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. 

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