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.

Archives du blog