The Good, The Bad and The Genrely

Laura Miller's reply to Edward Docx's now infamous article on the alleged inferiority of genre fiction is well worth-reading. My only quibble (well - the only I'll discuss here) is that Miller, being a "literary" reader like Docx, shares much of his outlook. They both believe that there is something like "good" and "bad" writing and that presence of the former is what separates "literature" from "trash"; where they differ is that Miller thinks it's possible to enjoy both, which is fine and dandy but doesn't go far enough in my view.

I agree with Miller that genre fans tend to over-react to such attacks, but it's due in large part to them still sticking to academic, "literary" standards of "good" and "bad" writing. If you really believe that, say, Ichiguro is the gold standard for writing, then you can't but feel vexed when someone tells you that, no, you're not Ichiguro. This is not to say that genre fiction should not thrive for literature nor that  all conventional standards should be abandoned - but maybe it's time for us to develop our own  and accept that they may be just as valid as those set forth by the Literati. 


Paul Halter - "La Corde d'Argent"

To my English-speaking readers:  This post is bilingual; scroll down for the English-language version.

Gravement blessé pendant la Bataille d'Angleterre, David Davenport n'a  plus jamais été le même. Incapable et peu désireux de travailler, souffrant de dépression nerveuse, il vit à présent avec sa soeur et infirmière Alice, dans le charmant petit village de Ravenstone. David rêve souvent d'un double maléfique qui cherche à le tuer. Une nuit, il se "voit" tuant son oncle Arthur, un ancien militaire retiré dans la campagne normande. Le cauchemar devient une réalité encore plus cauchemardesque quand le corps du vieil homme est découvert à son domicile, la mort ayant eu lieu à l'instant précis où son neveu la "rêvait", et dans les mêmes décor et circonstances. Et, pour ajouter encore à l'insolite effrayant de l'affaire, le suspect numéro un est un mystérieux visiteur qui, d'après les témoignages, ressemblait à David comme deux gouttes d'eau... Le jeune homme aurait-il donc le pouvoir de sortir de son corps et de se trouver à deux endroits en même temps? Et ce pouvoir serait-il lié à la série de crimes impossibles commis en Inde trente ans plus tôt? L'Inspecteur Hurst et son ami le Docteur Twist auront fort à faire pour démêler le vrai du faux, et apporter une réponse à l'insoluble.

Comme je le disais l'autre jour, Halter n'est jamais à court d'imagination s'agissant de problèmes sortant de l'ordinaire. Ce court résumé n'offre donc qu'un pâle échantillon d'une matière très riche qui comporte également un fakir aux pouvoirs mystérieux, un frère jumeau perdu et retrouvé, et un secret de famille pour le moins étrange - entre autres; et le lecteur se demande comment et si Halter va retomber sur ses pieds. De fait, les explications finales - il fallait peut-être s'y attendre - sont  décevantes. La solution des meurtres indiens est extrêmement banale; quant au problème de bilocation, il repose sur une astuce narrative qui, pour n'être pas vraiment malhonnête, reste assez douteuse. En outre, bien des éléments de l'intrigue semblent n'avoir d'autre fonction que de mener le lecteur en bâteau et/ou justifier la longueur du livre. C'est d'autant plus dommage que La Corde d'argent se lit très agréablement, et qu'il s'agit là du meilleur livre de Halter depuis Les larmes de Sibyl. L'écriture est moins maladroite qu'à l'accoutumée, avec des passages franchement inspirés; les personnages sont intéressants, et auraient gagné à être davantage développés. Les tics et obsessions de l'auteur sont relativement mis en veilleuse, même si l'on retrouve ça et là sa misogynie et sa vision très sombre des relations humaines. Reste son manque de compréhension de la société et de la culture britannique, frustrant malgré une anglophilie sincère. Les personnages de Halter ne sont jamais britanniques que par l'état-civil; ils ne se comportent ni ne pensent comme de vrais citoyens de Sa Majesté, et leurs références demeurent françaises: (Hurst cite Tintin, et les personnages utilisent le titre français - La flêche peinte - du roman de J.D. Carr, The Judas Window)

Ever since he was wounded during the Battle of England, David Davenport has had... well, issues. Now unable (and unwilling) to work and fighting bouts of depression, he lives in the charming village of Ravenstone with his younger sister Alice, who also acts as his nurse. David has frequent nightmares of a nefarious double bent on killing him; one night he dreams of murdering his uncle Arthur, a retired colonel living in Normandy, which becomes an even more nightmarish reality when the old man is found dead at his home, his death having occurred at the very same time and in the same circumstances that his nephew dreamed of. Even more puzzling and frightening is that the prime suspect is a mysterious visitor bearing a strange likeness to David... Is the young man really able to travel outside his body and be in two places at the same time? How is this "ability" related to a series of impossible murders that took place in India thirty years before? Inspector Hurst and his friend Dr. Twist will have a hard time sorting it out and finding an explanation to the apparently unexplainable.

As I said in my previous post, Halter is never short of imagination when it comes to outrageous premises and this summary gives only a glimpse of what the book has to offer, which also includes among other things a fakir with mysterious powers, a lost twin and an odd family story - and the reader can't help but wondering/worrying how, and how well, Halter will make sense of all that. Perhaps unavoidably, his explanations disappoint - the solution to the Indian murders is a letdown, and that of the bilocation, while not outright dishonest, relies on an authorial sleight-of-hand. Also, too much material in the book seems to have no purpose other than to muddy the waters and/or justify its length. It's unfortunate as La Corde d'Argent is an extremely readable book and Halter's best effort since Les Larmes de Sibyl (Sibyl's Tears, 2005) The writing is less clumsy than usual, at times inspired, and the characters are interesting if under-developed. Halter's obsessions and mannerisms are less obtrusive as well, except for the persistant if muted misogyny and dour view of human relationships. His lack of understanding of the British identity remains frustrating, however, despite his obviously sincere anglophilia. Halter's British characters are only so by name and setting; they never act British and their behavior and references (Hurst quoting Tintin for instance, or Carr's The Judas Window being mentioned under its French title) remain Gallic. 


En cours de lecture/Currently Reading

Tout comme Agatha Christie en son temps ("A Christie for Christmas!") Paul Halter est un auteur extrêmement ponctuel, qui chaque année à l'approche des fêtes se rappelle au bon souvenir de ses lecteurs. Il nous revient donc avec "La Corde d'argent" et un nouveau crime impossible placé cette fois sous le signe de la bilocation et du voyage astral: on le voit, Halter est peut-être un écrivain limité mais son imagination, elle, ne l'est pas. Bien que n'étant pas de ses amateurs inconditionnels, je ne manque jamais aucun de ses livres, d'abord parce qu'ils sont toujours extrêmement lisibles et rarement dépourvus d'intérêt, ensuite parce que je considère comme mon devoir en tant que zélateur du roman d'énigme de soutenir l'un des très rares auteurs français oeuvrant dans ce domaine. J'entame tout juste son dernier-né et je ne manquerai pas de vous faire part de ce que j'en pense sitôt que je l'aurai terminé. 

Like Agatha Christie yesterday ("A Christie for Christmas!") Paul Halter is an extremely punctual writer, never or rarely failing to mark the end of the year with a new book. This year's effort is titled "La Corde d'Argent" ("The Silver Rope") and deals once again with an impossible crime on a background of bilocation and astral travel: Halter as a writer may be limited but his imagination, fortunately, isn't. Although I'm not an uncritical admirer of his work, I never miss any of his offerings, first because they're usually quite readable and rarely devoid of any interest and second because as a zealous defender of the traditional mystery I think I have to put my money where my mouth is and support one of the very few French practicioners of the genre. I'm only one-third in his new one, but I'll post a review on this blog as soon as I'm finished. Stay tuned.

P.S.: English-speaking readers of this blog who'd feel intrigued and curious about this very peculiar writer might like to know that John Pugmire, an authority on everything Halter, has translated the novel "Le Roi du Désordre" under the almost literal title "The Lord of Misrule" which can now be ordered from Amazon in e-book and trade paperback formats. If you're looking for a perfect gift to do yourself for Christmas, well, this isn't the worst option you have. 


Live From The Houmfor

A chant rather than a song, set to a perculating tribal beat, this is pretty much what voodoo disco/funk would look like, if voodoo priests were into disco/funk. This "song" was a number one hit in Britain, despite not even denting the Billboard Hot 100. 

The Mysterious And The Weird

Something that has always fascinated and puzzled me over the years is the close relationship between mystery (a supposedly realistic genre, at least according to critics) on one hand and imaginative literature on the other, be it of the sci-fi or, more specifically, supernatural kind. Not only have they often overlapped, but many authors have dabbled in both, and became masters in both fields. It may have to do with mystery fiction's extreme plasticity - you can set a crime almost anywhere, anytime - as the prolific subgenre of historical mysteries demonstrate. But I can't help thinking it may also have to do with our favorite genre's deeply ambiguous nature. Even in its most realistic-looking guises, mystery is a fundamentally artificial genre relying on rare, if not downright improbable, combinations of events and characters that have themselves little relation to everyday reality. Most true crime is trivial, uninteresting but on a philosophical/sociological level - and the lives and personalities of those investigating it are not the stuff of novels.  It's possible to write good mainstream fiction about nothing happening to nobodies, but a crime novel that would deal with uber-ordinary crime solved by uber-ordinary detectives would be a yawn-fest committing the genre's gravest offence: boringness. All genre fiction is about being interesting and captivating, and is thus fantasical at the core; mystery is no exception, even though it goes to greater pains than others to hide it. 

But back to the special relationship I evoked at the outset of this post. It goes back a long way - not only is Poe - rightly or not, that's another question - a patron saint of mystery fiction, he always serves that function for sci-fi ("Hans Pfaal" is often regarded as an early specimen) and supernatural fiction, especially horror. Had Poe not existed or stuck to poetry, this blog might not exist. Also, the lines between the genres took a long time to be delineated - the Victorian and Edwardian eras were home to rationalists like Holmes or Thorndyke as well as to specialists of the paranormal like Carnacki, Flaxman Low, or John Silence. Better still, the literary techniques of mystery fiction were sometimes applied to stories of the supernatural; Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan for instance is structured quite like a detective story and H.P. Lovecraft's later Call of Cthulhu makes effective use of a "backwards" structure (from the effect to the cause) similar to that of the mystery genre - and the protagonist acts like an investigator. Conversely, ghosts (real or forged) hypnosis and futuristic weapons were long a fixture of mystery fiction, much to the ire of purists like Mgr. Knox or S.S. Van Dine. It took the advent of hardboiled, and the subsequent call for greater realism in the genre, for the lines to be settled - mostly. They seem to have remained porous somewhat longer in Britain though, as demonstrated by the group of writers I affectionately call the "British Weirdoes" which comprises the likes of Mark McShane, John Blackburn, Colin Wilson and the mother of them all, Gladys Mitchell. (The most recent example of that school I can think of is J.H. Wallis' 2002 novel Dancing With The Uninvited Guest

The proximity between mystery and "imaginative" fiction is, I think, more than just a matter of occasional meetings. It's one of kinship; mystery itself, especially in its most traditional incarnations, being a branch of imaginative literature. It's my own interpretation, not a minority view and open to discussion, but I do like it. I report and you decide; feel free to disagree and let me know your opinion on the matter.



As I grow older, I am less and less excited by the prospect of a year ending and another beginning, since it means that, well, I will age one more. Still, there are reasons to rejoice for as December comes again, so does CADS as an advance Christmas gift for the crime/mystery nut. Issue 59 is typically rich in well-written, well-researched and passionate articles on everything (fictionally) criminal. Stand-outs include one "revisitation" of John Dickson Carr's Locked-Room Lecture by my friend John Pugmire, a beautiful essay on Father Brown's philosophy by Josef Hoffmann and an examination of Anthony Berkeley's lesser-known work by Arthur Robinson - among lots and lots of interesting, fascinating stuff. (Especially delightful to me was Mike Ripley's paean to the wildly imaginative and inclassable John Blackburn, one of my favorites ever since I read his wonderful, way too little-known Blue Octavo.) I could go on on lines and lines without ever exhausting the plenty of great material this issue has to offer. 

If this post made you curious, you may ask your copy to Geoff Bradley, 9 Vicarage Hill, South Benfleet, Essex, SS7 1PA.  Believe me, you won't regret it. 


Viktor Lazlo, "Pleurer des Rivières"

Most French-language covers of American pop standards are weak or downright suck - mainly because our language, while beautiful, is much less musical and rhythmic than English. Still, there are exceptions now and then. Viktor Lazlo's version of Cry Me A River (French title, Pleurer des Rivières, is an almost literal translation of the original) is one of them: classy, slick and sensual. Also, the lyrics are quite good - but you'll have to trust me on this one, since I lack the time to do a translation. :D

En cours de lecture/Currently Reading

(This post is bilingual; scroll down for the English version)

Après une longue bouderie dont je serais bien incapable de préciser l'origine, je retrouve enfin le roman policier - le "rompol" comme elle dirait - avec Coule la Seine, de Fred Vargas. Il s'agit d'un bref recueil de trois nouvelles (bien) illustrées par un certain Baudouin. Je finis en ce moment la première, Salut et Liberté, une histoire très enlevée qui met le commissaire Adamsberg au prises avec un étrange tailleur et un assassin épistolier. Je ne suis pas vraiment fan de Fred Vargas, mais c'est un auteur très intéressant du point de vue traditionaliste qui est le mien, puisqu'elle a réussi à s'attirer les faveurs du public et de la critique alors même qu'elle oeuvre dans un genre - le roman d'énigme, retoqué à la mode Vargas - que beaucoup considèrent moribond et démodé. Mieux, personne ne semble s'en aviser. Pourtant, Vargas reconnaîtapprécier Agatha Christie et Sherlock Holmes, et peu goûter la fiction criminelle moderne, notamment sous sa forme politiquement et socialement engagée à la Manchette et suivants. Aussi, il y a en elle - n'en déplaise à François Guérif - plus qu'un peu de Pierre Véry. Et puis n'oublions pas que le premier essai de la dame - qu'elle ne semble plus trop assumer - remporta le Prix du Festival de Cognac à une époque où son promoteur, les Editions du Masque, étaient très orientés "whodunit". Bref, comme elle a de plus une faiblesse qui m'est très sympathique pour les intrigues baroques (parfois trop, comme dans le désastreux* Sous les vents de Neptune) c'est un auteur que je suis de loin en loin, et il ne me déplairait pas qu'elle fasse des émules.

After a long period of sulkiness whose cause eludes me, I'm finally returning to mystery fiction by reading "Coule la Seine" by Fred Vargas, a collection of three short stories rather well illustrated by one Baudouin. I'm now finishing the first story, Salut et Liberté (Salute and Freedom) a nice piece that pits Commissaire Adamsberg against an odd tailor and a murderer with a taste for (anonymous) letters. I'm not really a Vargas fan, but I find her case to be quite interesting from my traditionalist point of view as she managed to get massive critical and commercial success by writing books of a kind - traditional mystery, Vargas-style - that is usually seen as outdated and moribund. Even more fascinating is that nobody seems to notice how traditional she is; yet Vargas admits a liking for Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes and, conversely, a lack of feeling for modern crime fiction, especially of the social/political kind initiated by Manchette. Also, she has a lot in common with Pierre Véry and her first foray in the genre was greeted with the Cognac Prize at a time when the publisher associated with this award, Le Masque, specialized into traditional mysteries. And since she has a very sympathetic fondness for baroque plots (with results that are not always happy; think of the disastrous* Sous Les Vents de Neptune) she is an author I've set my eyes upon, and I hope her success generates some emulation.

* Une opinion minoritaire, j'en suis conscient/I'm aware that it is a minority opinion.


Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008)

Peu de films français peuvent se targuer d'avoir engrangé 150 millions de dollars au box-office américain, ce qui suffit à assurer à Taken une place dans l'histoire du cinéma que ses qualités intrinsèques auraient été bien en peine de lui valoir. Non qu'il s'agisse d'un mauvais film, mais c'est pour l'essentiel un produit de série, aux ambitions très terre-à-terre: produire un cocktail de sensations fortes assez efficacement doté pour ne pas laisser au spectateur le temps de réfléchir. Pari dans l'ensemble réussi, pour peu que le spectateur accepte de jouer le jeu et d'oublier que l'histoire est un tissu platement filmé et à peine cohérent de situations et de personnages vus et revus cent fois. Liam Neeson y est pour beaucoup et si vous doutiez encore qu'il soit un grand acteur, alors c'est le film que vous devez voir, car il tire le maximum du matériau qui lui est donné, et arrive presque à rendre crédible son personnage de super-agent-à-la-retraite-mais-toujours-redoutable. D'autres auraient joué la carte du second degré ou assuré le service minimum; Neeson lui y va à fond, sans nuances, et ça marche. Chapeau l'artiste!

Very few French films can be said to have grossed over 140.000.000 $ on the American market, so that feat alone makes sure Taken has a place in the history of cinema - a place that its own qualities would've had difficulty to secure. Not that it is a very bad film, but it is essentially a cookie-cutter product whose ambitions are fairly down to earth: to embark the viewer on a roller-coaster ride so fast and eventful that no time is left for thinking. This objective is mostly met, assuming the viewer is good-natured enough not to notice how the whole thing is a poorly-directed rehashing of situations and characters seen a hundred times before. Liam Neeson is the film's main (sole?) driving force and if you still have doubts regarding his acting abilities then Taken is the film you need to see as he makes the most of what he is given (not much) and makes his retired-merciless-and-almost-indestructible-special-agent almost credible. Others might have played it tongue-in-cheek or opted for minimal service but Neeson goes for the jugular, without caring too much for nuances - and it works. Chapeau l'artiste!


There Are Still Changes Being Made

As you can see, I've changed the background image - less bookish, less colorful, but more personal. According to the website from which I borrowed the picture (I hope they don't mind) this is Villa Adrienne in Antibes - and I can't help but thinking it would've made a wonderful setting for a Golden Age mystery; a fitting illustration for this blog then.

Holding On

Ed Gorman is right: Elizabeth Sanxay Holding is one of the greats. Not only her books are awesome, but they make awesome movies, too:

Some auteurists will say that you can't go wrong with Max Ophuls behind the camera, and James Mason before it was certainly a plus, but the excellence of the film also rests on a nice script that is quite faithful to its source, including the decidedly amoral ending (a flagrant violation of the Hays Code; God only knows how it escaped the censor's ire)

Has anyone seen the remake starring Tilda Swinton?


There Are Some Changes Being Made, Ctd.

I just offered the Villa Rose a facelift, and I dare to say it was much needed - I hated the old template and had long wanted to drop it. I also imported the tiny archives from The Small Back Room and added some new features and links. This is of course a work in progress. Let me know how you like the new version so far.

There Are Some Changes Being Made

When The Villa Rose opened its doors, three years and fourteen days ago, I didn't think it would live that long. My previous blogging experience had been short-lived for the same reasons I thought would plague this one: a lack of regularity in posting and a natural shyness keeping me from marketing myself, meaning that I would be my sole reader. I was right to worry about the former - more on that later - but wrong about the latter, and I'd like to thank the few but faithful readers who kept reading and encouraging me over the years. 

Now to the point. As you may know, I own two other blogs - three actually, but the third was never officially launched, so it doesn't count. Mayhem Parva is supposed to be a French-language version of this blog, whereas The Small Back Room's aim is to collect my film criticism. Both are pretty somnolent, because of my recurring bouts of writer's block and the simple fact that managing three blogs, while a bed of roses in theory, proves to be quite difficult in practice. Since I've decided in the meantime to launch yet another blog devoted to my creative writing, I thought it might be a good idea to merge all those dealing with my "random thoughts" into a new, and I hope improved, Villa Rose. No, you won't have to update your bookmarks: this blog remains the same, at the same address. The only difference is that it will be bilingual, and, while remaining a mystery blog first, will occasionally deal with non-mystery matters such as film or the other kinds of books I read.

If you have any complaint, question or suggestion about these changes, feel free to voice it in the comments, or drop me a line - I love mail.


Lost in Translation: Stanislas-André Steeman

Martin Edwards' glowing review of Six Dead Men ("Six Hommes Morts") provides me with a much-needed opportunity to revive my "Lost in Translation" series (when I said it would be irregular, I didn't mean it would appear only once a year!) and tell you about one of the greatest authors of the French Golden Age, and arguably one of the greatest mystery writers of all times: Stanislas-André Steeman.

It's hard not to think of his fellow-compatriot Georges Simenon when considering Steeman's trajectory. Both were French-speaking Belgians ("Wallons") hailing from Liège, stopped their studies early and dabbled into journalism. Both were precocious writers and gained celebrity thanks to their mystery novels. What sets them apart, however, is that Simenon mostly saw the mystery genre as a vehicle - and a convenient, if sometimes boring, way to make a living - whereas Steeman always regarded himself as a mystery writer first and foremost, one fully at home in the genre and its conventions - while never afraid to subvert them. Most of all, Steeman had an almost carrian devotion to fair-play which he always kept even though he distanced himself from the formal detective story in his later years.

Steeman, as said above, was a precocious fellow - he created his first comics (Steeman was as gifted with a pencil as he was with a pen) at age six. He later branched into poetry and wrote several "histoires légères" for Parisian specialized magazines whose editors were unaware of their prolific collaborator's tender age. Then he joined the staff of the "Nation Belge" where he befriended journalist Herman Sartini, a.k.a. Sintair. Together they wrote what they intended to be a parody of the roman-problème so popular back then, and sent it to the French publisher Le Masque as a joke. To their great bewilderment, it was accepted and Le mystère du zoo d'Anvers (The Anvers Zoo Mystery) was published in 1928. It was followed by Le treizième coup de Minuit (The Thirteenth of Midnight), Le maître de trois vies (The Master of Three Lives), Le diable au collège (Devil at High School) and Le guet-apens (The Trap). Sintair, however, never intended to become a full-time writer and their collaboration ended; Steeman was now on his own.

His first three solo detective novels were experimental works at the fringe of the genre as commonly known then: one of these, Zero, introduced Inspector Aimé Malaise who can be described as Steeman's own Maigret. He struck gold with the comparatively more orthodox Six Dead Men, which earned him the Grand Prix du Roman d'Aventures in 1931, and definetely established him as a major mystery writer at only 23. The book marks the first appearance of Steeman's favorite detective, urban and witty Wenceslas Vorobeitchik, and sets the tone of his later production: extremely clever, ironic, respectful of the rules while at the same time gently poking fun at them.

Steeman followed with another Wens mystery, La Nuit du 12 au 13 then surprised everyone with an atmospheric novel in the Simenon vein, Le démon de Sainte-Croix, manifesting that he was not one to be bound by categorizations. Steeman's output in the thirties, while not as prolific as his fellow-compatriot's, is extremely varied in tone, genre and style. "Traditional" mysteries featuring Mr. Wens alternate with thrillers (Le lévrier bleu*), fantasies (Feu Lady Anne**) parodies (L'Infaillible Silas Lord***) and more psychological works like Le mannequin assassiné**** (Malaise again) or La maison des veilles *****. Even in his comparatively more orthodox work, Steeman finds room for experiment: L'ennemi sans visage, which borders on weird fiction, is a good example. His works are very representative of the French Golden Age of mystery fiction with its emphasis on originality and inventivity, while rivalling at the same time with the Anglo-Saxon masters in terms of rigour, fair-play and cleverness. The points culminants of this period are Le trajet de la foudre (The Course of Lightning) and L'Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives At Number Twenty-One) a London-set story of a serial killer going by the name of Mr. Smith, arguably his masterpiece in the whodunit genre. This book provided Henri-Georges Clouzot with his first shot behind the camera, and the result was a film that is as brilliant as its source, with Pierre Fresnay starring as Mr. Wens.

As the war broke, Steeman slowed down. He started an imprint in Belgium, Le Jury, which revealed promising writers like Thomas Owen, Paul Kinnet or André-Paul Duchâteau. The experiment was short-lived as the German occupation forces because of the imprint's (and its creator's) alleged "anglophilia". Steeman published only one novel during the war years, Légitime Défense, a brief yet seminal work as Steeman went further in "pushing the envelope" than ever before - the result is a psychological crime novel to please Julian Symons - except that Steeman even there didn't abdicate his fondness for clever plots with surprise endings. Henri-Georges Clouzot made a remarkable film out of it, arguably the best adaptation of Steeman's work and one of the summits of French cinema - Steeman, while recognizing the film's qualities, resented that it changed the guilty party; Steeman's relationship with the big screen was always a sour one.

The post-war period brought some radical changes to the genre, and Steeman's work experienced some as well. After a final traditional mystery, Crimes à vendre (Crimes for Sale) Steeman engaged in increasingly experimental work. First he dabbled into soft-boiled fiction with three novels starring private investigator Désiré Marco: Madame La Mort (Madam Death) Dix-huit fantômes (Eigtheen Ghosts) and Faisons les fous (Let's Go Crazy). Then he brought Mr. Wens back, but a Mr. Wens nothing like the old one. The Wenceslas Vorobeitchik of Poker d'Enfer (Hell's Poker) and Six hommes à tuer (Six Men To Kill) is a fregolian, desincarnate character who can and does assume any appearance and identity; who he is, where he is and what he does replaces the standard "who's done it" as the books' big questions. Naturalism in these stories is completely abdicated but not Steeman's usual outstanding cleverness, and the plots, wild and hard to follow as they are, remain scrupulously fair.

The last decade of his life saw Steeman turning to suspense fiction, and his work getting increasingly bitter and darker. Impasse des Boiteux, Le condamné meurt à cinq heures (The Convict Dies At Five) Une veuve dort seule (A Widow Sleeps Alone, much admired by Boileau-Narcejac) and his final novel, Autopsie d'un viol (Autopsy of a Rape) a courtroom mystery set in the United States, display a grim worldview with none of the author's previous flippantness. Not gone, however, was his mastery of plotting and misdirection which remained firm and strong to the end. When Steeman died in 1970, he still had a lot of projects (including a promising Crime On Orbit) which never came to fruition - and this world is a poorer place for that. He was only 62.

Steeman, while not a household name like Simenon and often berated by fans of the latter, is a capital name in the history of French-speaking mystery fiction. He was one of the earliest writers to take the form seriously, both formally (he was a notorious perfectionist, and entirely re-wrote some of his early books as they didn't please him anymore) and conceptually. He was also one of the few pre-war mystery writers to try and come to terms with the new paradigms that emerged after WWII, and managed to stay relevant without abdicating any of its individuality and principles. Finally, he was one of the greatest and most inventive plotters of all times, ranking with Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr for the period before the war and Margaret Millar or Fredric Brown for the period that followed. It is a shame that he remains so little-known in English-speaking countries where only two of his books were translated.

Let's end with an anecdote typical of Steeman's sharp wit. Having stayed in a hotel whose service he found mediocre, Steeman as he left was asked by the manager to write some words in the hotel's golden book. He complied and wrote: "Souvenir of an unique stay at the X hotel". The manager gushed with pride and asked: "Unique? Why?" To which Steeman dryly replied: "Because it is the only one I'll ever have!".

* The Blue Greyhound.
** The Late Lady Anne
*** The Unfallible Silas Lord
**** The Murdered Dummy
***** The Waking House


Hats Off to Barry

As those kind - and patient - enough to follow this blog on a regular basis must know by now, I'm an enthusiastic defender and promoter of the short story, which I regard as the most demanding (and thus most rewarding) form of fiction, especially mystery fiction. Stanley Ellin, Henry Slesar, Robert Arthur, Edward D. Hoch or John Collier rank high in my personal pantheon, and Donald Westlake's or Lawrence Block's shorter work I always found to be more interesting than their longer efforts. 

Before going further I must admit to a slight bias here as the author I'm about to discuss is a personal friend and has been for years, even though we never actually met - only Internet may make such things possible. Barry Ergang is one of the highly interesting fellows I've encountered on the highly interesting GAdetection board; we come from opposite corners of the mystery field, being of a decidedly traditionalist bent while he is more of a hardboiled guy (nobody's perfect) but our common liking for the Man Who Explained Miracles and our devotion to short stories made sure we'd get along very well, if not always seeing eye to eye. As many GAders, Barry doesn't content himself with reading mystery fiction: he writes some, too. And I think he does quite well.

Years ago I was one of the privileged ones he asked to review his then-latest effort, a piece called "The Play of Light of Shadow". To review a friend's work is always a difficult experience, as you have to balance criticism and sensitivity in a more careful way than you do when asked to judge the work of someone you don't know. Regarding "The Play of Light and Shadow", however, I didn't need to worry about that, since it was just excellent. Barry successfully blended there his two favorite themes, the tough and the impossible. I don't want to spoil anything and I'm not that good at summaries anyway, so let's say that it's about an impossible crime solved by a hardboiled dick going by the name of Darnell and that it's an absolute winner, both in term of plotting (with an elegant and - to me, at least - original solution) and good characterization, especially of the lead character. (I have spent the last half-decade or so asking Barry for a sequel as I think Darnell has a lot of potential - and I'm still waiting) And then there is the writing - lean, sparse, precise. 

His latest collection, "A Flash of Fear" displays Barry's pointe sèche at its best. It is a collection of six flash stories - or short-shorts if you're not into Internet neologisms. As I said above, the regular short story is the most demanding of all forms, and the short-short is the most perillous of its variations - telling, as opposed to outlining, a compelling story in a few lines requires virtues that not every writer possesses. Barry does, however, and if you think I'm just pouring friendly praise on an old comrade, you might like to know he's a past winner of the highly coveted Derringer Award, in - guess what? - the "Flash Fiction" category

On AFF's evidence it's easy to see why. Each one of the six vignettes has enough material for a more verbose writer to make a novel or at least a novella out of it; Barry for one packs it all in a few lines, complete with endings as sardonic as anything Jack Ritchie ever deviced. I mention Ritchie here as, I think, he would have approved of such sarcastic gems as "The Merchant of Varnish" with its devilish pun, "Moaning Lisa" or "Mother's Day Present" - he would, too, have liked the darker "No Such Thing" where Barry shows he can handle serious issues and drive his point home without hammering it (a poor pun as you'll realize when you read the story, but I couldn't help it) Ritchie was after all a master of both the cynical twister and the compassionate noir. 

The best piece, however, reminds one of Hammett in its extremely stripped-down, yet evocative, prose. Barry says it was intended to be "an experiment in the objective style" and for fear of seeming overly complimetary I'll just say it is very effective. "Ambition" may not be the cleverest story in the collection, but it summarizes what, in my view, makes Barry a writer to follow, that is, his ability to suggest a setting, invoke a character and a situation in a unique, convincing way with a few words and just basic English. Quite a feat and, in these times, worthy of encouragement. I strongly advice you to encourage Barry by reading his works.

Further reading:

All of Barry's works previously discussed, as well as a few others, can be found (and, for some, bought) as Smashwords e-books (click here)


Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Inglourious Basterds est, si mes comptes sont bons, le sixième long-métrage de Quentin Tarantino, et c'est le premier dont je puisse dire qu'il m'a vraiment plu. Ce qui ne veut pas dire que je suis soudainement converti au tarantinisme - les réserves que m'inspirent le réalisateur et son approche du cinéma subsistent; elles sont même, paradoxalement, renforcées.

Comme le film est assez récent et a rencontré un franc succès - le plus gros de toute la carrière de Tarantino, avec plus de 300 millions de dollars au compteur - je ne pense pas avoir besoin d'en faire un résumé très approfondi. Sauf à avoir passé les deux dernières années sur une île déserte, ou dans un abri anti-atomique dépourvu de toute réception radio ou télévisuelle et de toute connexion internet, vous savez probablement que l'action du film se déroule pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, et suit en parallèle les exploits d'une bande de "salopards" spécialisés dans le nazicide sanglant, emmenés par le sémillant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) et la vengeance de Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) contre les nazis responsables de la mort de toute sa famille. Un tel point de départ, et Tarantino aux manettes, laissait supposer que Inglourious Basterds ne serait pas un film de guerre académique. Supposition qui s'avère on ne peut plus fondée, et participe du succès du film. Tarantino applique en effet ses méthodes habituelles - citation/récupération/plagiat d'oeuvres célèbres ou complètement obscures, clins d'oeil au spectateur, violence décomplexée, dialogues-fleuves - à un genre souvent pétrifié qu'il renouvelle avec vigueur. Il n'hésite pas non plus à s'asseoir sur la vérité historique - et le fin du Reich telle qu'il la voit est certainement plus... galvanisante (au sens propre comme figuré) que le triste "dernier tango à Berlin" de la réalité. Vous vouliez voir Hitler se faire réduire en charpie à la mitraillette? Tarantino fait de ce rêve une réalité. On saluera également le coup de poker qui consiste à faire porter le film sur les épaules d'un acteur peu connu, incarnant un personnage résolument ignoble. Car c'est bel et bien ce Landa, interprété avec génie par l'Autrichien Christoph Waltz, qui s'avère le personnage le plus intéressant du film, celui qui reste le plus vif dans le souvenir. Voilà belle lurette que l'on n'avait pas vu une telle figure de salaud, et l'adage de Hitchcock - "meilleur est le méchant, meilleur est le film" - se vérifie donc une fois de plus.

Mais nous sommes chez Tarantino, ce qui veut dire que ce qui fait la force du film est également ce qui pose problème. Le dépassement de la vérité historique - qui ne me pose, en soi, aucun problème: c'est l'une des prérogatives de la fiction - s'accompagne également d'une oblitération du contexte. La seconde guerre mondiale n'est ici qu'une toile de fond, et les nazis sont des méchants comme les autres, parfois ridicules mais pas particulièrement violents ni impitoyables, puisque tout le monde ou presque dans le film est violent et impitoyable. Tarantino s'est fait plaisir en tournant une histoire pleine de sang, de bruit et de fureur dont le cadre se trouve être la France occupée parce que c'est exotique, et les méchants des nazis parce qu'ils sont tellement cinégéniques - bref, il a fait du Tarantino: un cinéma référentiel et au final parfaitement abstrait. Que le brouet prenne ici remarquablement bien, n'empêche pas de se poser des questions sur la recette et sur les intentions du chef.

Tarantino m'a toujours paru la démonstration par l'absurde de la théorie des auteurs, et de son inutilité fondamentale. Si par "auteur" on entend un réalisateur au style immédiatement reconnaissable, aux thèmes récurrents et personnels et dont la "vision" se retrouve de film en film, alors Tarantino est indubitablement un auteur. Mais ce style, ces thèmes, cette vision sont au service de rien. Il ne s'agit pas de reprocher à Tarantino de n'avoir "rien à dire" - ce qui est l'un des reproches les plus stupides que l'on puisse faire à un artiste. La filmo de Tarantino donne cependant plutôt l'impression d'une suite d'exercices de style que d'une oeuvre véritable; l'auteur s'amuse avec le petit train cher à Orson Welles, mais on reste au niveau de l'amusement: tout ceci n'est qu'un jeu. Et parfois, Tarantino est le seul à s'amuser comme dans le déplorable "Boulevard de la Mort" qui pousse la méthode à son extrême masturbatoire. Rien d'étonnant, donc, à ce que Inglourious Basterds soit vide de toute perspective morale; c'est le cas de tous les films de Tarantino et on ne voit d'ailleurs pas pourquoi il en serait besoin, puisque tout cela est un jeu. N'empêche que la cruauté universelle de ce monde où la violence est seule loi, a quelque chose de glaçant, surtout ici, et débouche sur des résultats assez paradoxaux, les "bons" étant presque plus effrayants que les "méchants". On peut évidemment y voir une volonté de "subversion" de la part de Tarantino, de dynamitage des conventions et des idées cinématographiquement reçues. On peut. Mais on peut également - ce n'est pas exclusif - y voir une indifférence souveraine aux enjeux, à la limite de l'irresponsabilité. Tout cela n'est qu'un jeu, après tout.


La fille du bois maudit (The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Henry Hathaway, 1936)

Sorti en 1936, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine est l'un des tout premiers longs-métrages en technicolor trichrome, et le premier tourné en extérieurs. C'est également l'un des plus beaux films de Henry Hathaway, à coup sûr l'un des metteurs en scène les plus sous-estimés de l'âge d'or hollywoodien.

L'histoire explore un thème récurrent du cinéma américain, à savoir la rencontre entre la nature et la civilisation - et ce qui en résulte. La nature est ici incarnée par June Tolliver (la délicieuse Sylvia Sydney) et sa famille de hillbillies coupés du monde et plongés depuis des temps immémoriaux dans une guerre sanglante contre leurs voisins, les Falin; la civilisation vient bousculer tout cela sous la forme d'une voie ferrée et de son séduisant ingénieur, Jack Hale (Fred
McMurray) Si les deux cultures semblent raisonnablement s'accorder dans un premier temps, les choses se gâtent très vite comme la civilisation commence d'exercer son influence "délétère" sur le clan Tolliver, June surtout qui, bien que fiancée à son cousin Dave (Henry Fonda) lui préfère de plus en plus Jack Hale, et se met à rêver d'émancipation. Mais c'est l'ingérence de Hale dans le conflit entre les Tolliver et les Falin qui précipitera la tragédie...

Le film est également une méditation sur la violence, son absurdité et son coût humain exorbitant. June naît littéralement au milieu du champ de bataille (admirable prologue) et la haine que se vouent les deux familles, à force d'exclure tout autre sentiment, les maintient dans
la misère, voire une certaine forme d'animalité: tout ce joli monde est analphabète, signe les contrats d'une simple croix et ne reconnaît un chèque qu'au logo de la compagnie ferroviaire qui y figure. Dans un tel contexte, il n'y a guère de place pour la beauté (les papillons sur lesquels on s'exerce au lancer de couteaux) ou l'intelligence: la scène qui résume le mieux le propos du film est celle de la mort du petit Buddie Tolliver - qui rêve de devenir ingénieur et a commencé d'apprendre à lire - victime d'une bombe posée par le plus dégénéré des fils Falin. Même l'amour maternel (bouleversante Beulah Bondi) est impuissant à mettre fin au carnage. L'opposition entre nature et civilisation, je l'ai dit, est un thème cher aux cinéma américain, mais elle ne tourne pas ici à l'avantage de la première, quand bien même le film reconnaît l'impossibilité de la dompter entièrement(June, malgré son bref passage en ville, retourne "à l'état sauvage"après la mort de son frère)

Hathaway joue remarquablement du contraste entre ces ténèbres humaines et la beauté luxuriante du décor, admirablement filmé et photographié. Ceux qui pensent que le Technicolor est nécessairement artificiel et criard (ce qui n'est pas forcément une mauvaise chose, mais
passons...) gagneraient à regarder ce film aux couleurs magnifiques et surtout naturelles, au point qu'il faut parfois se pincer pour se souvenir que le film date de 1936, et que le procédé n'en était encore qu'à ses balbutiements. L'interprétation est d'un très bon niveau, mais c'est le tout jeuneot Henry Fonda qui se distingue par son jeu très moderne, tout en non-dits et en retenue. On sent déjà pointer la grande star qu'il deviendra quatre ans plus tard.


NPR List Fails To Thrill

Remember the lacunal, maddening, consterning and ultimately useless lists of the allegedly best in crime fiction devised by The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian? Bad ideas sadly travel better than good wine and now we find the NPR weighing in with a list of 100 "Killer Thrillers" as selected by its audience. Like the Guardian's round-up, it is fairly inclusive - as it happens, Jurassic Park does show its reptilian head in both. For NPR's and its audience's defence, it might be said that "thriller" is so nebulous a concept (much like "crime novel") that you can put virtually any kind of book under its broad tent - and this is what happens:

Of course, there will be arguments about whether some of these books truly count as "thrillers." (You know who you are, Shogun.) The many 19th-century novels, in particular, may raise eyebrows. But David Morrell, novelist and co-editor of the recent anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, defends such choices. "A lot of people see 'thriller' and think 'spy book,' " Morrell says. But a book like The Last of the Mohicans is "unquestionably a thriller — filled with chases and derring-do." Morrell also mentioned Dracula ("take away the supernatural elements and it's a serial-killer novel") and The Count of Monte Cristo. "As long as you have that breathlessness and sense of excitement," Morrell says, "then they're in."

I'm old enough to remember the time when The Last of the Mohicans was considered an adventure novel and people routinely described Dracula as horror and The Count of Monte Cristo as a story of revenge. But it was yesterday and today is a busy time, too hury to care with definitions and categories. Let's drop them all and let's paint everything with the same brush, the broader the better.

"Thriller" was historically meant to refer to a peculiar brand of fiction, lying somewhere between adventure and the burgeoning crime genre, whose aim was - of course - to thrill. Main features of the form included fast pacing (making up - though not always - for coherence) high action quotient (in the guise of plot) and brave, courageous protagonists facing incredible (in every sense of the term) dangers to defeat crime bosses, secret societies or evil masterminds bent on controlling/destroying the world - which at the time and the somewhat ethnocentric world of standard thriller fiction, meant Great Britain and its empire. Since those books had little time or use for subtlety, they were often crude in their effects and execution. Still, at their best they displayed a wild imagination and stamina that makes the best of them still readable after all those years - it's no chance that Edgar Wallace, the archetypal thriller writer, still maintains a small but loyal following.

Of the NPR's 100, only a few are thrillers in the historical sense, and the presence of Stephen King, Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Cormac McCarthy demonstrates how far the term has derived from its original meaning - or any other for that matter. Whether or not it's a good thing, you decide.


Why CADS matters

Every new issue of CADS (Crime And Detective Stories) is an event on itself - because of both its irregularity and the invariably high quality of the content. The last issue, bearing number 58, is in a league of its own however as it marks the twenty-fifth aniversary of - let's not mince words - the best crime fiction periodical since The Armchair Detective. 

Readers of this blog know one of my recurring complaints is about the sorry state of mystery scholarship and the general lack of interest of authors, readers and critics alike in the history of the genre. That's what makes CADS so important - it is a magazine made by and for people who care for the What, Why, When and How of crime and mystery fiction. If you're looking for in-depth examination of the works of Mildred Davis, George Bellairs, Helen Simpson or Hilda Lawrence - all persons whose names would leave most in the fandom scratching their heads in bewilderment - then CADS is the place to go. While emphasis is put on the elders and betters of the genre, contemporary fare is not neglected and one of my favorite features is Bob Cornwell's Questionaire of an author - in this issue, Frances Fyfield - which refreshingly dispenses with the phony questions (and answers) of standard promotional interviews. 

That such a magazine lived long enough to celebrate its first quarter century is a miracle and a testimony to the passion of both its editors and readers. If you want the miracle to continue and CADS to turn 30, 50 and (why not?) 100, then you might consider joining the club by asking for your copy to Geoff Bradley, 9 Vicarage Hill, South Benfleet, Essex, SS7 1PA.  

Be warned, though: CADS is a dangerously, if delightfully, addictive experience. Which might be the final and best reason why it is so indispensable.

Further reading:

"25 Great Years" by Martin Edwards

"CADS" by Catherine Poulson


L&O's Law

So it's over. Law & Order won't beat Gunsmoke's record and become the longest-running drama ever. I hadn't watched it for years, still it makes me feel sad - and kinda nostalgic.

I was vacationing in Nice when I saw my first L&O. It was 1994, the show had just began airing on France 3 - and the guys there took great pains to make sure it didn't become a hit. For all its run on France 3 Law & Order was what the French call a bouche-trou: something to air when there was nothing else to air. The show moved from Saturday afternoons to Sunday nights; at one point you had to stay awake until 2.am to see it. (Universal-owned cable channel 13ème Rue then picked the show and gave it saner schedules and a greater visibility. As of this article, the show and its spin-offs are now "owned" by TF1, the greatest French network - how things change.)

And yet I was hooked. I didn't miss an episode and often found myself championing the show to people who'd never heard of it. I cheered when the show finally won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 1997*. Looking in retrospect, Law & Order was the first TV show I watched seriously, not just for entertainment.


Back in 1994 and for a long time afterwards L&O looked like nothing else on French television. Homegrown dramas in particular looked antediluvian in comparison - dull, preachy, simplistic and devoid of any ambiguity. L&O on the other hand managed to pack intricate plotting, compelling drama and unflinching takes on explosive issues in 45 minutes and made you ask for more. It was both extremely formulaic and completely unpredictable - you could almost never guess where the murder-of-the-week would lead, and prosecuting the culprit was often more difficult and trickier than finding him. To a young French viewer, the spectacle of American judiciary proceedings was often even more fascinating than the who's-why's-how's of the crime. I also liked the show's willingness to disturb. Not all episodes ended with the good guys winning and all questions being solved. Sometimes the system worked, sometimes it didn't and sometimes victory was more problematic than defeat. Complex issues were dealt with in a complex way, and it was often up to the viewer to make his own opinion, come up with his own answers. Everyone - and I mean everyone - could turn to be a baddie on L&O, no matter his milieu, race, politics or religion. This I liked too. L&O was my absolute favorite show up until Carey Lowell's departure.

All good things must come to an end, however, and I began taking my distances in the Wiest years as the stories became more predictable - in terms of both story and stance. The show started looking like a French drama - there was a good side and a bad side, and writers wouldn't let you choose; the once wonderfully arcane plots became simpler and repetitive. Sure it still had great actors doing a great job, but what good is an actor without a good part to defend and a good story to serve? The spinoffs finished killing the show for me. SVU I found even preachier than the original and too focused on a particular brand of crime to be surprising on the long run; CI was good and Vincent d'Onofrio gave a wonderful performance as Robert Goren but it lacked a concept. Jury might have been great but ratings didn't give it a chance. I'll check the upcoming L.A. but I don't expect much of it - hopefully I'll be proven wrong.

*A revealing anecdote: when asked by the now-defunct magazine Generation Series how they felt about the crowning of "their" show, France 3 executives replied that they didn't know about it, some going as far as to say they didn't even know about the show itself...)

Regeneration (Raoul Walsh, 1915)

L'histoire des hommes et celle du septième art entretiennent des rapports étranges. Ainsi, 1939 marque à la fois le début de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale et le point culminant de l'Age d'Or hollywoodien (Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, il n'y a qu'à se baisser...) Il en va de même, à une moindre échelle, pour 1915. D'un côté, les tranchées; de l'autre, trois films extrêmement importants sortent en l'espace de quelques mois: Birth of a Nation de Griffith, Les Vampires de Feuillade et celui qui nous occupe ici, Regeneration. Que deux de ces trois films soient américains ne doit pas surprendre: c'est "grâce" à la guerre en Europe que le cinéma américain, jusque là assez mineur, va progressivement s'emparer du leadership mondial, tant sur le plan commercial qu'artistique.
Regeneration est le premier film de Walsh, qui avait fait l'acteur quelques mois auparavant dans Birth of a Nation; c'est également l'ancêtre d'un genre, le film de gangsters, qui marquera les années vingt à quarante - et dont Walsh réalisera quelques uns de plus beaux fleurons. L'argument est relativement simple, et tient dans le titre: un jeune homme, Owen (interprété avec une modernité stupéfiante par Rockliffe Fellowes) que la misère et le manque d'amour ont poussé hors du droit chemin est "régénéré" par l'amour d'une jeune fille. C'est le traitement qui fait tout l'intérêt historique et artistique du film; on comprendra mieux pourquoi en comparant l'approche du débutant Walsh à celle des plus expérimentés Griffith et Feuillade.
Ce qui frappe tout d'abord dans Regeneration, c'est son absence de romantisme et de sentimentalité, du moins selon les standards de l'époque. Walsh, contrairement à Griffith, ne donne pas dans le pathos édifiant. La misère, la violence sont filmés frontalement, sans chercher à ménager le spectateur. Les scènes de l'enfance d'Owen sont remarquables à cet égard, et encore très éprouvantes un siècle plus tard. Le Bowery vu par Walsh est un enfer à ciel ouvert peuplé de mendiants, de gouapes, de brutes ivrognes et de gamins abandonnés à leur propre sort qui vivotent entre la rue, les bouges et des logements crasseux; que Walsh ait choisi de tourner sur les lieux mêmes ajoute encore à l'aspect documentaire du film et à son impact. Cette recherche du "détail vrai" rapproche Walsh de Feuillade qui avait tourné plusieurs scènes de son Fantômas dans la zone, et fit grand usage du Paris désertifié par la guerre dans ses Vampires.
Sur le plan formel, Walsh s'inscrit clairement comme disciple de Griffith, dont il reprend et prolonge les expériences sur le cadre et la lumière, mais en les intégrant à un projet et une vision tout à fait personnelles. Il ne s'agit pas pour lui d'agrandir, de magnifier les personnages ou le décor mais d'en saisir l'essence, et d'impliquer le spectateur. Même s'il manifeste un souci de recherche visuelle que l'on associe rarement à Walsh - sans doute parce qu'il optera dès son arrivée chez Warner pour une mise en images plus nerveuse, plus fonctionnelle - Regeneration est un remarquable exemple de cinéma américain premier, par opposition à celui plus teinté d'influences étrangères qui se développera à partir des années vingt.
Mais c'est sur le plan de l'interprétation que Regeneration est le plus remarquable, et le plus moderne. La direction d'acteurs walshienne est complètement exempte de l'emphase mélodramatique qui rend certaines scènes de Birth of a Nation ou Intolerance assez difficiles à supporter en gardant son sérieux - tous ces tics que Feuillade qualifiait dédaigneusement de "vieux ciné". Walsh demande - et obtient - de ses acteurs des interprétations aussi nuancées et naturelles que l'époque et les limitations du medium le permettaient. La jeune héroïne en particulier n'est pas une créature éthérée telle que Griffith les affectionnait, et annonce les futures égéries walshiennes - des femmes indépendantes, dont l'obstination n'a rien à envier à celle des hommes, et qui ne s'abaissent jamais devant eux.
En bref, Regeneration est un film qui justifie pleinement la petite heure de votre vie que vous lui consacrerez, et vous la rendra au centuple. Un bon moyen aussi de remédier à certaines idées reçues sur le cinéma de cette époque.



It's been three months since I last posted on this blog, and I apologize to my few devoted readers for this unforgivably long silence. Let me say as an attempt to an excuse that I depend on inspiration to write - and, for several reasons I won't bother you with, inspiration just wasn't there. Now it seems to be back, at least for the time being, and I seize the occasion to raise this blog from the dead.

Michel Houellebecq's essay on Howard Philips Lovecraft is an old favorite of mine, somewhat surprisingly at first glance if one considers that I am not a fan of either the author or his subject. I never read any of Houellebecq's novels and the few Lovecraft stories I sampled left me cold. Why then do I re-read this slim volume on a regular basis? Well, first, because it's eminently readable, informative and insightful - but this is not the whole story. What interests me most is Lovecraft's literary doctrine, this definitive refusal of realism rooted in a no less definitive refusal of reality. Lovecraft, Houellebecq says, found both the modern world and life in general to be boring and repellent, and antithetic to artistic creation. Hence the radically abstract character of his work: Lovecraft had no interest in painting a faithful portrait of the society he lived in, nor in creating psychologically sound characters; instead he created a mythology, an architecture, even a geography (Arkham, Innsmouth, the Miskatonic Valley) out of scratch and peopled his universe with puppets whose sole purpose was to meet some unspeakable horror, write about it and either die or getting mad. As Houellebecq notes, such an approach is quite radical even within the weird genre and none of Lovecraft's many imitators and followers adhered completely to it.

To the mystery fan, Lovecraft's anti-realistic stance reminds strongly of another author with a taste for the baroque and no time for the trivialities of daily life: John Dickson Carr. Both had more in common than one would imagine - extremely intelligent and well-read people with a markedly reactionary mindset and almost pathologically good manners. Like Lovecraft, Carr hated realism in fiction, and made it a central tenet of his own literary doctrine, which he defended with vehemence against all enemies (or, to be more accurate, against the enemy, his evil twin Raymond Chandler) The early Bencolin novels have a distinctly weird flavour and the supernatural (or appearance of such) always played a major role in Carr's work, culminating with The Burning Court. Both HPL and JDC thought of themselves as "displaced persons" born in the wrong time and the wrong place; they also seemed ill-adjusted to adulthood (which Lovecraft compared to "hell") How comes then than their works are so markedly different?

Carr's irrealism is not as radical as Lovecraft's; it is first and foremost a rejection of verisimilitude: Carr can't be bothered with concepts like probability or plausibility. Still his stories as outlandish as they are take place or are supposed to take place in the world he and his readers inhabit. His Paris may be ghastlier, his Germany more baroque, his London more foggy than the real things and his countryside may be somewhat idealized, but they are (admittedly distorted) projections of real places. Attention is paid to the mores of the times, especially in the heavy-on-documentation historical novels he wrote in the second part of his career. Also, while his characterization skills were and still are heavily debated, Carr grants his protagonists real if sometimes sketchy backgrounds and feelings. The only bigger-than-life characters in Carr's work are his detectives, and even they remain concrete and at least possible. 

These differences stem probably in part from the psychological and ideological differences between the two men. Carr, for all his yearning for a bygone era, never fell for Adolf, Benito or Francisco; neither did he embrace racist theories. He was definetely not a puritan and sex is a driving force in his universe - a Carr book without a female character is unimaginable whereas Houellebecq counted only two appearances of women in Lovecraft's whole output. Also, Carr was less cerebral, less solispstic than Lovecraft; fiction to him was about fun, at least in his younger days - the greatest game in the world - and while his worldview may not have been necessarily sunnier than his Providence colleague's, he always took pains not to pollute his work with it. 

Further reading on Lovecraft:

Extract from Houellebecq's book on the Guardian website.
"Master of Disgust" by Laura Miller


Middle Golden Age (1926-1939)

This article is the second instalment in the Golden Age(s) series.

To most people, the period I am now about to discuss is the one and only Golden Age. A time of eccentric detectives and baffling mysteries when the genre reached unparallelled heights of virtuosity and ingeniosity. A time when locked-room murders and dying messages were business as usual and the police would routinely turn to gifted and wealthy amateurs to solve the most complicated cases. A time when the game element of the genre was emphasized with many books including challenges to the reader and rules being set out to prohibit cheap tricks. And yet a closer look at the period paints a more complex picture, one that is rife with contradiction and dissension; it also helps to correct some enduring misconceptions.
Middle Golden Age for the most part continued, amplified and institutionalized the changes initiated in the previous period; it also added a major one of its own. Early proponents of fair-play valued it on both aesthetical and ethical grounds; to hide major clues from the reader ruined the story's overall effect and was an appalling thing to do. Their successors, on the other hand, objected to not playing fair because it was cheating. The detective story, in short, had become a game, a "recreation of noble minds" and games need rules. Mgr. Knox in Britain and S.S. Van Dine in America were happy to oblige. While the former was chiefly concerned with purging the genre of antediluvian clichés that still showed up now and then, the latter's commandments amounted to a bill of divorce from standard fiction.
Practice differed sensibly from theory, however. Middle Age detective fiction for all its challenges to the reader and assertions of fair-play was actually more akin to prestidigitation than cluedo. The author presented the reader with a baffling problem and - ideally - gave him all of the clues, yet at the same time used his best smoke and mirrors to make sure he couldn't make sense of the evidence, revealing in the end the unsuspected truth to general bafflement then thunderous applause including from the defeated reader. Pace Van Dine, the closer equivalent to a detective story was not a ball game or a cross-word puzzle but a magician pulling a rabbit off his hat.
One might think - and it has often been told - that this conception of the detective story as well as the existence of a firm corpus of "laws" resulted into standardization - authors writing much like the other, books so alike that reading one spared one reading the rest. Another frequent criticism is that by focusing on the plot and viewing their books as mere games, authors ignored or at least neglected characterization, "realism" and social comment. Both criticisms are correct to an extent, and wrong on the whole. The period admittedly had its share of formulaic writing of no more literary merit than a sudoku problem but it was not the end of the story. Contrary to popular wisdom, playing "the grandest game in the world" was not contradictory with literary ambition (Sayers, Wade) genre-bending (Carr) parody (Innes) or wild imagination (Mitchell) Also contrary to accepted wisdom, whodunit is not the only genre thriving in the period. Middle Golden Age also sees the dawn of hardboiled (Hammett) and noir (Cain) fiction as well as of the crime novel (Francis Iles, Richard Hull, Mrs. Belloc Lowndes) whereas the transmutation of HIBK into suspense is underway with Ethel Lina White in Britain and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding in the US.

At the core of Middle Golden Age writing was the triumphalist notion that crime was only a temporary disruption in the immutable order of things and that reason would always prevail. This notion suffered repeated blows in the Thirties as totalitarian regimes took hold of Europe and war became increasingly probable. Detective fiction by the end of the period is more prosperous and fertile than ever, but the seeds of doubt have been sown with Berkeley and Sayers defecting and newcomers displaying a more skeptical attitude to the rules of the genre as well as its ethos.

As with the former period, Middle Golden Age closes with a Christie book, this time And Then They Were None which fittingly appeared in 1939. This book, one of its author's masterpieces, combines the extreme cleverness in plotting which is typical of the genre and the era with a gloomy worldview that is much less so: No one on Indian Island is innocent and there is no Poirot, Holmes or Wimsey in sight to rescue the inhabitants from their fate and restore order in the end. The jolly days of Mayhem Parva were gone; now detective fiction must deal with the sound and fury of a definetely disordered world. How it would an whether it could is what we'll see in the next and final instalment in this series.


Only Ten?

Imagine a reader new to crime fiction and wanting an education in the classics. Or consider a seasoned crime fiction reader who’s barely read a crime novel published prior to 1970. Well I’m that latter reader. I’ve read several hundred crime novels but nearly all of them are from the contemporary period. This is the year I intend to right that by reading some of the crime fiction canon. What I need though is a curriculum - a list of ten must-read crime fiction classics.And this is where I need some help. So to that end I’m setting up a relatively straightforward challenge, one that doesn't even require any reading. The challenge is to set a ten book, pre-1970, crime fiction curriculum and to either post the list on your own blog and send me the link or post the list in a comment to this post by January 31st. I’ll then compile a curriculum based on the most popular choices (and provide link-backs to posts). Ideally, the selection of books needs to try and capture different crime fiction sub-genres and styles.

Needless to say, I have a plenty of suggestions, but Rob wants only ten books. All of those I have in mind have an equal claim to greatness and importance and choosing one rather than another is a pretty painful experience, but that's what challenges are about. So here is my not-so-final round-up of the ten mysteries you should read before I change my mind again; it is as varied as could be given my admittedly biased tastes, but no one I think will waste his/her time checking these out.

John Dickson Carr, The Emperor's Snuff-Box - His most atypical work in many respects - no impossible crime, no hint of the supernatural and no Fell/Merrivale - but a towering achievement all the same for its deceptively simple plot and excellent characterization (go read it and tell me Carr had no sense of character...)

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown - Absolute perfection. Period.

Agatha Christie, Five Little Pigs - Not her most-often cited book, but the one where she's really at the height of her powers as both a plotting genius and a writer.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone - If you are to read only one detective novel in your life, be it this one (or The Hound of the Baskervilles)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles - If you are to read only one detective novel in your life, be it this one (or The Moonstone)

Stanley Ellin, The Eighth Circle - A private eye novel with a difference by one of the greatest short-story writers ever.

Cyril Hare, An English Murder - A dirge for a society, a class-system and a whole genre; the mystery equivalent of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game.

Charlotte Jay, Beat Not the Bones - A thriller like no other: Joseph Conrad meets Cornell Woolrich.

Margaret Millar, A Stranger In My Grave - Her whole output would deserve inclusion here; I'm picking this one in particular because of its superb title and the character of Steve Pinata which sadly never reappeared again.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? - One of the most brilliant debuts in the history of the genre, and the best was yet to come.

Readers of this blog are strongly encouraged to submit their own "classics" in the comment section.

(via Petrona)


Romancing the (Moon)Stone

The Moonstone is one of my personal candidates for the title of best mystery novel ever written (other nominees include The Hound of the Baskervilles, Gaboriau's Le Crime d'Orcival or J.D. Carr's The Three Coffins among many, many others) and this review sums up what makes this book so great very well.

Believe it or not, it remained on my shelves for ten years before I actually got around to read it - I was negatively impressed by the length of the book as well as by his age; surely its only interest was of a historical kind. And then one day I finally opened it, read the first three pages and I was hooked. I couldn't put it down and the only disappointment I felt when finally closing the book was that it was already over.

Pace Barzun, T.S. Eliot had every right to label this book "the [...] greatest of English detective novels" (he also thought it was the first, but was wrong on this count as primogeniture belongs to Charles Felix's obscure The Notting Hill Mystery) as everything about this book is perfect or near-perfect from the masterful construction to the equally wonderful characterization. It is also strikingly modern, absolutely not the period piece you might expect. One century and a half ago, the detective novel had already taken on most of its definitive shape and to see it emerge before one's eyes is but one of the book's many pleasures.

Now talking about it makes me feel like reading it again. A good way to start a new decade, isn't it?

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