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?

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