Tous mes voeux pour cette nouvelle année à vous et à vos proches; puisse-t-elle vous apporter tout ce que vous souhaiter... et vous épargner le reste.

I wish you and your family and friends a happy new year, complete with everything you may want and more.


Juger un DVD à sa couverture

Un cinéphile aime les films - beaucoup, passionnément, à la folie. Et ceux qu'il aime vraiment très fort, ceux qu'il veut avoir chez lui pour les regarder à volonté, il les achète en DVD (ou en Blu-Ray, s'il est à la pointe du progrès)

Et de fait, il faut vraiment avoir envie de voir un film pour acheter un DVD - car les éditeurs ne font vraiment rien pour rendre leurs galettes numériques attractives en tant qu'objets.

Un exemple suffira. Voici l'affiche française originale du film de Delmer Daves, Les Gladiateurs:

Et voici maintenant la couverture du DVD. Attention les yeux!

Bon, je suis bien conscient que ce film s'adresse à un public réduit (à une époque où un film est un "classique" au bout de vingt ans, 1953 c'est carrément la préhistoire) et que Fox ne va donc pas dépenser des sommes folles en packaging, mais tout de même...

La situation n'est pas beaucoup meilleure chez les éditeurs dits "cinéphiles" genre Carlotta ou Sidonis. Même si l'on n'y trouve rien d'aussi hideux que la monstruosité ci-dessus, le packaging reste au niveau du service minimum, avec le plus souvent une simple photo du film, plus ou moins bien choisie.

J'en entends déjà m'objecter que le contenu est beaucoup plus important que le contenant, que les petits éditeurs susdits font sur le plan de la restauration et des bonus un travail formidable dont les majors feraient bien de s'inspirer, et qu'il vaut mieux un bon film avec un packaging pas terrible qu'une nullité dans un écrin de luxe. Je n'en disconviens pas. Mais tout de même. Si le contenant a si peu d'importance, pourquoi s'en embarrasser davantage? La VOD donne le même résultat, et elle prend moins de place sur les étagères. Que diable, j'aime les films sur un support physique, et j'ai envie que ledit support anticipe sur le plaisir de la vision, le prépare en quelque sorte. Et ce genre de choses fait très moyennement envie.

Those Damn Amateurs

Michael Sims on amateur detectives:

"This tradition goes through Miss Marple and Murder She Wrote — that amateurs would have this arcane, genius talent as if they were musicians or mathematicians or something. It's a hilarious idea if you stop and think about it."

Well, not really. The amateur detective appeared at a time - the nineteenth century - which saw many instances of amateurs/outsiders outwitting the professionals. Darwin was not a biologist. Pasteur was not a doctor. Early egyptologists/archaelogists like Maspero or Schliemann were self-taught. The idea that an amateur detective could challenge and outperforming the coppers thus made sense, especially given everyone's low regard for the official police.

Romanticism was also a key influence, with its notion that the Poet as some kind of a superman who can feel and see things invisible to mere mortals. Dupin is as much an embodiment of that ideal (and maybe more so) than of reason. Same goes for Holmes who, for all his professed rationalism, looks and behaves much like your standard romantic.

Of course in our highly specialized and less than romantic times, the whole stuff sounds, in Sims's words, "hilarious". But looking absurd now doesn't mean it was absurd then.


Who's Better? Who's Best?

It's a testimony to how priorities in the genre have changed that hardly anyone is compiling lists of the "greatest detectives" anymore - though Sherlock Holmes is routinely assumed to be the greatest of them all. Since most modern sleuths are more remarkable for their personalities and predicaments than their ratiocinative skills, the exercise would be pointless.

Besides, evaluating the "greatness" of a detective is way trickier than seems firsthand for lack of an universal system of measurement. Every fictional sleuth is the greatest one in his own universe, being ideally and uniquely suited to solve the problems he is submitted. Ellery Queen's cases are not the same as Dr. Fell which on the other hand are different from, say, Philip Marlowe's and we don't know whether they could switch successfully. Neither can we be sure that Sherlock Holmes could solve the murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Hercule Poirot would escape from Cell 13. Only by having them all existing in a same universe and investigating the same case could we eventually work out who's best.

So in the end when making such lists we're not listing "greatest" detectives so much as those whose exploits most impressed us - and it might then be more helpful to specify which particular "performance" owes them their ranking.

Using this system, who would be your ten favorite detectives?


Chamber Music - Soul Rebels Brass Band

Resolutions for 2012

There are only three, but they're major ones:

Finally overcoming that damn reader's block.

I read so little this year - so little mysteries that is, for I read a lot of comics, the only things not falling from my hands - that for the first time in memory I can't compile a Top 10 - and naming a best book of the year would be meaningless given the low number of candidates*. I sincerely hope for 2012 heralding a return to form.

Blogging on a more regular basis.

Obviously my reader's block didn't help me posting more often. But then it's a historical/theoretical blog, not a journal of my reads, so that excuse doesn't (quite) hold water. In 2012 I'll try to achieve a post at least every two weeks, come what may.

Poster davantage en français.

Je suis français et, à en croire les statistiques de ce blog, un certain nombre de mes lecteurs le sont également. Il serait donc logique que je m'exprime davantage dans notre belle langue. C'est donc mon troisième objectif pour la nouvelle année.

Easier said than done, but who knows...

* Still, if I was to name the best mystery I read this year, the honour would go to Albert Harding's "Death on Ravens' Scar". I know nothing of this author and Internet seems not to know much either, but it's an excellent book with a very good plot and equally good setting and characterization. Too bad Harding apparently never wrote anything else.


The Master Speaks

Patrick Ohl's excellent "At the Scene of the Crime" has a two-part interview of French mystery writer Paul Halter, brilliantly translated from Molière's language by Ohl himself; resources on the modern master of the locked-room mystery are scarce online, be it in French or any other language, so the initiative is to be commended. The interview is well worth reading, whatever your familiarity with the author and his work. (I take exception however to his and interviewer Roland Lacourbe's  assessment of Carr's characterization skills and I think he's unfair to Queen and Steeman.) 


Back to the Future

This article by A.O. Scott on nostalgia and the future of film misses the point entirely, in my view.

The parallel with the sound revolution, which proponents of new technologies often use, actually cuts both ways. Films indeed survived the arrival of sound. But it came at a double price, which was accurately forecasted by the doomsayers of the day. The barrier of language - not much of a problem in the silent era; all it took was to translate the intertitles - meant that films were no longer universal.

Also and perhaps even worse, sound made visual flair optional. Silence meant directors had to find visual ways to get their point across - avalanches of intertitles would quickly tire viewers. So well did they come to master their craft that the best later silents eschewed intertitles almost completely. With dialogue taking over as films's driving force, it became possible for films to be made that relied mostly or only on speech and offered little or nothing in the way of visuals. Like it or not, films looking like stage plays or movies of the week with greater budgets are a direct side-effect of the sound revolution. 

This is not to say that new technologies will bring the end of the medium or turn it into garbage - they won't, and neither did sound - but we must remember that progress in one way almost invariably means regress in another. We'll certainly learn to live with that (just like we learnt to live with sound and colour) but whether the benefits will compensate for the costs is anyone's guess. The doomsayers may turn to be wrong on the big picture but they have points and one would like for Mr. Scott and people of his persuasion to admit it rather than just sneering or painting rosy pictures of an idyllic future. 


Enter the Tramp

I'm happy to report that mystery scholar extraordinaire Curtis Evans (arguably the world's leading authority on so-called "Humdrum" writers, and a long-time friend of mine) has now finally entered the blogging arena. His blog is called "The Passing Tramp" (wonderful title!) and while he's no sure how frequently he'll post there I'll surely keep an eye on it - and so should you.  


The Beam In His Own Eye

That Ian Rankin is no fan of Agatha Christie shouldn't be surprising - if he was, he would write a totally different kind of books. Nor should it be scandalous. As we say here in France, you can't please everybody. Still, the reasons for his "disdain" are worth closer examination as they are typical of a certain mindset quite widespread in the modern mystery establishment.

Rankin's prime objection is that the Christieverse is so remote from everyday reality:

"The world that she wrote about seems so alien to me. This pastoral, idealised vision of England, where there is this very big house in a quiet village. Someone is found poisoned in the snooker room or the library...."

A world in which the police never solve the crime.

"Some amateur detective, a little old lady or a gentleman, comes along to do that. At the end, everything is explained, and status quo returns."

Rankin, who was in India last month, admits he tried reading these stories when he was an adolescent. "But I grew up in a solidly working-class coal mining town... and that world meant nothing to me."

As it happens, I myself grew in a working-class area and Christie's pastoral world was never a problem to me - but then I was never that strange kind of reader who wants books to reflect his own life and experience. But I digress.

Rankin's depiction of the Christieverse is of course stereotypical - also, for his and the reporter's edification, Christie actually wrote some books where the police solves the case. She even made one of her detectives (admittedly less well-known and popular than Poirot or Marple) a police official. And to say that "status quo returns" at the end of And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs or The Hollow requires an odd idea of status quo - or not being familiar with the books. But I digress once again.

To Rankin, the enduring success of Christie comes down to the comforting and unrealistic nature of her work:

"I can see why those books are successful," Rankin shoots back. "It offers this idea that human beings can solve all problems. That the world goes back to being a nice place when the killer is caught. Life ain`t like that."


He thinks it`s too far-fetched to imagine an amateur can solve a crime.

"When was the last time in real life that the little lady solved the crime that the police couldn`t solve?"

Rankin's work by contrast is blunt and unflinching in its examination of the dark realities of crime:

"The one realisation that Reebus has is that it doesn`t matter how many criminals he catches and puts in jail, there is never a vacuum. More criminals emerge. The society we created creates crime, imbalance and injustice. People will always be jealous and people will commit crime. A sense of grievance will always remain."

Besides, realism is what readers want:

He believes instead that a majority of current crime fiction readers want professionals -- pathologists or lawyers or cops -- to be solving the crime.

One might object that they're not given much choice anyway. But it would be digressing once again.

The question Rankin either carefully avoids or is not aware of is how much "realism" is possible in what remains an extremely codified genre. For all its documentation and literary and social pretensions, Rankin's work is barely more "realistic" than Christie's - Rebus in particular is a fantasy figure as remote in his own way from the average cop than Roderick Alleyn was.

If crime writers were to be really realistic, they would only write about crime as it happens in real life - something unglamorous, uncomplicated, committed and investigated by decidedly uncolourful people. Let's face it, it would be extremely boring and unlikely to make you "UK`s number 1 crime author". So crime writers prefer to write about detectives with strong personalities investigating complex cases; which accounts at best for 1% of real-life crime (but is the stuff of headlines and best-sellers) much like Christie did in her time. The difference being that Christie never pretended to give others lessons in "realism".

Wish more would follow her example.


A Case of Identity

Being away from the Internet, I hadn't had the opportunity to read the debate between Patrick and Sergio about Julian Symons' perennial divider "Bloody Murder". There is much food for thought there, as can be expected from a discussion between two of the most knowledgeable and literate bloggers around. I'll add my two cents soon but for now I'd like to say some words about this comment from Patrick about Symons's insistence that mysteries are not proper "literature":

I find this point of view highly annoying, and I wonder why mystery fans are so tolerant of critics who insist the genre is sub-literary, nothing but entertainment, or not on the same level as other genres. If you tried saying this about science-fiction in the middle of a sci-fi convention, I guarantee you'd misplace several teeth that evening.

To which Sergio responds:

You are right that mystery authors have put up with that kind of superior crap in a way SF writers have not, but I will also say that the genres have tended to develop in less than equal ways - SF has always been a more literary genre by dint of its ability to deal with more complex themes which are hotwired into the conventions of the genre (who are we, where do we belong in the universe, is God real, am I real etc etc) so it was attractive to distinctive writers looking for original ways to express their ideas, not something you would often accuse Agatha Christie of - on the other hand, pulp writing is pulp whether its SF, crime, Western, horror or romance!

Actually, I think the main difference between Sci-Fi and the mystery genre (other than their respective popularity and visibility, which largely accounts for the difference in treatment) is that the former developed a culture of its own, with its own standards and values. Sci-Fi is primarily fan literature targeted to a fan audience, which accounts for its lesser accessibility to the average reader. Let's quote China Miéville:

I'm not a leftist trying to smuggle in my evil message by the nefarious means of fantasy novels. I'm a science fiction and fantasy geek. I love this stuff. And when I write my novels, I'm not writing them to make political points. I'm writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that. But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I'm creating is embedded with many of the concerns that I have... I'm trying to say I've invented this world that I think is really cool and I have these really big stories to tell in it and one of the ways that I find to make that interesting is to think about it politically. If you want to do that too, that's fantastic. But if not, isn't this a cool monster?

As a result, Sci-Fi people tend to be less worried by the judgment of the establishment than mystery folks are; neither are they much impressed when one of them is endorsed by the literati - Ray Bradbury is a prime example of an author with a large mainstream following but who is frowned upon by many in the SF fandom. A good Sci-Fi writer is one whose work pleases the fandom, no matter how "literary" it is in the end.

In contrast the mystery field tends to be obsessed with literary legitimacy. Authors emphasize the "serious" aspects of their work; critics tout any book that "transcend the genre" and is "more than a mystery". Both agree that the genre is first a medium for whatever moral, social or political concern the author may have; the "fan attitude" exemplified by Miéville is conspicuously absent. We're not in it for fun, we're serious people! Mystery folks are forever begging for respect from the establishment, bragging when it bestows some praise on one of them or when some noted literati adventures in the field, and having a tantrum every time some buffoon pours scorn on the genre.

So we have a genre with a strong identity and staunchly defending it versus a genre with a strong identity and trying to dilute it into the rigid canons of the establishment.Guess which one is the most fertile.


Les Anglais ne sont pas là

Le roman policier britannique est très mal connu en France.

J'en vois parmi mes lecteurs qui froncent les sourcils, d'autres qui se demandent si je plaisante: ce n'est absolument pas le cas. Quantité d'auteurs britanniques passés et présents restent méconnus, sous-estimés et sous-traduits dans nos contrées.

L'une des conséquences de la déferlante noire de l'après-guerre fut la ringardisation de l'école anglaise. Pour des critiques et des lecteurs conquis par l'audace et l'énergie du roman noir américain, le polar anglais faisait figure d'anachronisme, fidèle qu'il restait pour l'essentiel à un genre - le roman d'énigme - que tout le monde s'accordait à reléguer au rayon des antiquités. De fait, "roman anglais" devint rapidement synonyme d'ennui et de routine sous la plume des critiques les plus "avancés". La seule collection restée fidèle à ce genre maudit, Le Masque, le paya de décennies d'indifférence/hostilité de la part des critiques et des jurys littéraires.

Cette anglophobie n'était pas systématique: les auteurs britanniques qui ne donnaient pas dans le "style anglais" étaient bien accueillis, parfois mieux que dans leur pays d'origine (cf. James Hadley Chase ou Robin Cook) et recevaient même des prix. Mais dans l'ensemble, les ressortissants de la perfide Albion, traditionalistes ou modernistes, restaient des mal-aimés sinon toujours de la critique, mais en tout cas de l'édition. Ainsi, le fait d'avoir remporté tous deux le Grand Prix de Littérature Policière ne suffit pas à garantir à Michael Gilbert ou à Shelley Smith d'être traduits régulièrement. Cyril Hare, Michael Innes ou Gladys Mitchell firent un ou deux petits tours et puis s'en allèrent sur la pointe des pieds. Julian Symons quant à lui sauta d'une collection à l'autre, la relative indifférence des critiques contrastant singulièrement avec son statut proéminent dans le monde anglo-saxon. Les "reines du crime", Christie exceptée, ne s'en tirèrent pas mieux: Ngaio Marsh n'intéressa vraiment les éditeurs qu'à partir des années 80, Margery Allingham fit des apparitions de-ci de-là et Dorothy Sayers vit ses oeuvres soit charcutées, soit traduites avec cinquante ans de retard (son maître-ouvrage, Gaudy Night, restant inédit à ce jour.) Et encore nous en tenons-nous à ceux des auteurs qui eurent la chance d'être traduits, car il nous faudrait également inclure des gens comme Edmund Crispin ou Celia Fremlin qui durent attendre pour l'un les années 80, pour l'autres les années 90 avant de faire leurs débuts français.

Les années 80 marquèrent un début de réhabilitation de l'école anglaise, sous l'effet du rouleau-compresseur P.D. James/Ruth Rendell mais aussi avec la réactivation du Masque et l'apparition d'une nouvelle collection, "Grands Détectives" chez 10/18. On commença de rééditer les introuvables et de traduire les négligés, ce qui faisait du monde. Hélas, bien des aventures restèrent sans lendemain: "Grands Détectives" laissa tomber Michael Innes et Gladys Mitchell au bout de quelques livres et la nouvelle orientation du Masque entraîna l'abandon de plusieurs auteurs et de projets excitants comme la première édition intégrale en français des oeuvres de Sayers. Arrivés en 2011 il reste encore bien du retard à rattraper sans qu'on voit trop bien comment au vu des moeurs actuelles des milieux de l'édition. Qui aura assez de courage et de discernement pour nous permettre de lire enfin des classiques comme The Moving Toyshop, Tragedy at Law ou The Colour of Murder, poursuivre l'édition des oeuvres de Reginald Hill ou Robert Barnard, ou nous faire découvrir les oeuvres de maîtres modernes comme Martin Edwards ou le transfuge de l'horreur, Christopher Fowler, dont les romans mettant en scène Bryant et May font les délices des amateurs de crimes impossibles?


Ink, Blood and Celluloid

The differences between the American and British schools of mystery fiction - what makes them so different despite a common ancestry - is an old favorite topic of mine which I think over now and again. One of the main dividing lines, in my opinion, is the influence of movies - American mystery writers seem to have absorbed and embraced the new medium sooner and faster than their British colleagues.

Typically American genres such as hardboiled, noir or psychological suspense with their ebullient rhythm and terse, elliptic narration are unimaginable in a world without movies; conversely, they received a great deal of attention from the film industry. But the influence of the silver screen can also be observed in the traditional mystery genre; despite basically obeying the same rules, the American whodunit is extremely different from its British counterpart, even when trying to imitate it.

The standard British Golden Age mystery was basically about linking two points - murder and solution. The detective patiently interviewed suspects, collected evidence and then named the culprit in the end. This is not to say that nothing happened as the frequent and seemingly indestructible stereotyping of the genre would have us to believe; it's just that authors saw no reason to hurry up and took the time to delineate the elements of the problem and the path to its solution. The Yankees, on the other hand, were more interested in the spectacular, exciting aspects of the genre; their books started on a high note and tried to keep it to the end. Baroque situations and unexpected twists abounded, the detective often had to do some leg work and the pacing was significantly faster. The game element remained, but detecting was no longer a serene, merely intellectual demeanour - it was action. In short, these were mysteries influenced by, and suitable for, the silver screen and it's no surprise the works of Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer, Erle Stanley Gardner, Baynard Kendrick or Rex Stout found a positive echo in Hollywood.  America having a stronger film industry and culture than Britain at the time certainly accounts for that; though a sociological explanation is possible as well. British mystery writers were mostly upper-class and college-educated and thus tended to shun movies which they saw as trivial entertainment for the masses. (A good reflection of that attitude can be found in Robert Altman's Gosford Park.

Of course, this rule like all rules has its exceptions. Agatha Christie for instance was much more "cinematic" than S.S. Van Dine though the latter's popularity (and William Powell's portrayal of Philo Vance) also made him a Hollywood darling for a time. The case of John Dickson Carr is a good illustration of the divide, however. Even though most of his work is set in Britain and he was an ardent and sincere anglophile, Carr was still a quintessentially American author writing quintessentially American books, as evidenced by the comparatively faster tempo and roller-coaster nature (each chapter ends on a revelation or a twist) of his stories and his relatively low interest in the proper mechanics of detection. Also, movies are a strong influence on his writing, whether in the guise of his screwball-like romances or the expressionism of his early work (I have always thought The Lost Gallows or Castle Skull would have made nice Murnau or Fritz Lang films) Why he failed to generate any significant interest from Hollywood or the film industry at large is a mystery.

The love story between the American school and the silver screen has been going strong for decades, and shows no sign of wearying out. The British school's celluloid incarnations have been more scarce including at home*, television proving to be a more welcoming and suitable medium - but its fortunes might change as the divide between American and British mystery fiction increasingly narrows with the latter adopting some of the attitudes and themes of the former. For better? For worse? Don't miss the next episode. 

* Though films like Green for Danger or The Woman In Question proved the British detective story, in capable hands, could work beautifully on the screen. 


The Wrong Hensher: An Addendum

As I said in my response to Philip Hensher's diatribe, the mystery genre being "rule-bound" doesn't mean it is necessarily adverse to originality and innovation. Shakespeare, Spenser, Wordsworth and Auden all wrote sonnets and it doesn't seem to have hindered their creativity nor their individuality. But there was no one around to tell them what their themes should be or which language they should use; as long as they played by the rules (or didn't subvert them too openly) and didn't write anything too outrageous or offensive, they were free to do as they pleased.

Mystery writers on the other hand are repeatedly told - and most often agree - that their genre of election is realistic by definition* and that its sacro-sanct mission is to "explore the dark side of human nature" or "comment on the grimmy aspects of society" or both. They are also strongly advised to write in a straightforward manner, one that avoids anything too recherché or obscure. It is not my intention to belittle this approach to mystery writing: some outstanding work has been and is still written according to those guidelines. But turning them into "articles of the faith" I think is detrimental to the genre's vitality. We should see mystery first as a form, one that allows and calls for many uses and interpretations. If X wants to use mystery to explore the human psyche and comment on society, that's fine. But if Y is more into genre-bending or narrative experimentation or "just" fair-play plotting, that's fine too. We must make the tent bigger and more welcoming. Above all, we must no longer be afraid of the "I" word. Then and only then we'll have our own China Miéville to show the Henshers of the world.

*Which is at best debatable, but it's not the subject of this post.


Chamber Music - Johnny Clegg & Savuka

Meet The Tiger's

Nearly forty years after it premiered, Les Brigades du Tigre remains one of the finest French TV shows ever; one of the most popular too, as evidenced by the many reruns and the (awful) movie adaptation made in 2006. Its success was not merely a French-French thing as it was sold to about twenty countries including Japan, though it remains nearly unknown in English-speaking territories.

The 36-episode series chronicles the exploits of cops Valentin, Pujol et Terrasson from the Belle Epoque up to the Thirties. Valentin and his colleagues belong to the Brigades Mobiles launched in 1907 by Interior Minister Georges Clémenceau (whose popular nickname was "The Tiger" hence the title of the show) and as such are called to investigate a number of cases all across the country.

Unlike most American shows which are written by a team, Les Brigades du Tigre is the work of a single man, Claude Desailly, a helluva of a writer who wrote all of the episodes. Conversely, the series had only one director, Russian-born Victor Vicas, better-known to American audiences for his 1957 drama The Wayward Bus. With only two men in command, one might think the show quickly became routine, but it didn't. Since both their competences and their juridiction were quite large, the Brigades fought all kinds of criminals from gangs to psycho killers to murderous cults and terrorists, even spies and Raffles-like master thieves. Les Demoiselles du Vésinet, arguably the best episode in the series - and certainly the funniest - pits the trio against two loveable yet extremely dangerous old ladies straight out of Arsenic and Old Lace. The show works also wonderfully as a period piece, offering a convincing and detailed chronicle of French society in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. As the years pass by, fashion and mentalities change - and so do criminals. Vicas' direction is sharp and dynamic; Claude Bolling delivers a memorable score and then there is the acting which is uniformally excellent, be it the three leads or the guests.

The series' few defaults are tied to its age and comparatively low budget; CSI viewers may find the pacing rather slow and the image is somewhat grainy. Still, if you're willing to admit the limits of 70's French television, Les Brigades du Tigre is a terrific show, one of the few productions of ours that can measure up to the best of British and American productions.

One can't but regret that the seventh and final season was never shot due to a change of executives at Antenne 2, the network that produced and broadcasted the show - the new rulers were no fans and decided to pull the plug on it. As you can see, moronic network executives are not an American specialty.


The Wrong Hensher

Philip Hensher is no fan of "thrillers":

Thrillers are, at root, escapist and consolatory ... There is nothing wrong with being entertained by that from time to time, just as there is nothing wrong in reading about overcoming obstacles to find your great dark man in novels of romance. But there is something overdone about the extent of the thriller's grasp on us," he writes in the Telegraph. "The best thrillers are rattling good yarns in ways which Middlemarch or Buddenbrooks never aspire to be. We turn away from the unspeakable, inexplicable horrors of the newspapers, events with no resolution, into a world where a single running policeman can put everything right. You would have to be a dull reader not to enjoy that sometimes. But never to want something better, deeper, less resolved, you would have to be a moron.

He also thinks that:

the liveliness and extravagance of current genre-writing in fantasy and science fiction, such as China Miéville's remarkable novels, make the field a much more plausible candidate for literary exaltation than the rule-bound thriller.

I agree with Mr. Hensher that academism is rampant in today's crime fiction. I also agree that anything written by George Eliot or Thomas Mann, is definetely not a rattling good yarn. 

Where we part is his condemnation of "thrillers" as being the literary equivalent of comfort food (It's not; besides, what's wrong with entertaining and consolating and why would it necessarily be antagonistic to "literary" greatness?)  and being unable of any kind of innovation or originality  because of their adherence to a set of rules (One wonders what Hensher thinks of classical poetry, or the Oulipo)

As to his categorization as "morons" of readers unwilling to read the deeper, less resolved (and, probably, less entertaining) kind of fiction he advocates, it suggests respect and tolerance are among the rules Mr. Hensher successfully freed himself from. Good for him. Bad for us.

Further reading:

Steve Mosby's comprehensive takedown of Hensher's diatribe, with many good points and a marvelous last line.


Mary Elizabeth Braddon - Sur les traces du serpent (The Trail of the Serpent)

This article is bilingual. Please scroll down for the English version.

La postérité est parfois bien capricieuse: romancière à très gros tirages de son vivant, Mary Elizabeth Braddon connut après sa mort une longue période d'oubli relatif, ses oeuvres disparaissant progressivement des rayons des librairies et n'intéressant plus guère que les historiens de la littérature. Son retour en grâce au cours des trente dernières années n'en est que plus spectaculaire qui l'a vue hissée au rang de figure majeure du sensation novel, ce genre typiquement victorien dont Wilkie Collins est le plus célèbre et le plus talentueux représentant, et ses oeuvres même les plus obscures rééditées et abondamment commentées. Braddon a également trouvé sa place dans la généalogie du roman policier, grâce à son Secret de Lady Audley mis par d'aucuns sur le même plan d'importance historique et artistique que La dame en blanc ou La Pierre de Lune dudit Collins. Le phénomène n'a pas épargné la France, où les éditions des oeuvres de Braddon se sont multipliées au cours de la dernière décennie, sous la double égide de la collection Labyrinthes du Masque et des éditions Joëlle Losfeld. Domaine public aidant, les éditeurs ont parfois porté leur choix sur les mêmes livres, de sorte qu'il existe à l'heure où j'écris deux éditions du Secret de Lady Audley, dans des traductions différentes.

Sur les traces du serpent (The Trail of the Serpent) est le premier roman de Braddon, publiée en 1860. Le livre suit pour l'essentiel les faits et méfaits d'un sinistre individu se faisant appeler Jabez North puis plus tard Robert (de) Marolle, et dont le moins que l'on puisse dire est que les scrupules ne l'étouffent pas dans sa quête forcenée de la richesse et du pouvoir. Il se rend directement ou indirectement coupables de plusieurs morts avant de trouver son maître en la personne d'un inspecteur qui, pour être muet, n'a pas les yeux dans sa poche.

Bien que la quatrième de couverture insiste sur le rôle "fondamental" de ce personnage, Sur les traces du serpent n'est pas un roman policier au sens moderne du mot. Le coupable est connu dès le départ, l'enquête ne démarre pas avant la moitié du livre et le détective doit au moins autant à la chance qu'à ses talents déductifs. L'intérêt historique est donc limité. Quid de l'intérêt littéraire?

Pour un jeune auteur dont c'est la première oeuvre publiée, Braddon fait montre d'une bonne maîtrise du récit et d'une forte personnalité, manifeste dès l'ouverture du livre, laquelle est une manière de tour de force. Elle sait écrire et fait preuve d'une belle verve satirique. Mais c'est un jeune auteur, et à ce titre elle ne sait pas se borner. D'où une tendance lassante à la longue à se regarder écrire, à sermonner et à coucher sur le papier tout ce qui lui passe par la tête. Surtout, elle reste prisonnière des conventions de l'époque. L'intrigue manque de rigueur et multiplie coïncidences et épisodes mélodramatiques; le dialogue, parfois brillant, est souvent ampoulé à l'extrême - et le narrateur omniscient est tellement intrusif et verbeux que celui de Tom Jones est en comparaison un modèle de discrétion et de laconisme.

Est-ce à dire que le livre est illisible? Certes pas. Comme je l'ai dit, Braddon même à ses débuts sait trousser une histoire et créer des personnages intéressants, même si pas particulièrement profonds ni mémorables. Il s'agit juste de savoir à quoi s'attendre; Sur les traces du serpent est une oeuvre de jeunesse, tout à fait agréable si l'on fait abstraction de ses nombreux défauts, et présente tout de même un certain intérêt historique. Mais ce n'est pas le livre à lire si l'on veut s'expliquer la fortune posthume de l'auteur; on lui préférera le déjà cité Lady Audley et, surtout, ses nombreuses et souvent remarquables nouvelles, meilleures souvent que ses romans - comme beaucoup de femmes de lettres de son époque, Braddon n'a pas toujours écrit pour l'amour de l'art, et la prédilection de son époque pour les pavés n'était pas pour arranger les choses.

Posterity is a whismical mistress: a best-selling author in her lifetime, Mary Elizabeth Braddon entered a long period of near-oblivion after her death - most of her books fell out of print and only scholars expressed interest in them. Her comeback in the last thirty years is all the more impressive: suddenly she was hailed as one of the major figures of the sensation novel right up there with Wilkie Collins; her works were reissued and abundantly commented. What's more, she found a place in the genealogy tree of mystery fiction, as Lady Audley's Secret was seen by some as a pionneering work in the genre, equally important as the aforementioned Collins' The Woman in White and The Moonstone.

The Trail of the Serpent (1860) is Braddon's first novel and (mostly) concerns itself with the deeds and misdeeds of a nasty piece of work successively known as Jabez North and Richard (later "Of") Marolles. Not one to be bothered with silly things like ethics, he brings directly or indirectly several deaths and a lot of sorrow before he is finally outsmarted by a mute yet observant detective.

While the blurb of the French edition emphasizes the "fundamental" role of the latter character, The Trail of the Serpent is not a detective novel. There is no mystery as to the identity of the culprit, no investigation until halfway through the book and the sleuth's success owes as much to good luck as to his deductive skills. The book's historical interest is thus limited. What of its literary value?

For a first-published author, Braddon displays a good mastery of storytelling and a strong personality which manifests right from the virtuoso first chapter. She can write and has a sharp wit. Still, she is a freshwoman and has no sense of nuance. Hence a quickly tiresome tendency to overwriting, sermoning and digressing at her heart's content. What's worse, she remains enthralled to the literary conventions of her time. The plot lacks rigour and piles up coincidences and melodramatic situations; dialogue while at times clever is most often laughably purple - and the ominiscient narrator is so intrusive and verbose as to make that of Tom Jones look like the epitome of laconism and discretion.

Is it to say that it is an unreadable book? Certainly not. As I said before, Braddon even at this early stage of her career could tell a story and create interesting, if not particularly deep or memorable, characters. You just need to know what to expect. The Trail of the Serpent is an early work with a lot of appeal to those willing to tolerate its many flaws, and its historical interest is not to be denied. Still, this is not the one to begin with if you're trying to find out what the fuss is about Braddon. The aforementioned Audley is a better place to start, but I for one would recommend to check her abundant shorter fiction which at its best equals and possibly exceeds any of her novels - like many women writers of her time, Braddon didn't always write for the love of the craft; and living in a period when a good novel had to be long didn't make things better.


The Revolutionary Archaism of Conan Doyle

While A Study in Scarlet came out nine years after Green's The Leavenworth Case and only one year after Fergus Hume's early best-seller The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, you'd be easily forgiven for switching the chronology as Doyle's book actually seems to predate them. Doyle's contradictions as a mystery writer are in full display in the novel that introduced Sherlock Holmes to a then-indifferent world: on the one hand Doyle manages to create the final synthesis of the Great Detective and thus forever change the course of the genre; on the other, his plotting techniques are comparatively primitive and suggest that while Doyle self-admittedly had a great debt to Poe and Gaboriau, he wasn't much aware of the work of their followers.

First there is the two-part structure. Part I deals with Holmes' investigation and solving of the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson; Part II is a long (and, to some, tedious) flashback providing the background to the murders, followed by a conclusion which discusses the fate of the murderer and allows Holmes to explain how he unfolded the truth. Doyle believed like Gaboriau (and Poe) that the detective story is primarily a demonstration - the great detective takes on a problem that baffled everyone else, solves it as easy as pie and then explains how he did it. Works well for a short story; not so much for a novel - it needs some fleshing-out to be palatable, and turning back the clock is as good a way as any. Doyle borrowed the technique from Gaboriau and used it again - and much more successfully - in The Sign of Four and The Valley of Fear.

Doyle's "demonstrational" approach to mystery writing also means he has not much interest in the guilty party's identity. The murderer might be anybody, and turns out to be a character never seen or heard of prior to his designation as the Man Who - a device Doyle would use liberally in his later work. So secondary is the matter to Doyle that he gives it away halfway through the book - obviously, Drebber and Stangerson's acts in Utah were of greater significance to him.

Had Doyle written two decades earlier, none of this would have been of much concern. The problem is, the mystery genre had moved a great deal forward by the time Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet, and he apparently didn't take notice. Though neither Green or Hume was a match for Doyle in terms of literary skills, they both had showed that it was possible for a novel to focus on a mystery and its unravelling in a linear (well, almost) fashion; they had also realized the naming of the culprit was a climax in itself which worked even better when said culprit turned out to be one of the members of the cast rather than a rabbit pulled out of the hat at the last minute.

Because he was a mystery writer out of necessity rather than vocation and held his work in the genre in pretty low esteem, Doyle never really cared to 'evolve' over the years. Still, he showed at times a more modernistic approach to his craft. The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the only later Holmes story he wrote with pleasure, adopts a "modern" linear structure and for once the whodunit element really matters; it's a mystery why Doyle didn't seem to learn from this achievement and later reverted to type with the admirable yet archaic The Valley of Fear.

None of this should be taken to belittle Doyle's contribution to the genre and to literature at large. For all their occasional (and, on second thought, relatively minor) archaisms, the Sherlock Holmes stories basically set the tone for all of the detective stories to come - even hardboiled writers more or less adopted Doyle's template. Holmes is a wonderful creation and the stories bear multiple re-readings with no sign of wearing out. It's no exaggeration to call Doyle a revolutionary, one of the very few genuine ones in the history of the genre, though it's certainly a paradox.


Here's To The Ladies

Matthieu Esbrat, an old friend of mine sharing my passion for mysteries, has just created a nice Youtube video celebrating "Queens of Crime" past and present; he asked me for a link and I'm more than happy to oblige:

Matthieu's tastes being more catholic than mine, there are a lot of contemporary writers including some Scandinavians and one French. Some are easily recognized, some others much less so. A virtual glass of beer is offered to the first person to correctly identify all of them!


Nothing's New Forever

John at Pretty Sinister Books has a nice review of Helen Eustis' classic The Horizontal Man. He admits to be baffled at the initial reception and enduring status of the book and admittedly some parts of it haven't aged well at all, starting with the then-shocker of a final twist which has now entered public domain. Still, The Horizontal Man illustrates for better and for worse the mood and style of one of the most creative periods in the history of the genre.

The decade following WWII saw mystery writers breaking free from the old rules and eagerly conquering new territories. The appearance of more flexible forms made it easier to write books that dramatically expanded the scope of the genre on formal, psychological, sociological, even political grounds. Suddenly it was possible and fashionable for a mystery to have no detective, or to deal with previously taboo topics, or to dispense with any criminal element. Being a product of the era, the Edgar Awards in their early years reflected the prevailing mood.

The problem with emphasizing innovation is that it's an extremely volatile concept, especially in as derivative/emulative a genre as mystery fiction. Critics who raved about The Horizontal Man and jurors who bestowed an Edgar upon it saw it (correctly) as a book that broke new grounds and played new tricks on the reader. As Eustis' discoveries went public domain, though, all that was left was an interesting but flawed book - an artifact.


Now That's What I Don't Call Music

My reaction to contemporary pop music is easily summarized: I don't get it. God knows I've often been at odds with fashions and trends but I could at least understand the other side's arguments whereas the appeal of this, this, this or that for instance is unfathomable to me. I find these "songs" to be loud, heavy, repetitive and musically crude, and the only emotions they elicit from me are boredom and irritation. Now I realize that this stuff is primarily aimed at dancefloors as are two-thirds of pop music nowadays, but a tune can be both danced with the feet and listened with the ears. I can see how Single Ladies might eventually fit the first requirement, but the second one? Besides, is dance everything there is to music? By dint of focusing on danceability, technology and look (not necessarily in that order) that brand of pop ends letting go of the basics of not only songwriting but music as a whole. And no, I don't get it.


How Do They Say "Asking for Information" in Norwegian?

It's yard sale season here now which means I buy lots of books - even though my reader's block is still painfully in force; go figure. Among my latest purchases is a book by a Norwegian writer previously unknown to me, Gunnar Staalesen. Has anyone read him? I ask this question as I know several readers of this blog hail from Scandinavia and may be familiar with his work.


Still Here, More or Less

I haven't posted anything in almost two months and I'd like to reassure those kind enough to keep visiting the Villa: the blog is not dead, just sleepy - not for too long, I hope.

This is not the place to discuss my private life - not that I'm one to dwell on it anyway - so let's just say that I'm currently not in the mood for blogging. Not to help things out, I'm stuck with major reader's block - my house is filled with books that sound great, but the impetus to read them is missing. There again I can't but hope it doesn't last too much longer. But enough with the autobiographical stuff.

One of the reasons why I started At The Villa Rose was a perceived dearth of blogs exclusively focusing on older mystery fiction; now there were recurrent events like Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books and erudite diarists like Martin Edwards frequently payed tribute to the classics but still most of the mystery blogosphere was primarily concerned with contemporary writing. Four years on I can't say this blog is extremely popular (my very irregular posting habits certainly accounting in no little part for that) but at least it exists and I hope its few readers enjoy it overall. What's more, it's no longer alone in defending and promoting the old stuff as the excellent blogs Detection by Moonlight, At The Scene of the Crime, Pretty Sinister Books, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and Tipping My Fedora demonstrate. I've added them to my favorites and I strongly suggest you do the same.

All that could give an impression that I'm comtemplating retirement, but I'm not. While regular posting is out of the question for now, I have no plans to retire and I'll try to post at least once or twice a month, if only not to lose my grip. So keep an eye on the Villa; it's not empty yet.


It's Not All There Is

Fellow GAD-er and long-time virtual friend Curt Evans has a brilliant two-part article on "The British Golden Age of Detection's Deposed Crime Kings" at the American Culture; I strongly suggest you read it all.

Curt is right that the Crime Queens are not all there is to British Golden Age writing and tend to overshadow equally praiseworthy figures of the period. While the achievements of Christie, Sayers or Marsh (Allingham is an acquired taste, which I haven't yet acquired) are not to be denied or belittled, to equate them with Golden Age is both a fallacy and a rewriting of the past.


Quote of the day

"Both novels also include several elements from the gothic novel, including the haunted house, the clairvoyant child, and the grieving widow-bride of The Dead Letter and the tower room and sleepwalking governess of The Figure Eight. The gothicism may come as a surprise to some readers, but it probably should not if we recall the blood relation of detective fiction and gothic horror in Poe's work. The gothic mode is always oscillating between the concealment of secrets and their dramatic revelation, and we can think of detective fiction as a more rationalized patterning of the same process."

Catherine Ross Nickerson, introduction to Metta Fuller Victor's The Dead Letter & The Figure Eight, Duke University Press, p. 5


Late Golden Age (1939-1950)

This article is the third and final instalment in the Golden Age(s) series.

When we last left Golden Age writers, they were questioning - and in some cases, rejecting - their old certitudes. Dictatorships on the rise in Europe and a new war threatening made the detective story's triumphalist ethos seem increasingly shaky and artificial. Moreover, there were growing signs of impatience about the rigidity of the "rules" and a desire for a greater freedom. Newcomers displayed a more flippant, skeptical and in some cases hostile attitude to the conventions of the genre whereas the elders either tried new ways or called it quits. All this leading to and culminating with And Then They Were None, which was both a kind of apotheosis of the genre and a hint of things to come. Late Golden Age sees those trends deepen, translating by the end of the decade into a durable parting of ways between the American and British schools.

While the formal detective story remained dominant throughout the war and a major force afterwards, it was no longer the only player on the field. Moreover, it experienced some drastic changes though in a comparatively mild fashion. The cases of Ellery Queen and Patrick Quentin are very representative of the new directions taken by the genre.

Queen's earliest works were superior imitations of the then-reigning king of American detective fiction, S.S. Van Dine. By the mid-thirties, however, they had become tired with challenges to the reader and from Halfway House (1936) progressively ditched most of their vandinian mannerisms with Ellery for instance changing from a brainy snob into a fallible and somewhat sentimental fellow, leading to that turning point, Calamity Town (1942) What makes this book important is not its plotting (adequate, nothing more) but that Queen, that most baroque of all detective writers, finally discovers America. The setting is an ordinary American little town, Wrightsville, and the characters are not that spectacular either - they're ordinary people, a brand that mysteries tended to neglect at the time (and still do to some extent, but that's a subject for another article) Queen did not transform overnight into a naturalist writer - some of their wildest plots were still ahead of them - but most of their later work kept that "realistic" approach to setting and character.

Patrick Quentin's trajectory is an even more radical one as they proceeded and succeeded to ditch the cerebral element out of the detective story - the Puzzle books featuring Peter & Iris Duluth, while keeping all of the trappings and surprises of the genre, take on a wholly different direction. The Duluths are no dilettante detectives toying with crime; they are personally (and in most cases, dangerously) involved in the cases. By taking the focus away from those who solve the puzzle to those who are embedded in it, Quentin plays a decisive part in the rise of a new genre: psychological suspense.

Though I chose American (or in Quentin's case, America-based) examples, similar trends were at work in Britain where the flamboyant amateur genius of the previous period slowly made way for more down-to-earth characters, most often professional detectives or lawyers. The setting changed as well, becoming more urban and, yes, democratic. The move away from country houses and upper classes to great cities and people of the common had actually begun in the thirties, but only with the war did it became a heavy trend. From Christianna Brand to Michael Gilbert nearly all of the British talents to emerge during the period are modernists opting for daily-life settings and casting people of the law as heroes.

Where America and Britain diverged was on what new clothings the genre took. The American school, which had always been more flexible, readily embraced psychological suspense as a way to continue the detective story by other means. The new genre allowed for all the shenanigans of the old while being much more plastic and better-suited to the post-war reader's taste for fast-paced, thrilling narratives. Hardboiled fiction, too, showed interest in some "traditional" techniques and themes.

Both genres were marginal in Britain, and remained durably so. Besides, most British authors were quite happy with the basic structure of the detective story; they updated it stylistically, sociologically and - we shall see - philosophically and politically, but left the fundamentals intact. However, a sizeable minority led by increasingly influential newcomer Julian Symons retained Iles and Hull's lessons and decided to either do away with the puzzle or at least downplay it considerably in favor of psychology and social comment. Detective stories rebranded as police procedurals on one hand and "crime novels" on the other would be the dominant players on the British field for the next four decades, only marginally threatened by spy novels and thrillers.

Changes I've discussed so far were for the most part of a formalistic nature, affecting how detective stories were written. The deepest changes at work, however, were of an intellectual order. Detective story up to the late Thirties had been a fundamentally elitist genre, not only sociologically but philosophically, putting society's security in the hands of superminds unconcerned with procedures and the subtleties of law. It also displayed a strong metaphysic optimism, assuming that the world was an ordered place and crime a momentary and remediable disruption of said order. However, beginning in the years immediately preceding the war, some writers began to challenge the dominant worldview. The rise of the professional detectiveand the general trend towards the humanization of the detective figure, which I've discussed earlier, are the most visible symptoms of this change of mood, but more subtle ones could also be observed, such as the greater attention paid to secondary characters not just as suspects or sidekicks but as human beings; the growing skepticism of existing social order; the willingness to mock the rules of the genre; the realization that bringing a solution to the problem doesn't mean that everything will be fine again.

The book with which we'll end this survey and this series typifies all of these changes. On the outside, Cyril Hare's An English Murder is the uber-traditional mystery, with all of its components straight out of the Golden Age textbook: a country house, gentry people, murder, amateur detective. What makes it different is its outlook. The class-system is in tatters and survives paradoxically because of the servants' dogged refusal to let it go, the gentry is more to be pitied or ridiculed than admired and suffers a particularly nasty blow in the end, the new ruling classes are not better than the old - and the amateur sleuth solving it all is a foreigner who is one of only a handful decent people in the book and happens to know English law and history better than the natives. That the book is in many ways a remake of Styles adds to its subversive power. We'll never know for sure what were Hare's intentions in writing it, but as an eulogy for an era it was quite perfect.

John Barry, R.I.P.



Je souhaite aux lecteurs de ce blog (et aux autres) une très bonne année; puisse le meilleur vous gâter, et le pire vous oublier. 

I wish readers of this blog (and others) a very happy new year; may it bring you all of the Best, and none of the Worst.

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