. This was seen as progress, while in fact it was merely the flowering of the many natural variations of the genre. But assuming there is actually progress inherent it, can mystery fiction handle further metamorphoses? That is the question many critics ask: whither now? Where is mystery fiction going? It is going nowhere. It is an apple-tree which gives a great variety of fruit, but those fruits are still apples nevertheless."

This was a minority view back then, and even more so today. Historians of the genre from Howard Haycraft on have always had a finalistic view of its 'evolution' with mystery fiction 'growing' over the years to finally find its definitive, mature form - usually the one the author sympathizes most with. The aforementioned Bloody Murder is a good example of that approach. Symons has no doubt that his beloved 'crime novel' is the logical outcome of the long process started by Poe in 1841 and is thus in some different ontological league than, say, cosies or adventure stories. A consequence of such a view is the failure to contextualize and treat other approaches with equal respect. Haycraft for instance criticized Doyle for not playing fair, not taking into account that 'fair play' was not a issue back then. In the same way, Symons blamed Golden Agers for their unwilling to tackle social issues or get deeper in characterization, never explaining why they had to in the first place.

But facts don't support that beautiful tale. Mystery fiction has refined, updated its ways over one century and a half; some rules once regarded as paramount have been softened or abandoned; Barbara Vine doesn't write like Mary Elizabeth Braddon, nor Ian Rankin like Fergus Hume. But it doesn't mean the genre is different, that it has changed. All the subgenres we know - from the amateur detective to hard-edged noir through police procedural and gothic suspense - and their sets of themes and conventions were already there or in germ by the early twentieth century and have remained pretty much the same ever since. Worse, most authors thought to have "transcended" the genre actually transcended little or nothing at all, for the only way to "transcend" mystery fiction, to move beyond its natural borders, is... leaving it, as Boileau-Narcejac repeatedly point out. Conversely, people like Georges Simenon or Patricia Highsmith who really pushed the envelope, never really regarded themselves as belonging to the genre despite warm support from the fandom. If we are to seek for a genre in perpetual evolution and progress, then maybe science-fiction would be a better pick.

The finalistic-minded partly realize that, as they often complain about the rigidity of conventions and the difficulty (impossibility?) to get rid of them, blaming that state of affairs on the publishing industry which admittedly does nothing to promote works challenging the status quo. The problem, however, runs deeper. Mystery fiction is a static form, has always been and will always be. Some authors manage to make something individual out of it but never something new. We have to deal with it and remind ourselves that being both apples don't keep Granny Smith and Golden from having their own virtues.

Thanks to John Pugmire for his help.


Alan Grimes, Public Benefactor Number One

Though some efforts had been made in recent years, as evidenced by the international success of Fred Vargas, French mystery fiction remains little-known in the anglosphere except for a few household names such as Gaston Leroux, Maurice Leblanc or Georges Simenon - who was actually a Belgian. Only the die-hard francophile mystery buff has heard of René Reouven, Jacques Decrest, Stanislas-André Steeman (another Belgian) Louis C. Thomas, Jean-François Coatmeur, Noël Vindry, Georges-Jean Arnaud, Brice Pelman, Frédéric Dard or Gaston Boca. That's why fans should be grateful to hematologist-turned-translator Alan Grimes for finally introducing to English-speaking readers one of the greatest French mystery writers of all time, Pierre Véry.
While Golden Age is most often associated with the American/British likes of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellery Queen, French authors of the time did produce some outstanding detective fiction. Along with Pierre Boileau (of later Boileau-Narcejac fame) and the aforementioned Decrest, Steeman and Vindry, Véry was one of the Big Four and certainly the most popular, as several of his books were made into successful films, eventually prompting him to quit mystery fiction and become a full-time screenwriter.
As a result of the genre not being taken very seriously, French Golden Age was much more freewheeling than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart; there was no Ronald Knox or S.S. Van Dine to promulgate rules and no one would listen anyway. Every author went his own way, according to his own tastes and imagination, with little regard for orthodoxy, which doesn't mean they were lacking in the plotting department.
Véry tellingly always favored his own neologism "roman de mystère" (novel of mystery) rather than the generic "roman policier" as a label for his books. Mystery and the atmosphere surrounding it were more interesting to him than the solution and the deductive process. Another term he used to describe his work was "contes de fées pour adultes" - fairytales for grown-ups. In accordance with those views, a typical Véry novel is as irreal (surreal?) as you can get: people doing nonsensical testaments before hanging themselves, gangs using crystal vipers as their signature, criminals specializing in the destruction of clocks are standard fare. Protagonists are just as quirky. Ever-broke lawyer Prosper Lepicq, first appearing in Meurtre au Quai des Orfèvres, is one of the oddest detectives in literature, investigating cases so that he can take the culprit as his client. Véry's heroes tend to be dreamy, wildly imaginative and it's no surprise they are often children or adolescents like in Les Disparus de Saint-Agil, probably his most famous novel thanks to Christian-Jaque's remarkable film adaptation, or the exquisite Les Métamorphoses. All that gives Véry's works a charm found nowhere else in the genre, either in France or abroad.
Good, I hear you say, but the plots? Do they live up to their weird premises? Well, yes and no. Anyone expecting to find Christie-like deceptions will be sorely disappointed, though Véry was quite able to manage brilliant tricks when he wanted to - see Les Quatre Vipères, arguably one of the best locked-room mysteries ever written, and a positive stunner. But Véry could write, could tell a story, could create memorable atmosphere and characters, all that in a distinctive poetic fashion. I won't say you cannot be a fulfilled mystery fan if you haven't read anything of him, but it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration.
So, if my plea made you curious to see what the fuss is about, I suggest you ask Mr. Grimes; he has already translated provincial drama Goupi Mains-Rouges and its sequel Goupi Mains-Rouges à Paris and plans to release two more vintage Vérys, Le Thé des Vieilles Dames et L'Assassinat du Père Noël next year. A benefactor I told you.


Paul Halter - La Toile de Pénélope

French crime writer Paul Halter is what mathematicians call a singleton. Back in the eighties, when social noir reigned triumphant on Gallic crime fiction, it took damn guts to proclaim one's allegiance to John Dickson Carr and specialize oneself in locked rooms and other impossible crimes: Halter's literary fate, as he swimmed against the tide, seemed to be doomed from the start. And yet Halter won the Cognac Prize (one of the major local mystery awards at the time, sponsorized by publisher Le Masque) and went on to write over thirty novels all dealing with his favorite subject matter, to increasing acclaim. Twenty years later, noir is still a major force in French crime writing - so much so that "noir" is routinely used as a synonym for the genre as a whole - and Le Masque, once a pillar of the traditional mystery, has moved to darker (trendier?) territories, but Halter is still part of its catalogue, imperturbably churning out his annual puzzler with a supreme disdain for fashion. He has readers in Italy, Germany and Japan and recently made his entry into the English-speaking market with a collection of his best short stories, gaining a Barry award nomination in the process.
His dedication to impossible crimes is not the only feature that makes Halter's work outstanding. While often dubbed as the only heir to John Dickson Carr, Halter is not a docile follower, he has an universe and an approach of his own and is not afraid to experiment, even though the result is not always convincing or successful. Carr for instance never thought of rooting a locked room mystery in Greek mythology - Halter did, and this odd mix gave us books such as Le Crime de Dédale or Le Géant de pierre. Likewise, Carr, while often giving pseudo-supernatural overtones to his stories and being an enthusiast reader of M.R. James, always kept mystery and horror separated bar for a few short stories and the famous tour-de-force known as The Burning Court. Halter, on the other hand, has no problems with crossing genres and leaving the door of the unexpected wide open. Finally, Halter's imagination is way much darker than his master's and he doesn't shrink from graphic violence and bleak endings. He is definetely not a cozy writer.
As I said above, Halter's decoctions have uneven effects, due in a large part to his flaws as a writer, not helped by his prolificity and enthusiasm. Nick Fuller made a good summary of Halter's strenghts and weaknesses and I won't parrot him. I'd like to add, though, that Halter's puzzles tend to be lacking in the motivation department; too often his impossible crimes seem to be impossible... because they have to.
La Toile de Pénélope was published in 2001 and is one of Halter's most straightforward works. No hint of the paranormal, no attempt to "push the envelope" or play the mad scientists of detective fiction, no psychopaths in sight: just a plain locked room mystery in a traditional setting with everything worked out and back to order in the end.
It all begins with Frederick Foster rising from the dead. The rich and famous entomologist had left to Amazonia three years ago in order to study local spiders and hopefully discover some still unknown to science. Alas, everything went wrong: he and his partner went lost and he was finally declared dead after the river brought back a corpse with his papers on. His family mourned him, then resumed life. You can thus imagine how shocked they are when Foster turns to be alive, if not exactly kicking. The corpse was actually his guide's; Foster was captured by indigens and spent the following two years in captivity before finally escaping and finding his way back to civilization - with his precious spiders. Needless to say, this "resurrection" is not necessarily good news to everyone, most particularly his wife, Ruth, who was about to re-marry. Still, Foster slips back in his ancient life and everything would be fine - well, almost - without a troubling photo found in his luggage. It represents Foster, but the name behind is his partner's, which raises doubts: would the miracle man be an imposter? The family sets to extensively interview Foster on the most obscure aspects of his life, with no probing results either way, and the only specimen of the entomologist's fingerprints vanishes mysteriously.
Climate progressively deteriorates as no solution is likely to be found, 'Foster' being not the least frustrated one at this uncertainty. It thus comes off as the logical output of the whole affair that he is found dead at his desk, with a revolver near his hand and a bullet in his head; the impostor brought justice to himself, case closed. But of course this ain't suicide and now things are getting really interesting, for the door was locked from the inside and the only practicable window was obstrued by an intricate and unfakable web meticulously woven by Foster's favorite spider, the aptly-named Penelope. How did the murderer get out of the room? And who really was Frederick Foster?
La Toile de Pénélope, I said, is one of Halter's most orthodox detective novels - that it was born out of a challenge (from Belgian scholar Vincent Bourgeois, to whom the book is dedicated) may partially account for that. Because he has to deal with only one impossibility, which he solves brilliantly, Halter has more time for the larger plot which is more elegantly and soundly devised than usual with him. For once the reader has his chance to work parts of the truth out of the physical and psychological clues, and the guilty party is not arbitrary nor thrown out of thin air. The writing is tightier, with only occasional slips into clichés and some typos which suggest editors at Le Masque are paid way too much, and some characters are reasonably well-sketched, most particularly Major Brough. In the end, the book looks more like Christie than Carr, though neither would've condoned the second murder - a reminder that Halter-the-Bleak is always lurking in the backstages and that he takes no prisoners.

Further reading:
Paul Halter, a Master of Locked Rooms, by John Pugmire


Hello and welcome at the Villa Rose.
I borrowed the name of this blog from A.E.W. Mason's seminal detective novel first because it's a favorite of mine and second because the book is set in France which is my country. My name is Xavier Lechard, I am thirty-two and I live in Noisy le sec, a little town near Paris. My many interests include mystery and horror fiction, movies, traditional pop and soul music. On this blog I plan to share my enthusiasms, indignations and thoughts on various topics (bar politics) with the vast world outside. Feel free to comment or send feedback, I want to hear from you.

French-speaking readers might want to visit mon blog en français.

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