Hooked on Oldies

Sarah Weinman feels contrite:
Hillary Waugh died earlier this month and I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never heard of him. That's entirely my fault, but considering he wrote LAST SEEN WEARING (1952), which is considered to be one of the earliest examples of the modern police procedural, and kept up a prolific pace from the late 1940s until the late 1980s, I'm at a loss as to how he wasn't on my reading radar. It's like when Julius Fast, who won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Novel, passed away: I had some dim awareness but it was completely out of proportion to the significance of Fast's work in the mystery realm.
Neither Fast or Waugh are bedside authors of mine - I read only one book from each, none being a groundbreaking experience to say the least. Of the former's amnesia-themed thriller THE BRIGHT FACE OF DANGER, I wrote in 2003: "One of the numerous freudian mysteries that cropped up after World War II,  [it] hasn't aged well. Penny-rate psychology takes too much place to the detriment of a plot verging on mere pretext." On re-reading this review I realize that I omitted the good things about the book, namely that it was well-crafted (within its limitations) and quite readable. Still, there was nothing there to suggest Mr. Fast's eventual significance is other than historical. I may be wrong of course, and I haven't read his Edgar-winner, but if asked about a significant mystery writer going by the name of Fast, I'd rather pick his brother Howard (check the Women books he wrote under the pseudonym E.V. Cunningham, they're terrific)
I'll refrain from commenting about Waugh's stature on the evidence of the sole book of his that I read since it's hardly typical. A far cry from the police procedurals that made him famous, A BRIDE FOR HAMPTON HOUSE is a gothic. When reading it in 2002, I thought Waugh was "not really at home with that kind of books. "Bride" could have been a good, if not great, book, but it never goes beyond a decent standard level. Story, while a solid one, is predictable and characters are wooden. Waugh, though, remains a great storyteller, and you have to know what happens - even if it's something you had guessed already." I have another Waugh on my shelves, the earlier and more typical A RAG AND A BONE, which I haven't read yet.
Maybe you think this post aims at boasting my colossal erudition and sneer at Ms. Weinman's ignorance, in which case you'd be quite mistaken. The reason why Fast and Waugh ring a bell here is that my reading diet leans heavily to the antediluvian. My two favorites for this year (I still can't decide which one is the very best) were written more than fifty years ago - which is quite recent in comparison with my best book for 2007. I'm not opposed to contemporary mystery fiction as such and I appreciate it when it's good, but I am definetely "hooked on oldies".
Reading older books, apart from exposing you to lots of wonderful stuff (and, sometimes, godawful crap) you'd never hear of otherwise, has an invaluable virtue: it provides you with a perspective. One of the reasons why so many critically-acclaimed modern mysteries said to "break new ground" and "transcend the genre" leave me cold is that all too often they don't break any new ground nor actually transcend anything; their path has been crossed before, sometimes with a lighter foot. Genuine innovation and progress in mystery fiction is most definetely an illusion.
Exploring the dusty shelves, however, is a solitary job. Most people don't know the books you read and in return you don't know the books most people read. A balance has to be achieved. My good resolution for 2009?


A Review of a Review

One Jeff Turrentine, reviewing Kate Atkinson's pseudo-mystery Case Histories:

"In taking on detective fiction -- a genre whose circumscribed rules don't typically allow for too much character development -- Atkinson, whose inclinations are more literary, is taking a risk. No one ever wanted to know what Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade were "feeling." What's supposed to matter is plot, plot, plot."

Sure. Raymond Chandler never displayed any interest in Marlowe's feelings, and characterization in his works is sketchy at best, not to mention his notoriously crude writing. The author of such plot-driven books as The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye was in there just for the whodunit and in this department he could draw circles around Agatha Christie. John Dickson Carr repeatedly praised the fairness and cleverness of his plots, and rumours have it that the Detection Club was seriously considering his induction by the time he died. As to detective fiction, it indeed leaves no room for characterization, or just one as tiny as the argument of Case Histories. Edmund Wilson demonstrated it seventy years ago and we all know he was a trustable source and the genre didn't change at all ever since...

Having raised the bar high, Turrentine then proceeds to raise it even higher:

"Breaking detective-thriller form, Case Histories is told from multiple points of view"

I hate to break it to our enthusiastic reviewer, but multiple points of view have been used in mystery fiction for a long time. P.D. James, hardly a newcomer or an innovator, even made this technique one of her trademarks. Atkinson doesn't break any new ground here - except if you think, like Mr. Turrentine seems to, that the genre started with Chandler and Hammett and that authors coming after them followed their path to a fault. Mmmm, not quite.

How would Jeff Turrentine and his readers feel about a mystery critic reviewing John Updike's latest mainstream novel and telling us that Charles Dickens was a pseudonym for eighteen-century French playwright Fidor Dostoevsky, best known for his epic poem Don Quixote? I guess they'd be quite upset, and the local groceries would soon run out of tomatoes. But mainstream reviewers dabbling into genre fare - well, literary genre fare - are allowed to pout similar nonsense and get a free pass, as evidenced by the fact that this four-year old review seems not to have elicited any comment or response. I myself wouldn't have heard of it had I not recently read Case Histories and found it so nothing special despite the hype that I rounded all reviews available on the web, hoping they'd eventually provide me with keys to the alleged greatness of that book. They didn't, but Mr. Turrentine's article at least gave me the stimuli to write this post, and is thus somewhat redeemed for that. Somewhat.

UPDATE: Jeff Turrentine sent me a reply which you can read here.


Golden Age(s)

"What then is time? St. Augustine famously wondered. If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know." This would apply just fine to Golden Age. At first sight it looks a perfectly clear, well-delineated concept; then one tries to define it and trouble begins, for whatever meaning you ascribe it just brings more questions.
If we go by the chronological definition, then we have to agree on when it began and when it ended, none of which is a wholly settled issue. We also have to account for all those authors who, while active and often at the height of their fame and powers during that period, did not fit the standard model - mind you, Georges Simenon, Edgar Wallace and Dashiell Hammett too were Golden-Agers. Not to mention those like Anthony Berkeley or Mary Fitt who progressively shifted away from traditional detective fiction over the years.
One might thus favor an aesthetical definition of Golden Age: a particular brand of mystery fiction, not bound by chronological restraints. But it isn't much more helpful, for it presupposes a consensus on the distinctive characteristics of the form and that consensus - to put it in euphemistic terms - doesn't yet exist. Also, many so-called Golden Age writers have little in common but this label. John Dickson Carr and, say, Cyril Hare may both have written detective novels but their approach, style, even ideology, were completely different, and Gladys Mitchell is definetely not like Agatha Christie.
A third solution is to regard Golden Age as both a period and a form - to define one is to define the other. Contradictions are still there, but at least they are manageable.
Having summed up the various positions, I will now give my two cents on the chronological issue. Most of the problems with it, I think, can be solved by acknowledging that Golden Age is made of different stratums rather than monolithic. One of the most impressive features of the period is how fast the genre evolved over a comparatively short lapse of time: only eighteen years separate Trent's Last Case from Malice Aforethought. Golden Age can roughly be divided into three periods:
Early Golden Age (1920/1926) is essentially a transition period continuing, deepening and cementing the changes underway in the years preceding WW1. Novels progressively replace short stories as the dominant medium, causing plots to become more complex and the genre to change its focus as whodunit takes a greater importance and surprise solutions become an end in themselves rather than just a showcase for the detective's logical skills. Rules start being laid out and theoricians make their appearance.
Middle Golden Age (1926/1939) is the era most of us have in mind when talking of Golden Age: flamboyant detectives, ornate plots, challenges to the reader and an almost total disregard for realism and verisimilitude; mystery as a sophisticated and highly codified genre whose main purpose is to fool and surprise the reader again and again while claiming to give him a chance to guess who, why and how. Of course things were not that simple or clear-cut, but for the essential it is true, and very few care for the mounting dissent from francs-tireurs like Anthony Berkeley or Richard Hull, or the hardboiled school in America.
Later Golden Age (1939/1950) sees authors becoming increasingly skeptical and critical of the genre, its rules and even its social foundations. Detectives and plots become more naturalistic and the general mood is darker or markedly parodic (Crispin, Innes) A good example of that new direction is Cyril Hare's An English Murder that, while scrupulously respecting the conventions of the genre, takes its values upside down. The American and British schools part way at the end of the decade as the former converts to softboiled and psychological suspense while the latter adopts the police procedural format.
I'll expand on these in future posts, so stay tuned... and feel free to comment. I like when readers tell me what they think.


Nice People

Philo Vance, Ogden Nash famously said, deserves a kick in the pance. That motion enjoyed large support over the years and it's easy to see why. An arrogant, pompous, self-centered snob with an oyster's sensibility and a quite personal sense of ethics, not to mention a seemingly endless erudition, there is no question Vance is an unpleasant fellow... just like most of his predecessors and contemporaries. Van Dine's work was essentially derivative and his sleuth is no exception. All of Philo's "negative" features were borrowed and aggrandized from more or less famous models; they were basic requirements for great detectives back then.
Modern readers expect their favorite sleuth to be a regular, fallible human beings whom they can "relate" with: Alan Banks or Kurt Wallander may not be the smartest investigators in the room, but their personalities and experiences are close enough to the reader's to allow him* to identify and bound with them. Their love affairs, health and/or family problems end being more crucial to the books than the cases they investigate, competently but not brilliantly. Such an idea would have left an Anna Katherine Green or a Conan Doyle scratching their heads in bewilderment. Detectives back in the formative years of the genre were rarely regular, virtually infallible except for some exceptions that confirmed the rule and the only feelings they were supposed to elicit were amazement and admiration, the "Watson" serving as a cheerleader. Fans worldwide who lamented Sherlock's temporary demise mourned the great detective - they didn't mourn the man.
Because being likeable wasn't yet part of the job, early detectives as a rule were not. Only Sgt. Cuff can be called a wholly sympathetic figure; the rest is divided between coldly manipulative professionals a la Lecoq/Gryce and Dupin-influenced eccentric amateurs with a ballooned ego. Fascinating characters for sure, but also quite frightening at times; the face of Justice, in these times, was not a friendly one.
Not that they cared much for ethical issues anyway. We are often told that detective fiction is about restoring order, but it hasn't always been so. Belle-Epoque sleuths' motivations were remarkably mundane: money, getting oneself or a loved one out of trouble, or the plain thrill of the game; also, they weren't above letting the criminal go free if they sympathized with his motives. But at least they remained on the right side. Well, most of them. Think of Romney Pringle or, more sinisterly, Horace Dorrington. But the most chillingly effective portrayal of the dark side of the Great Detective figure is to be found in Baronness Orczy's stories featuring Bill Owen, better-known as The Old Man in the Corner.
Owen, if you don't know him, is generally regarded as the very first armchair detective. He does all of his sleuthing from his chair at a teashop where he meets his reluctant watson, female journalist Polly Burton, and the only physical activity he is ever seen indulging in is tying and untying knots on a rope or any piece of string he can find. Alike most amateur detectives of his time and beyond, he is basically a "thinking machine" for whom crime solving is first a kind of an intellectual game, a duel of wits (the Old Man stories were among the first, if not the first, to include challenges to the reader) and he takes much pride in his ability to see what nobody saw and guess what nobody guessed. But, unlike his colleagues, he doesn't serve justice - be it formal or a more personal kind. To unravel the murderer's scheme is enough for him and he doesn't feel any need to call the police (which he loathes) to tell them about his findings. Murder to him is a fine art and he thus sides with the masters of the craft, now matter how nasty they are. As to victims, who cares? The Old Man, in short, is a nihilist; one of the stories suggest he might even be a murderer himself - unrepentant of course.
It's easy to regard such a character as either a novelty act or an aberration. Easy, but mistaken. What Orczy shows us, voluntarily or not, is that the line separating the ubermensch from the downright inhuman is a very, very fine one; many Great Detectives might as well have been Master Criminals. The key-difference between Holmes and Moriarty or Wolfe from Zek is not one of personality. It's one of polarity.


Jean Paul Török's "L'Enigme du Monte Verita" - Review by Henrique Valle

Jean-Paul Török (born 1936) is a French movie historian and critic, script writer, director and professor of narratology. Apparently, L'énigme du Monte Verita is his first novel. In the book's foreword, he professes to have written it with the purpose of «composing a detective story of the old kind» that, irrespective of plot, finished with the finishing sentence of John Dickson Carr's The burning court, which has fascinated him ever since he has read it for the first time. In fact, from plot structure and atmosphere to writing style, L'énigme du Monte Verita is one of the most perfect Carr pastiches ever penned. But to regard it as a mere pastiche would be unfair: this is also one of the most interesting detective novels of the last years.

It is 1938 and Europe is on the verge of war. Pierre Garnier, a brilliant young French academic and specialist of Edgar Allan Poe, and his wife Solange are in Switzerland to participate in an international symposium about the mystery novel. The symposium takes place in Ascona, a town located in the fringes of the Monte Verita (in Italian, Mountain of Truth) by the Lac Majeur. In the early 20th Century, a mystic that proclaimed to be the reincarnation of Christian Rosenkreutz, the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, lived in the mountains among his followers. Under siege by the hostile population and the police, the magus imitated the original Rosenkreutz locked himself in a grotto to meditate and pray to the telluric powers to show him a solution to the crisis. The grotto's entrance was then blocked with heavy rocks and there was no other way out. On the fourth day the populace went in – but there was nobody inside.

The whole plot develops under the spell of impossibility cast by this legend. During the symposium, a lecturer claims that impossible crimes do not occur in real life. Dr. Hoenig, a German psychiatrist and police consultant (and also a nasty Nazi) claims the opposite, and announces that he will prove it in the course of his lecture, even if it involves the exposure of some of the persons present. Afterwards, Dr. Hoenig tells Pierre Garnier that he has positive proof that his wife has been previously married to three other men, at least two of which had been murdered in seemingly impossible ways, implying that Simone is the murderess. Pierre is plunged into a whirlwind of doubts, fuelled by his wife's mysterious past. And then, before his lecture, dr. Hoenig is stabbed to death in a hermetically sealed room where nobody else was found, the murder having occurred in front of two witnesses who were watching by the window and who swear not to have seen the murderer go out. Nevertheless, when supposed to be dead, Dr. Hoenig is seen walking in the outside with a knife sticking out of his chest. The body finally appears inside the Rosenkreutz grotto – which only entrance was covered with solid iron bars.

The plot is typically Carrian, and in fact its main idea seems to have been derived from Till death do us part (1944, published as by Carter Dickson), in which a mysterious woman is also suspected of having murdered three hitherto unknown husbands. Carrian are also the main characters of Phillipe Garnier, a "sound bright lad" whose point of view is adapted by the narrator in most instances, and of Solange Garnier, a damned woman in the tradition of Carr's Lesley Grant (in the aforementioned Till death do us part), Fay Seton (He who whispers, 1946) and Marie Stevens (The burning court, 1937), as well as the atmosphere of constant tension suggested not only by the supernatural allusions but also by hints of inner psychological discomfort of the protagonists. This is all extremely well done and well told, with only a few noticeable signs of self-consciousness. Commissioner Brenner of the Swiss police and the acting deus ex machina, an impossible crime writer with some HM mannerisms and the unequivocal name of Andrew Carter Porges, are in charge of detection. The other characters are subservient to the plot but lively and interesting.

The book, however, has some letdowns, several minor and a major one. The minor ones are the occasional lack of accuracy (it is unforgivable to mention Sherlock Holmes address as "217B Baker Street"!), some anachronisms (for instance, it is highly unlikely that an academic symposium on the mystery novel, such as described in the book, would have been held as early as 1938) and, most of all, the constant academic repartee between the characters. This latter is always erudite and witty, mostly relevant to the plot and very seldom pompous – therefore, we are not in the presence of a pseudo-intellectual take on the detective novel. But this kind of Michael Innes' donnish silliness doesn't go very well with the sombre background. The major letdown lies in the alternative solutions, both of them far from original in the annals of mystery fiction, which any experienced reader of impossible crime mysteries will reach well before the end of the book (they are even more obvious if one considers the literary-theoretical subtext of the novel). Moreover, the solutions are not completely (even if they are mostly) fair-play. The winks at historical facts and characters (one of them is an obvious parody of Umberto Eco, and some other portraits can be spotted by an attentive and informed reader) are superfluous but unlikely to distract.

All in all, this is an interesting and elegantly written book that doesn't show it's frailties until the end, therefore making for a pleasurable and stimulating read. Despite of being a pastiche, and to some extent a satire, of mystery novels, it holds reasonably well as a detective story in its own right, unlike most of the similar attempts made by exiles from other quarters of literature. Furthermore, it's also very effective in sending a few shivers down the reader's spine along the way. This book also makes a strong case for those who think that the future of mystery fiction now, more than ever, lies outside the realm of the massified and standardized Anglo-American publishing markets.

Jean-Paul Török, L'énigme du Monte Verita (France Univers, 2007, 214 pp., 19€)


One Step

So the unimaginable finally happened: a thriller meant and marketed as such has found its way to the Booker Prize. Whether Smith wins or not, a precedent has been set, and crime fiction's piccolo mondo will never be the same again. But is it really cause to rejoice? Have the walls finally tumbled down, and should they?
If you are of the persuasion that genre fiction is a ghetto and being embraced by mainstream critics as a "great writer" is the Valhalla any self-respecting author should seek, then it's great news and there's more to come and already coming. With "crime writers" being increasingly taken seriously and mainstream luminaries crossing the Rubicon, hopes are that, as Sarah Weinman suggests, "the so-called genre wars are lurching toward, if not an end, then at least a tentative cease-fire", the very thought of which is probably having the unlamented Edmund Wilson doing triple axels in his grave.
However, if you are the kind that has no problem with being in a ghetto as long as you're the one holding the keys, then you might be more skeptical. Granted, the lines have blurred - but only on one side. The mainstream did not recede one inch, while mystery fiction has moved increasingly closer. We are still hearing and reading sornettes about "transcending the genre" every time a crime/mystery novel satisfies to orthodox criterias of good writing - and specialized critics are not the lesser offenders. It was hoped the genre would finally be accepted on its own terms; instead it has accepted those of the mainstream. Hardly reason for enthusiasm.
So, depending on your stance, the future of the genre may look bright or gloomy, a prospect of either long-awaited recognition or dissolution in the muddy waters of general fiction. Whatever may be, good reviews and even better sales make certain the move will continue for better or worse and Tom Rob Smith's Booker nomination is just one step in that direction. A giant one? Time will tell.


Quote of the Day

Frances Fyfield in the Sunday Times:

I hate novels being used as social criticism — it's like being whacked over the head. Ian Rankin does it a lot, which I think is a mistake. It's got to be a bit more elemental than that, otherwise your book's not got a very long shelf life. Better for that sort of perspective to emerge as a natural result of the story you're trying to tell.

Gotta read her books!

(via Sarah Weinman)


Birthday Gifts

It was Raymond Chandler's 120th birthday yesterday and the LATimes asked some influential mystery folks what gift they'd offer him.
I, too, have some presents for the father of Philip Marlowe - because he's worth it.
First, the complete works of one of his favorite authors. Should bring back fond memories of fruitful, if passionate, arguments.
Second, a dedicated photo of Alfred Hitchcock as a souvenir of their friendly, mutually-respecting collaboration on Strangers on a Train.
Third and final - I'm rather short of money and you shouldn't offer a dead centenarian too many gifts, that might spoil him - my own copy of The Simple Art of Murder, complete with my uncensored annotations.
Happy birthday, Raymond.
P.S.: This article is, of course, satirical and not to be taken seriously. Never would I give away my copy of TSAM - not for free.
And my annotations are quite polite, except for a tiny handful occupying roughly the three quarters of the volume. Otherwise it's pretty G-rated stuff.


When "I" Is Not Another

A large number of mystery novels are written in first person. This approach offers multiple advantages - and multiple drawbacks as well.
Leading among the former is an easier identification with the protagonist - he talks to us, we follow his actions and his thoughts, we see what he sees, we hear what he hears. It's no surprise, then, if the device is historically associated to forms of the genre that rely on strong emotional investment from the reader: suspense of course, but also hardboiled and noir. But, since the narrator is not omniscient and ultimately tells us only what he's willing to, first-person may also be a marvelous tool for mystification, as anyone who's read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd will be happy to confirm, and that's why detective novels and twist-in-the-tale stories made and still make a great use of it.
Still, the device has its problems or, as the French say, les défauts de ses qualités (the flaws of its virtues). First, it restrains the scope of the work on both a dramatical and psychological level. As I said above, the narrator is not omniscient. Being only human, he can't read other people's thoughts, make himself invisible or be in two places at the same time. This means we know characters and places only through his personal, subjective experience. If he leaves the room in the middle of a conversation, what was said afterwards will remain forever unknown to the reader, and if he stays we can't be sure people mean what they say. This wouldn't be much of a problem* if that ambiguity extended to the narrator, which alas is rarely the case. All too often he tells the reader in detail about himself, his past, present and future while other characters remain at best silhouettes, more or less well-sketched - making him the actual subject of the story he tells. Such a phenomenon is not uncommon in contemporary mystery fare, even that sticking to third-person mode.
Finally and in accordance with the rimbaldian title of this post, the narrator's "I" is often the author's, not only biographically and psychologically but stylistically as well. Narrators, despite being new to the job, know all of the tricks to grab the reader's interest and never let go. They can capture a landscape or a character in a few words and keep a fast pacing, with suspense and twists most efficiently dosed - so efficiently, indeed, that it's hard at times to believe you're reading a true story told by an amateur rather than, say, a piece of fiction by a seasoned pro. Even more remarkable is the continuity of style some authors maintain through different stories with - supposedly - different narrators. Mike, 31, a computer scientist in New York has thus the same "voice" as Roger, an alcoholic quinquagenarian Washington Post journalist whose writing style itself bears some resemblance to that of Sarah, a 40-year old Dallas housewife... all of the three having, of course, never met each other. Quite a feat, indeed!
True, characters are often so interchangeable that it's no surprise it goes the same for their voices - but the same phenomenon may be encountered in works by more ambitious writers, proving that style just like every other habit is second nature.
*Actually, it may even be beneficial.


A Note For the French-Speaking

My French blog, Mayhem Parva, is operational again, with a post on the pros and cons of first-person narration in mystery fiction.


Another Decalogue

This list, of course, is tongue-in-cheek. Mostly.

1. Mystery fiction is not about character, society, politics, gender, religion or whatever else. It's about mystery and the puzzle plot is what makes its specificity as a genre. You will thus approach it with respect and attention rather than just as a template for your personal concerns.

2. Mystery fiction, however, is or should be more than just a game. Good writing, sound characterization and some humor can't but enhance the value of your work. Remember, though, that good writing doesn't equate preciosity or free-wheeling virtuosity, while sound characterization doesn't mean loading your characters with various problems and issues or going into painful detail of their childhoods and food habits, especially when neither are relevant to the story.

3. You won't conceal any vital clue or decisive element from the reader. This is an old rule, present in many past and present syllabuses, but it's always worth-repeating if only because it's infringed almost every day by legions of hacks as well as some major names. Cheating is wrong because it ruins the architecture of the plot, much like bad rhyme or meter errors ruin that of a poem; it's bad technique and thus bad art.

4. If realism and verisimilitude get in the way of a good idea then realism and verisimilitude should be dropped, period. One of the great pleasures of being a writer is that you can play God and do exactly as you please, so enjoy your freedom and let your imagination be your guide. Mystery fiction, unlike common misperception, don't have a sacred duty to "show the world as it really is". You are a writer, possibly an artist, not a reporter or a social scientist.

5. Conversely, do research only if it's your thing or if you think it may improve your story. Otherwise just go ahead and don't be afraid to talk about things you have little or no knowledge of - provided of course that you admit it from the start. It's fiction and most importantly, your fiction. The only master aboard is you.

6. Ellipsis is a force. Don't explain, don't tell, don't describe more than what's absolutely necessary and let the rest open for imagination and interpretation. Reading, especially reading mysteries, must not be a passive experience. Gaps must be left for the reader to fill.

7. Don't stay content with what others have said and done before. Try to find new ways, new themes, new approaches. Mystery may look quite strait-laced at first sight but it actually offers a plenty of room for experiment, and it would be a pity not to use it.

8. Series detectives are to be avoided as much as possible or used homeopathically, and must never become the sole or major justification for their stories.

9. Don't mistake gimmicks for originality. It takes much more than an "original" character, premise or setting to write a genuinely original mystery.

10. The genre didn't start with you and the authors that you like. To have a good knowledge of its history will help you understand it better and avoid hubris. Whatever "new" ground you think you're breaking, chances are someone else broke it a long, long time ago.


In Praise of Theory

Sarah Weinman unearths S.S. Van Dine's famous Twenty Rules, rightfully singling out #15 as the one still most important eighty years on - I am more hesitant in respect to her contention that mystery fiction having become "more about the emotional and the visceral" is "rather a good thing". Van Dine's rules for the most part were actually quite reasonable despite the bad press they've been getting for eight decades, and anyone setting to write a real mystery rather than just a mainstream novel with a criminal element should definetely take a look. The main interest of this syllabus, however, is a historical one. Not as an embodiment of Golden Age ideals of good mystery writing, which it clearly isn't: major authors of the era as well as many lesser ones either ignored or deliberately violated its most contentious ukazes. Van Dine himself broke free from his own laws on numerous occasions (Kennel Murder Case, anyone?)
The Twenty Rules are important for just the same reason as Freeman's Art of the Detective Story, Carolyn Wells' Technique of the Mystery Story, Ronald Knox's Decalogue or  even - God forbid - Raymond Chandler's Simple Art of Murder. There you have authors from different stripes and backgrounds pausing one moment to think about the genre they practice and giving their own answers to some hard questions - in short, doing theory. What is this thing called mystery and what is it for? Where does it come from and where is it heading to? How does it work and how can it be made to work even better? Is it "serious" fiction, fluffy entertainment or something else? Is it about plot or character, real-life or fantasy? They were not the only ones pondering these issues: Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr, Anthony Boucher, our old friend Julian Symons in the Anglo-Saxon world or Boileau-Narcejac and Jean-Patrick Manchette on this side of the pond also chimed in. Theory was a driving force in twentieth-century mystery writing, leading at times to violent wars such as the one Carr and Chandler fought for years without ever meeting each other. Yes Virginia, they took the genre that seriously back then.
Feuds of that kind are unlikely to happen nowadays. Theory is now mostly confined to fanzines, discussion groups and blogs like the one you're kind enough to pass by; most authors, critics and readers agree on the (very basic) basics of the genre and don't give a damn about the whole thing anyway. It's both fascinating and infuriating to see that many "fans" are more interested in what mystery fiction allows - social comment, psychological studies, political messages - than the genre itself, hence the proud illiteracy met in countless articles and interviews as well as the academism, both formal and thematical, of a large part of contemporary crime fare. Why bother to learn about the history of a genre, or try to make it progress, when to you it's just a convenient medium? Just keep doing what you've always done, and reading what you've always read.
No art form, and mystery fiction is undoubtedly one, can move forward if it doesn't explore, question and try to renew itself. That's why we need theoricians, and most particularly authors-theoricians, more than ever. Will the next Willard Huntington Wright please stand up?


30 mystery writers the Daily Telegraph and London Times staffes should read before next list

Two months after the Daily Telegraph disclosed its list of the 50 crime writers to read before you die, it's the London Times' turn to offer its own Top 50 and the result is just as interesting - that is, not much. Neither of both lists is very imaginative: much overlap, some curious omissions (Rex Stout is decidedly not popular with the British audience) and a general bias to psychological thrillers and hardboiled/noir fiction, preferably homegrown. Were Crimetime to issue their own pantheon, it would probably include the same authors, except of course the golden-agers. Other than showing they're as crime-savvy as the Telegraph folks, it's hard to fathom what motive prompted Berlins and his team to round up the usual suspects once again; hopefully the Grauniad and the Independent if they enter the game will come up with something a little more original.
Still, making lists is always fun, so I decided to set mine, though of a somewhat different kind. It has "only" 30 items but I don't pretend them to be the best ever; they're just in my opinion the best not to make the other lists despite being at least as deserving, if not as well-known as those who did. Feel free to make your own suggestions or voice your disagreements; that's why the comments section and Hotmail are for.

Charlotte Armstrong 1904-69
Turned suspense fiction into a modern-day morality play. You can't but like the author who gave Marilyn Monroe one of her precious few opportunities to act.
Robert Bloch 1917-94
Better-known as the guy who fathered Norman Bates but there's more, much more to him.
Pierre Boileau 1906-89 and Thomas Narcejac 1908-98 a.k.a. Boileau-Narcejac
A towering moment of French mystery fiction, either as solo acts or as a duet. They're Martin Edwards' favorite suspense writers: I can't think of a better recommendation.
Stephen Booth
Yorkshire mystery writer with a lot of promise.
Christianna Brand 1908-88
The other queen of crime.
Fredric Brown 1906-71
The master of paradoxes, equally good at mystery and sci-fi.
Howard Browne a.k.a. John Evans 1908-99
Chandler with plots.
Michael Butterworth dates unknown
British gothic writer with a fondness for decay, madness and body parts.
Thomas H. Cook 1948-present
Master-stylist, brilliant explorer of tortured psyches and haunted pasts and, more importantly, the very best plotter around.
Ursula Curtiss 1923-86
The woman who made people afraid of neighbours, old ladies, phones, peacocks and wasps.
Stanley Ellin 1916-87 and Jack Ritchie 1922-1983 and Henry Slesar 1927-2002
The Big Three of short crime fiction and an example to follow in these times of literary brontosaurianism. (Ellin and Slesar also wrote some excellent novels)
Richard Austin Freeman 1862-1943
The man who made forensics sexy and gave the world the inverted story - and Dr. Thorndyke.
Celia Fremlin 1918-present
Albion's answer to Charlotte Armstrong.
Emile Gaboriau 1832-73
Yes, he's wordy and his plots drag. But he started it all. And the first part of Le Crime d'Orcival is pure beauty.
Paul Halter 1956-present
Not quite John Dickson Carr's heir but responsible for some of the best locked-room mysteries in recent years.
Edward D. Hoch 1930-2008
Father of Nick Velvet, Captain Leopold, Ben Snow, Simon Ark, Rand and many others. Need I say more?
Patricia McGerr 1918-1987
One of the most innovative mystery writers of the late 40s, now sadly forgotten.
Mark McShane 1930-???
The weirdest and most unpredictable of all British crime/mystery writers.
Leo Malet 1909-1996
Nestor Burma's daddy, he did for Paris what Chandler had done for L.A.
Margaret Millar 1915-1994
The absolute queen of suspense fiction and the finest deviser of plots of the post-WWII era.
Ellery Queen
The most glaring omission of both lists. How can one pretend to make a list of best crime writers and then omit the duet responsible for The Player on the Other Side, Calamity Town, The Murderer is a Fox or Ten Days' Wonder among other gems and the fondation of the world's leading (and oldest) mystery magazine? Shame, shame, shame.
Patrick Quentin
The other great mystery duet, responsible for Peter Duluth, Inspector Trant, Dr Westlake and daughter Dawn and lots of excellent short stories.
René Reouven 1925-present
French king of mystery steampunk, author of some of the finest and most imaginative holmesian pastiches ever. Also writes science-fiction.
Mary Roberts Rinehart 1876-1958
The godmother of all modern mystery fiction, no less. Read her seriously if you don't believe me.
Julian Symons 1912-94
Often exasperating as a critic, but one of the very few authors who genuinely tried to break new ground - and succeeded on more than one occasion.
Henry Wade 1887-1969
Awfully underrated Golden Age detective writer in bad need of a reprint.


Jean Stubbs - Dear Laura

I must confess I am not particularly fond of historical mysteries, which puts me (once again) in the minority camp. My objections are twofold:
- Plot and characters all too often take a backseat to "production values"; the author has done his homework and wants it to show. Alas, it does.
- Because it's popular fiction and readers are meant to bound with the main protagonists, the latter tend to display attitudes and ideas which are quite mainstream in this day and age but were considerably less so back then. While I can see the commercial logic behind this, it's still cheating to me; when you set out to write a book set in the past, you must go all the way: no presentism, no statiscally-implausible beacon of enlightened values in a time of obscurity, no "oh-look-how-weird-they-were" condescension, no preachiness about how things are better nowadays.
Jean Stubbs avoids all of those trappings in this remarkable 1973 novel, the first of a trilogy featuring rather than starring Inspector John Joseph Lintott.
1890. Theodore and Laura Crozier have been married for fifteen years. On the surface they are a happy couple by contemporary standards of wealth and respectability. If you look beneath however, things are different. A cold, repressed and authoritarian man, Theodore treats his wife and children well - nothing more; his only soft spot is for his ever-broke younger brother Titus, a charming parasite with no interest in life but game and women. Entering marriage with bovary-like expectations of everlasting and passionate love, Laura was sorely disappointed with that anything but passionate husband who, as a final touch to an already unflattering portrait, happens to be also a hypocondriac always seeking for a new illness to suffer of. As time went by, however, they've found a modus vivendi - helped by Titus's comforting and sometimes troubling presence. And then Theodore dies. A natural death at first sight, but only at first sight. Murder? Suicide? It's Inspector Lintott's job to sort that out - or try to.
What makes Dear Laura such a wonderful work is that it makes no compromise; from first page it's total immersion into a different society - some would say a different world.  Characters act victorian, talk victorian, think victorian; even their occasional rebellions against social codes stay within victorian boundaries. Lintott for instance is a likeable character, a skilled investigator and shows more empathy and compassion than most, but his values and opinions are those of his day - few modern female readers will agree with him that a woman "has no [sexual] need". None of the characters will have a Damascus experience; Laura Crozier repeatedly complains about her status and enjoys the freedom she finally finds as a widow but nothing suggests any intention of hers to go further and engage the establishment, though she fancies assisting a Fabian Society meeting - probably more out of the thrill of doing something forbidden than any serious commitment or intellectual curiosity.
The plot is typically victorian as well, revolving around a hidden secret, a major theme of sensation fiction and logical outcome of a society obsessed with respectability. Lintott's gentle yet firm manners as well as his ability to get along with the domestics makes him a cousin of Wilkie Collins' Sgt. Cuff. Even the ending, while cynical to the last degree, actually conforms in an admittedly twisted way to victorian values. The object of the secret and Stubbs' use of misdirection, however, are distinctively modern, as well as the rampant nihilism permeating it all.
For Dear Laura is a bleak book, though nothing shocking is ever shown or openly said, understatement being another distinctive trait of victorian literature. The society it portrays is an open-air jail where everyone is both a prisoner and a jailer. Even those holding power or seeming to are subjected to the same self-enforcing, never questioned codes, no matter how suffering they bring; the next century is only a decade away, but it might as well be one million years. No sign of change, no sign of a desire for change, is in sight. Jean Stubbs, unlike some of her later followers, passes no judgement; she just observes and provides the reader with the evidence she collected. The result may not be exotic, picturesque, it's certainly not a feel-gooder and doesn't give any easy answer, but it rings true without burying the reader with useless erudition and straight-from-the-textbook "atmospheric" touches. This is, in short, the kind of historical mystery that I like.


Reads for the Weekend

If you share my enthusiasm and admiration for the works of Anthony Berkeley, then you have to read Martin Edwards' fine new article on the author of Trial and Error, Jumping Jenny and (as Francis Iles) Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact.
And after that, you can test your deductive skills with this real-life puzzler. (via Sarah Weinman)


A Letter

This blog may not be the most popular on the web but the quality of its readership more than makes up for that. I just received this well-thought, well-argumented mail from Henrique Valle which I reprint here with the author's permission as it's just too good not to share:
In the interesting post "Die Hard" you wrote: «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.»

Curiously, the same point has been made by Howard Haycraft in an article entitled "The whodunit in World War II and after" (collected in The art of the mystery story, 536-542). In this article, Haycraft also points out that the number of new (British and American) published authors decreased radically during WWII. Thus, the popularity of mystery fiction during WWII was essentially due to a prolific establishment of writers whose creativity was then in full-fledge.

I have often thought about this issue, and suggest that the explanation of the phenomenon you mention lies in this: such an establishment of writers didn't exist during WWI.  

Not only there were much less popular mystery authors to start with, but the vast majority of them were already past their prime and must even then have been perceived as something of the past, when compared to emerging writers such as Chesterton, Bentley, Mason or even Philpotts; these, in turn, were too recent to be contemporarily perceived as immediately significant; they would form the basis of the post-war mystery establishment, but weren't already part of it. One only has to think about writers like Morrison, Ottolengui, Orczy, Jenkins, Meade and others to understand this clearly; your beloved Freeman is, I believe, the exception rather than the rule.

The war-time decay in publishing by typically pre-war authors (by this I mean the ones that conformed to pre-war conventions) must have been caused not only by the war itself (according to Haycraft, the number of published mystery titles has also decreased during WWII) but by the progressive creative exhaustion and old fashiondness of most of those writers.  Time would confirm this: after the war, only a small number of typical pre-war authors have continued to produce significant works; the next years of mystery writing would be dominated by the new school of direct heirs of the writers I mentioned above.

Of course, the decadence of the pre-war authors alone doesn´t explain the almost complete disappearance of the mystery story in English speaking countries during WWI. This factor, nonexistent during WWII, must be combined with another one: the non-emergence of new published writers during the war. As I mentioned, the same seems to have occurred during WWII.

This may be explained generally by a natural retraction of the publishing market during the wartime effort. But one could also point out that the formal artistic changes (from the short-story to the novel) that were taking place in the mystery story at the outbreak of WWI also demanded significant commercial changes in the publishing industry (from magazine to book publication). So, the market was also in a transitional period, and the accomplishment of this evolution would have been virtually impossible during the war.

That the issue may well have had a commercial aspect to it is suggested by the fact that such an important book as The mysterious affair at Styles has been written in 1916 but published only in 1920. The lack of a market for the new kind and format of mystery fiction that was being written at the time may have discouraged a number of other authors from writing at all. Significantly, Christie only wrote her second book after the war (and after she published her first).

So, I don't think that WWI properly killed the mystery story; WWI only delayed the transition, which was already in motion, from the Victorian whodunit to the inter-wars fair-play school of writing. In other words, it has only delayed the inevitable birth of the new mystery story.

But of course this is only my own view on this complex subject.



A Great Book. Oh, It's a Mystery Too.

Sometimes blurbs tell more about "state of the art" than the sharpest reviews or the book themselves:
"A new detective novel by P D James is always keenly awaited and The Private Patient will undoubtedly equal the success of her world-wide best-seller, The Lighthouse. It displays the qualities which P D James's readers have come to expect: a masterly psychological and emotional richness of characterisation, a vivid evocation of place and a credible and exciting mystery. The Private Patient is a powerful work of contemporary fiction." (via EuroCrime)
You read it correctly: the mystery element of the book, though "credible and exciting", takes third place to the "masterly psychological and emotional richness of characterisation" and "vivid evocation of place" which make the Baronness' latest offering a "powerful work of contemporary fiction". In other words, The Private Patient is great because, while technically a mystery, it isn't too much of a mystery, it isn't too much genre fiction. Just take away the murder and the detective and it's quite the kind of stuff they rave about at the London Review of Books (ok, the LRB rarely raves about anything, but you get the idea) That mystery is more popular than ever and taken increasingly seriously in literary circles doesn't mean the old prejudices against it have been defeated; quite to the contrary it's precisely because the genre has internalized those prejudices that it is so successful.
Would Anthony Boucher rise from the dead and get back to work, he'd be surprised at how the job evolved over the last forty years. Many reviewers no longer regard plot as paramount, or even important - some proudly affirm that whodunit is "no longer an issue". What they like is books that "transcend the genre" and offer unflinching explorations of "traditions of sexual sadism in a Louisiana bayou town" or stark portrayals of the "disintegration of a socially dysfunctional neighborhood in gritty Glasgow" (all this, and even worse, coming from the NYT's list of best mystery novels of 2002) Sounds not like sheer entertainment, does it? That's the point: not only do contemporary mysteries have to "transcend the genre" but they also have to be serious and deal with serious issues in a serious way. The jolly days of light-hearted homicide, gratuitous shivers and escapist crime are over; it's time to grow up. Cozies are out, hardboiled/noir is in. This character-driven, realistic, socially-conscious approach make contemporary mysteries more palatable to the mainstream, hence their appeal to people who'd never read mysteries otherwise and some literary heavyweights paying a visit. It depends on where you stand whether it is a long-overdue recognition or a selling-out of the genre's identity, but it accounts for blurbs praising a mystery for its least mystery-like features while downplaying the most distinctive.


Take Your Meds, Sherlock

Though primarily a comedy show with the mystery element taking an increasingly tinier backseat, Monk actually makes a quite serious point about the Great Detective figure, namely the apparent impossibility of being both a supermind and a normal being with a normal life. Adrian Monk at the end of the day is not substantially different from glorious predecessors such as Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe or Philo Vance. Alike them, he is basically an eccentric loner with hard-working grey cells but comparatively poor social skills. What makes him, unlike them, a comedic, and occasionnaly tragic, figure is that he's lost control. Great Detectives from the past were defined by their quirks; Monk on the other hand is dominated by his.
Despite a popular conception fueled by lazy scholarship, a Great Detective is not necessarily a flamboyant individual ridden with eccentricities: think of Miss Marple, Commissaire Maigret, Uncle Abner, Father Brown, Anthony Gethryn or Ellery Queen's later incarnations. Still, that particular brand of sleuths has long been predominant and starting with the father of them all, C. Auguste Dupin, gave the genre some of his most memorable and recognizable characters. But isn't "eccentricity" rather mild a word to describe the aforementioned Chevalier's love of night for its own sake which prompts him and his anonymous friend to literally live into obscurity? "At the first dawn of the morning we closed all the messy shutters of our old building; lighting a couple of tapers which,strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams -reading, writing, or conversing, until warned by the clock of the advent of the true Darkness."* The narrator readily admits that "had the routine of our life at this place been known to the world, we should have been regarded as madmen - although, perhaps, as madmen of a harmless nature."*
This would apply just fine to many of Dupin's followers, though the actual harmlessness of some - one Sherlock Holmes comes to mind - is questionable. Maybe Monk isn't the first mentally-disordered detective; he's just the first to be diagnosed as such.
He is also the first to be seriously impaired. Hercule Poirot may have been every bit as obsessive-compulsive in his own way as Monk, but he was able to function in an admittedly limited yet autonomous way. His relationship with Hastings was one of condescensive friendship, not dependance, as evidenced by the fact that he didn't seek a replacement when the good captain went off. Monk, on the other hand, relies on his assistants; he needs them even in the most trivial aspects of everyday life, blurring the usual Holmes/Watson hierarchy. Monk's intellect doesn't make him a superior being, and is closely related to his disorder, so much so as it is hard to see which one proceeds from the other. In season 3 episode Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine, a change in Monk's treatment removes both his OCD... and his deductive skills.
Is some sort of mental illness a prerequisite for being a Great Detective?
This is a fascinating question indeed, which Monk's writers are to be commanded for asking, even unwillingly.

Still Here

It's been two months since I last posted on this blog; I apologize to my few faithful readers for that long silence motivated by several family and health problems that left me not much time or desire for writing. Now I won't say everything is back to normal now (it isn't) but I have regained impetus enough to return to a regular routine of, say, one or two posts every two weeks. So stay tuned; the Villa Rose is definetely not closed.


Plot and Theme: Susan Glaspell

I said earlier that I don't see the need for detective stories to have a theme, as brilliant plotting to me is an artistic achievement on itself. Some, however, do indeed have a theme which is essential to the plot even though it may not be obvious at first sight - Martin Edwards rightly pointed And Then They Were None as an example of this; one might also add John Dickson Carr's The Emperor's Snuff-Box which is basically about false appearances and not judging books on their covers. But the most perfect union of plot and theme in my view is to be found in Susan Glaspell's classic short-story A Jury of Her Peers.
I can see some of my readers cringe as this is not a detective story in the orthodox meaning of the term, and it's likely Glaspell didn't think of her work as such. Yet the two midwives indeed act as detectives, working the truth out of the clues, and the final (mis-)carriage of justice is one Sherlock Holmes wouldn't have frowned upon. So I think it qualifies, and so did the many editors who included the story in their anthologies.
A Jury of Her Peers is about the various degrees of female oppression, from mere condescension to downright abuse, but Gaspell - thanks heavens! - is no Sara Paretsky or Carolyn Heillbrun. She doesn't shove her message down the reader's throat or have her characters experiencing sudden and wordy "awakenings". She just let facts speak for themselves, and they do loud. Their shared experience of how it is to be a woman and a wife in that time and place allow Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to understand what happened, who killed John Wright and most importantly, why - a truth that will forever escape their husbands and the D.A. for all their alleged superior minds. And their decision not to bring the murderer to justice is the logical outcome of that, even though it sounds more like temporary rebellion motivated by empathy than actual revolution. That is all: not a single useless word, no preach, no over-explanation and still the point is made. This is how all detective and mystery stories should be done - alas, all too often they're not.
Further reading:



One of the most spectacular changes of minds I have experienced of late is about my fellow-compatriot Maurice Leblanc and his hero Arsène Lupin. For years I had nothing but contempt for them and their enduring popularity here in France left me puzzled: how in the world could grown-up people read and enjoy such infantile fluff? I had read, and immensely hated, The Hollow Needle and The Crystal Stopper when I was fifteen-sixteen. A strongly classic-minded reader with youthful enthusiasm and corrolary intolerance, I was not in the right mood to appreciate those wild, definetely non-holmesian stories and stuck to my initial reject for the next decade and a half.

Then, two years ago, I found at a yard sale a Lupin I didn't know, La Barre-Y-Va, which attracted my attention: it was about an impossible crime, one of my péchés mignons. I had to read it, no matter Leblanc and Lupin and even though I didn't expect anything carrian in terms of cleverness and innovation. The solution to the problem was unsurprisingly a let-down, though it may be have groundbreaking back then, but then it didn't really matter, for the book was loads of fun. I went on to read another Lupin, La Demeure Mystérieuse, and enjoyed it even more. I had to confront the awful truth: I was hooked. A Lupinian I had become.

Slowly, very slowly so as not to run out of books too soon, I made my way through the Geste of the unique son of Théophraste Lupin and Henriette d'Andrézy and the more I progressed the more I realized what a dogmatic fool I had been. Since then I feel a little - but only a little - more understanding for the late Julian Symons. I had been wrong on all counts and for no reason other than my adolescent refusal and condemnation of anything not in the Christie/Doyle/Carr tradition.

The stories are no infantile fluff. They are fresh, youthful, and fun, which doesn't preclude some gravity on occasion. Above all, they're extremely varied in tone and style. While most focus on Lupin's schemes, many of them have puzzles and the gentleman-thief often acts as a detective. Leblanc's plotting, though definetely not orthodox and some crude
at times, is usually very good and sometimes even brilliant (Victor de la Brigade Mondaine in particular is a masterpiece of bamboozlement)

Lupin is not the arrogant schmuck I remembered, but one of the few characters in mystery fiction that can genuinely be called a hero - someone you can root for and whose every appearance (or non-appearance, since he is most often in disguise, unknown to everyone but the reader) is an event in itself. He is also a real three-dimensional character with a distinctive presence and "voice", both magnificent and vulnerable, genius and fallible, outlandish and sentimental. Most of the time he wins, but sometimes he loses. Hard.

813 is his greatest recorded fiasco, his own Scandal in Bohemia - and Leblanc's probable masterpiece as well as one of the few undisputable summits of the genre. Apparently bored with "just" being a thief, Lupin dabbles into geopolitics, which gets him into serious trouble. To give a full summary of this long, apparently rambling yet fully controled book would take as many pages as it takes Leblanc to tell his story. Let us just say that Lupin meets one of his most dangerous enemies, finds love once again, gets charged for a murder he didn't commit and goes to jail, owing his final release only to the personal intervention of the Kaiser, and loses everything in the end. Quite modern for a book written in 1910 - but then, as I said in a previous post, our favorite genre has changed very little ever since.

I still have some Lupins left on my shelves, including the weirdest of them all, L'Ile aux Trente Cercueils, and when done with them I'll re-read Needle and Stopper. As the old French proverb has it, only the fools never change their minds.


What Makes a Good Detective Story Good?

Nicholas Fuller, in a typically thoughtful post, outlines his own definition of a good detective story:

For me, a good detective story is also a good story in its own right. Story-telling, atmosphere, characterisation, and theme are as important as, if not more important than, the problem. The problem is crucial, but ideally, it should be the result of the theme and the characterisation.

I agree - to an extent.

As a firm believer in art for its own sake, I don't see the need for detective stories or any other kind of fiction to be "about" something. The masterful plotting of And Then They Were None and the haunting atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles are sufficient justifications for the existence of the books. So "theme" to me is an irrelevant notion.

Also, while I value story-telling, atmosphere and characterization as much as anyone else, I don't think they should be given as much importance as the problem when it comes to assess the quality of a detective story, for the problem is the core, the identity of the genre. Vivid characters, convincing atmosphere and good story-telling are very rare things indeed but can be found in other genres, while the puzzle plot is a trademark of detective fiction and real mystery fiction. Call me a genre nationalist, but I think it's worth preserving and defending.

Now, as I said above, I basically agree with Nick that a detective story with not only a brilliant plot but also good story-telling, atmosphere and characterization is certainly better than one which is abysmal on all counts but the problem - and is much more frequent than critics of the genre would have us to believe. That's indeed why I like R.A. Freeman better than, say, S.S. Van Dine. But I also believe a loosely-plotted detective story cannot be quite redeemed by fine writing or sense of character. It may be good as general fiction, but as mystery fiction it's just bad.

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