Ainsi donc 2012 s'en va, et 2013 s'en vient. J'espère que cette année qui se termine vous a été dans l'ensemble propice, et vous laissera davantage de bons souvenirs que de mauvais. Puisse la nouvelle année être encore meilleure, et ce dans tous les domaines.

So 2012 is coming to its end, and 2013 is on the way up. I hope the past year was mostly a good one for you, with good memories outweighing the bad ones. May the new year be even better in every respect.


I am very saddened to hear about the passing of Maxine Clarke, who blogged at Petrona. She was an articulate, passionate defender and promoter of the mystery genre and by all accounts, a beautiful person as well. All my sympathy is with her family and her friends.


Deadlier Than The Male

CADS 64 is out and it's all great stuff as usual. Of particular interest to this blogger is Josef Hoffman's in-depth article about post-WW2 women suspense writers. The current academic, critical and popular lack of interest for the likes of Charlotte Armstrong, Margaret Millar, Ursula Curtiss and others has long been an object of dismay, puzzlement and frustration to me. At a time when critics rave about books that "transcend the genre" you might think there would be some recognition for authors who paved the way, sometimes in much more radical a fashion than anything written today. Also, feminists should celebrate a period when women writers were arguably edgier (and, in some cases, more successful) than their male colleagues. And yet the "Queens of Suspense" barely get a mention in studies of the genre, except for the very atypical Patricia Highsmith. 

It may have to do with the nebulousness of "Suspense" as a concept. Of all mystery subgenres it is certainly the hardest one to define, in part because it encompasses a wide variety of approaches. There may be obvious differences between The Nine Tailors and The Judas Window but there's no denying both are whodunits, following each in its own fashion the basic structure and rules of the whodunit genre. You'd be hard-pressed on the other hand to find such common ground between, say, Armstrong's A Dram of Poison and Millar's A Stranger in my Grave. Suspense fiction may derive from the traditional mystery or HIBK or the psychological crime novel; it may even incorporate some hardboiled elements. Its identity doesn't lie in what it is but what it does - you just don't read a novel by Mary Higgins Clark the same way that you read one by P.D. James and the experience is markedly different - and it's a major problem in a time like ours when books are supposed to fit in well-delineated categories. 

Further reading

"Atomic Renaissance" by Jeffrey Marks

CADS 64 (and its predecessors) can be ordered via Geoff Bradley, 9 Vicarage Hill, South Benfleet, Essex, SS7 1PA. 



It's Complicated

One of the most enduring misconceptions about the mystery genre is associating traditional mysteries with Britain whereas hardboiled would be something uniquely American. As with most misconceptions it has some truth to it. The best-known, best-selling traditional mystery writer ever, Agatha Christie, was British, and nearly all of the major names in hardboiled fiction are American. But a closer look shows things are not so clear-cut. 

First, it has to be noted that the traditional mystery originated in America, though it failed to make an immediate impact there (or anywhere else for that matter) The genre then grew and matured in Europe before finally making it home in the late nineteenth century, thanks in large part to the runaway success of a certain Sherlock Holmes. If American mystery writers at the turn of the century were greatly indebted to Conan Doyle, they soon found their own voices and a distinctively American school emerged. 

Second and consequence of First, the Golden Age was not a solely British affair. The Americans too craved for great detectives, convoluted plots and quirky modus operandi - and local authors were all too happy to oblige. As difficult to believe as it may seem to us now, Philo Vance and Thatcher Colt actually coexisted with the harder-edged Sam Spade and Race Williams. American Golden Age fiction tended to be more outlandish and less serious and  "protocolary" than its British counterpart; some of the most innovative, original and sometimes radical Golden Age mysteries were written by Americans.

Third, British crime fiction between the wars was much less uniform than the perusal of the Crime Queens would have one believe. The Detective Novel was not the only form competing for readers' attention; it had to deal with a cruder yet extremely popular rival, the Thriller. Now most often associated with the blood-and-thunder stakhanovist Edgar Wallace, this genre was actually extremely varied in style and tone - and some thrillers (David Hume's Mick Cardby novels for instance) with their emphasis on action, violence and somewhat confused plotlines bore more than a faraway resemblance to hardboiled fiction. 

Only after WWII did the lines become firmly (or more firmly) entrenched. Both the American and British school sensed a need for change, but they reacted differently. While the Americans ushered in the newfound territories of hardboiled and psychological suspense, the Brits mostly stuck to their guns - fallible police detectives replaced amateur detectives and the setting moved from the upper class to the lower ones, but the traditional apparatus remained - only in the Nineties would hardboiled/noir become a significant force on the British mystery scene. 


Rêver, peut-être...

Alors que plusieurs blogs anglophones consacrés en tout ou partie au roman d'énigme sont apparus depuis le lancement d'A La Villa Rose en 2007, c'est peu de dire que le domaine francophone ne fait pas preuve de la même activité. Le seul blog en français qui parle de romans policiers classiques ou apparentés est, à ma connaissance, l'excellent Sur les lieux du crime de l'ami Patrick.

Est-ce à dire que les Français n'aiment pas le roman d'énigme? Agatha Christie demeure très populaire, et Paul Halter bénéficie d'un lectorat fidèle et enthousiaste. Le grand public fait des triomphes à des auteurs et des séries télévisées très proches du genre. Alors pourquoi ce relatif désintérêt?

Il y a d'abord le rejet ancien d'un roman d'énigme - forcément "anglais" - qui serait aride, mécanique, ennuyeux. Le roman policier français, même dans sa forme la plus classique, s'est toujours voulu libre de tout carcan formel et porteur d'ambitions "littéraires" a priori incompatibles avec un modèle jugé stérile et trop contraignant. Il y a ensuite la longue et persistante hégémonie du noir sur le paysage policier français. Même si la situation a un peu évolué au cours des deux dernières décennies, le noir - ou ce qui passe pour tel - continue de se tailler la part du lion dans les rubriques spécialisées comme à la saison des prix. Et le terme "roman noir" englobe désormais toutes les formes de littérature criminelle, au prix de contresens flagrants (je me souviens notamment d'un journaliste parlant de P.D. James comme de "la reine du roman noir"!) 

Tout cela aboutit à la marginalisation d'un genre qui mérite pourtant beaucoup mieux que les clichés auxquels le réduit une certaine critique qui pense en avoir fait le tour en lisant quelques romans d'Agatha Christie (et qui découvre Margery Allingham avec soixante ans de retard...) 

Que faire? En parler, pour commencer. Et c'est pourquoi je vais tâcher à l'avenir de bloguer davantage en français. Qui sait? Je ferai peut-être école, et inciterai les autres fans francophones de whodunits et de chambres closes à sortir du bois. Après tout, il n'est pas interdit de rêver.


A Little Game

Who said this?

"I have been more interested as the years go by in the preliminaries of crime. The interplay of character upon character, the deep smouldering resentments and dissatisfactions that do not always come to the surface but which may suddenly explode into violence."

One clue: S/He was British. 

The first person to come up with the right answer will win... my sincerest admiration.


The Revolutionary Archaism of Conan Doyle, cont'd

"As he freely admitted, Conan Doyle learned a lot about how to write detective stories from Poe. Indeed, without Conan Doyle, Poe's brand of detective character might not have survived. Dupin lacked most of the prerequisites of a popular, memorable, successful literary character. Sherlock Holmes, however, while exhibiting the same intellectual equipment possessed all of the human qualities that Dupin lacked. Nonetheless, in spite of Conan Doyle's successful transformation of Poe's Dupin into an appealing literary hero, Conan Doyle never quite fully understood the principal purpose of Poe's hero or of Poe's tales - he never understood that they were essentially designed to develop and satisfy a new relationship between writer and reader that shifted the purpose of the crime novel from evoking sentiment to playing a game. And, at the turn of the century, Conan Doyle was not alone in this. It was the same mistake made by Gaboriau and by almost everybody else writing detective stories in the 19th century who saw the core of the detective story as an exhibition of reasoning to be admired as opposed to a game to be played between the writer and reader. This recognition took another generation and became the motive force behind the golden age of detective fiction in Britain and America."

LeRoy Lad Panek, The Origins of the American Detective Story, p.216.


And The Winner Is.../Et le gagnant est...

In reviewing this year's Edgar nominees I expressed the hope that a foreign writer would scoop the Best Novel award, breaking the parochial streak of the last decade. My wishes have been exauced as the winner (Mo Hayder, for Gone) hails from the UK and, what's more, is the first female winner in almost ten years (S.J. Rozan was the most recent one, winning in 2003 for Winter and Night)

I must admit I would have preferred the committee to be more adventurous and bestow the award on one of the two foreign-language nominees; hopefully it's only a beginning and coming years will see more non-English-speaking writers being nominated and even, let's dream a little, win. 

The Edgars' fascination for anything Doyle manifested again with Michael Dirda taking the Best Critical Work award home while a play tellingly titled The Game's afoot won Best Play (the other nominee was also a sherlock-themed affair) The only one not to benefit from this perennial trend was Neil Gaiman whose pastiche The Case of Death and Honey lost in the Best Short Story category to Peter Turnbull's The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train. Mr. Gaiman is not lucky with the MWA: his previous foray into Sherlock territory, the superb A Study in Emerald, had been completely ignored by the Edgars while winning several awards in the sci-fi/fantasy field. 

C'est donc l'anglaise Mo Hayder qui a remporté la nuit dernière l'Edgar du meilleur roman. Elle est le premier auteur étranger (comprenez: non-américain) à recevoir le prix depuis Jason Goodwin en 2007, et le premier lauréat féminin depuis S.J. Rozan en 2003. 

J'avoue que j'aurais préféré que le jury se montre plus aventureux et récompense l'un des deux romans traduits (1222 de Anne Holt, et Le dévouement du suspect X de Higashino Keigo) qui étaient nominés. J'espère que ce n'est que partie remise et que d'autres auteurs non-anglophones seront nominés et, qui sait, gagneront dans les années à venir.

Le tropisme doylien des Edgars s'est manifesté une nouvelle fois avec la victoire de Michael Dirda (On Conan Doyle) dans la catégorie Meilleur Ouvrage Critique, tandis qu'une pièce intitulée The Game's Afoot remportait le prix de la Meilleure Pièce. Le seul à ne pas profiter de ces bonnes dispositions est Neil Gaiman, dont le pastiche sherlockien The Case of Death and Honey (L'affaire de la mort et du miel) s'est vu supplanté dans la catégorie Meilleure Nouvelle par The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train (L'homme qui tirait son chapeau au conducteur du train) de Peter Turnbull. M. Gaiman n'a pas beaucoup de chance avec les Edgars qui avaient déjà ignoré sa première incursion en Holmésie, le superbe Une étude en vert. 


NOT The End

Intended as an April's Fool Day joke, my post on my conversion to noir proved to be quite effective. Too much effective, perhaps, as I still get comments and mails from readers thinking this change of heart is for real. As the French saying goes, the best jokes are the shortest and so I think it's time for some clarification. 

I'm not quitting, nor do I plan to in the near or distant future.

I'm still a (mostly) traditional-minded mystery fan. The edgier stuff I read is Thomas H. Cook. 

This blog will continue (at its famously irregular pace, so don't let any prolonged silence worry you) 

There will be no changes made to the editorial line. You can still expect articles on long-forgotten writers or the role of fingerprints in late-20s British crime fiction (good idea).

In brief, stay reassured that At the Villa Rose is still At the Villa Rose. 

And now back to (fictional) crime. 


L'homme qui expliquait les miracles

Sans John Dickson Carr, vous ne liriez probablement pas ce blog. C'est la découverte émerveillée de l'oeuvre du maître des chambres closes qui fit définitivement bifurquer l'adolescent que j'étais vers le roman policier, tendance classique. Un quart de siècle plus tard, il demeure l'un de mes auteurs fétiches, l'un de ces heureux élus que je revisite régulièrement et dont je ne me lasse pas de chanter les louanges. Et celui qui s'avise d'en dire du mal devant moi, il a intérêt à courir vite.

Roland Lacourbe, lui aussi, est un fan. C'est même le fan numéro un de JDC en France, celui qui a le plus fait pour faire connaître et apprécier le natif d'Uniontown dans nos contrées; les carrophiles gaulois lui doivent beaucoup. Paru en 1998 aux indispensables éditions Encrage, son John Dickson Carr: scribe du miracle est un ouvrage en tous points remarquable, qui complète la superbe biographie (hélas inédite chez nous) de Douglas G. Greene. Lacourbe passe au crible l'oeuvre de Carr - les romans, les nouvelles, les pièces radiophoniques, les adaptations cinématographiques et télévisuelles - avec un enthousiasme et une érudition qui font plaisir à lire. Je ne suis pas d'accord avec tous ses jugements: je trouve en particulier qu'il a tendance à trop se focaliser sur l'intrigue et l'orthodoxie au détriment des qualités littéraires (réelles, n'en déplaise à certains) de l'oeuvre.  Je le rejoins par contre quand il fait remarquer que La chambre ardente (The Burning Court, 1937) qui est un chef-d'oeuvre, n'est pas le seul à l'actif d'un auteur qui disparaît trop souvent derrière ce seul livre. Et oui, Le barbier aveugle (The Blind Barber, 1934) est un livre désopilant. 

Si vous aimez John Dickson Carr et le roman d'énigme, ce livre doit trouver sa place dans votre bibliothèque - mais il y a de fortes chances qu'il y soit déjà.  


The End

All good things must come to an end. So does this blog. I know my few but faithful readers will be shocked at the news but hopefully they will understand that intellectual honesty leaves me no other choice. My views on mystery fiction have dramatically evolved over the last weeks. 

It all began when I re-read Julian Symons's Bloody Murder which I hadn't read for a long time. To my surprise I found his stance less irritating, and some of his arguments struck me as sound. I was troubled - to say the least. I followed with Chandler's Simple Art of Murder and my reaction was the same - I found myself in almost complete agreement with him even as he eviscerated some of my favorite writers. How could it be? 

I thought revisiting the classics would bring me back to my sense. Alas! Quite the opposite happened. I found Christie boring and repetitive, Carr annoyingly unrealistic and mechanical; better not to say what I thought of Queen, Sayers or Marsh. Painful as it was, I had to admit Chandler and Symons had been right all along: Golden Age fiction just wasn't that good.

Still, I didn't want to give up on mystery fiction as a whole. So I tried other sub-genres I had thus neglected such as hardboiled and noir - and then came another surprise. I discovered that I liked those stories of tough guys and femmes fatales, the sparse writing, the unflinchingness in confronting the evils of society and the darkest side of life. Noir in particular was a revelation to me with authors like James Ellroy (whom I used to despise) and Jim Thompson suddenly becoming favorites of mine - I couldn't get enough of their stuff! I also reconciled myself with the French school of noir fiction: For years I had dissed the likes of Jean-Bernard Pouy or Didier Daeninckx and now I found they were actually terrific writers whose talent easily eclipsed those of my former favorites. Noir was the real thing! How could I have ignored it for so long?

So I'm closing on the doors of The Villa Rose but I'm not quitting blogging. I'm launching a new blog devoted to noir fiction, which I'll name The Dark Palace to keep some kind of a continuity with this one - it's always about houses! I'm aware many of my readers won't like my new stance but hey, that's just the way I feel and I can't change that. 

My new blog. 


At the Scene of the Crime

Patrick kindly invited me on his blog to discuss René Reouven's 1996 crime novel "Souvenez-Vous de Monte-Cristo" (Remember Monte-Cristo) That's my first attempt at a four-hand composition and I quite liked it, I hope you will enjoy it too.


Des nouvelles de René Reouven

Les apparitions publiques de René Reouven sont rares, très rares. On ne manquera donc pas cette (très et trop) courte vidéo où l'auteur du Détective volé parle de l'un de ses sujets de prédilection, Sherlock Holmes.

Signalons que Reouven vient de rompre plusieurs années de silence avec la publication d'un juvénile, Un trésor dans l'ombre, aux éditions Mango. Loué soit Jacques Baudou qui l'a convaincu de reprendre la plume!


Chamber Music - Tribute to Lucio Dalla

In Praise of... Julian Symons

Julian Symons was one of the most important crime/mystery writers to emerge in the years following WWII but you'd hardly guess it from the absent celebrations of his centennial. Though some of his books are still in print, the author of The Progress of a Crime is all but forgotten today. And it's a crying shame.

Readers of this blog know that I don't see eye to eye with Symons the critic. His opinions on the evolution of the genre or about some specific authors are not mine. But he certainly was one of the most knowledgeable and perceptive people ever to write on crime fiction, and while Bloody Murder certainly made (and occasionnaly still makes) my blood boil, it also introduced me to some writers I'd have been very, very sorry to miss: Symons, as he said about Chandler, was a very good critic of the work he liked. The nuance is an important one.

Symons wasn't just good at writing about other people's books; he also wrote some great books of his own. Unlike most ideologues (Yes I'm talking about you, Willard and Raymond!) he really practiced what he preached - most of the time. Having decided early that the traditional mystery form was too restrictive for his ambitions he tried and found new ways, new approaches. There is no mystery to speak of in his masterpiece, the Edgar-winning The Progress of a Crime but the book is a consummate example of what Symons termed the Crime Novel: sharp, powerful and uncompromising. Symons clearly had his point of view, but neither there or in the rest of his work did he let it stand in the way of objectivity. Were all "Crime Novels" like Symons's, I wouldn't spend my time complaining about modern fare. Yet, for all his professed modernism, Symons maintained a (guilty?) fondness for the clever, intricate plots of yore and he sometimes let it slip in his work. He was a much more complex figure than his public image allows.

His current neglect stems from two sources. First is that mystery fiction has a really short memory. We're no good at preserving the memories of our great men and women; Symons is just one of many important writers who fell under the radar after their death. Second is that the kind of crime fiction that is now prevalent is a far cry from that which Symons advocated and practiced. In the final edition of Bloody Murder Symons made clear that he had no time for noir, graphically violent thrillers or what he termed the "anti-establishment school" of crime fiction. To a modern critic his dismissal of such"luminaries"as James Ellroy, Robin Cook, Elmore Leonard or Thomas Harris sounds as blasphemy - and indeed Symons told about how a journalist interviewing him was taken aback by his (negative) judgment of Andrew Vachss. Hard to imagine Symons praising Denise Mina or Lee Child, though he might have liked Minette Walters or Thomas H. Cook.

Further reading:

Symons's list of the 100 best mysteries ever. Guess what, some items are on my list too.

Martin Edwards on Bloody Murder. Includes personal recollection of the man.

The Simple Art of Murder (not Chandler's treatise, but an exchange between Patrick and Sergio about Bloody Murder)


Eliot in Murderland

A rare fixed point in an ever-changing universe, every new issue of CADS is brimming with great stuff, and Number 62 makes no exception. Among the highlights is Curtis Evans's typically well-researched and insightful piece on T.S. Eliot's mystery criticism. Yes, that T.S. Eliot.

The fondness of the author of The Waste Land for detective stories is not exactly news. His enthusiastic endorsement of The Moonstone has graced many editions of the book. Neither is it very surprising. Detective stories were always popular with modernist writers from Bertolt Brecht and William Faulkner to Jorge Luis Borges and Gertrude Stein. Opposition mostly came (and still comes) from more conservative-minded people for whom the nineteenth century novel remained the impassable horizon of literature. What's really surprising, and extremely interesting, is the kind of detective fiction that appealed most to the future Nobel laureate.

While his defence of The Moonstone might lead one to believe Eliot favored those detective writers who aimed at literary significance, he was actually quite fond of "pure" puzzles, extolling the works of Agatha Christie, R. Austin Freeman, S.S. Van Dine and the "humdrums" J.J. Connington and Freeman Wills Crofts. So passionate was he about what John Dickson Carr would later call "The Grandest Game in the World" that he even deviced a set of rules for "good" detective fiction, predating those by Knox and Van Dine by some years. Authors who tried to "push the envelope" seem not to have been his cup of tea as his notable silence on Sayers suggest. This is not to say that Eliot didn't care at all for the "human element" but he realized that the combination of strong characterization and intricate plotting was a heavy task and a choice sometimes had to be made:

"Without dispraise of any individual writer we may be allowed to complain that modern detective fiction in general is weak in that it fails between two possible tasks. . . . It has neither the austerity, the pure intellectual pleasure of Poe's "Marie Roget", nor has it the fulness and abundance of life of Wilkie Collins. We often wish that the majority of our detective writers would concentrate on the detective interest, or take more trouble and space over the characters as human beings and the atmosphere in which they live."


If this made you want for more, I strongly suggest you ask for your copy of CADS to 9 Vicarage Hill, South Benfleet, Essex, SS7 1PA, United Kingdom. You won't be disappointed.


Good Lieutenant

It's sale season in France and I seized the occasion to finally acquire the complete Columbo series at a bargain price. The series was one of my first introductions to the mystery genre and remains a personal favorite despite, or thanks to, multiple viewings. What fascinates me most is how the show stayed fresh for most of its course while essentially telling the same story over and over again; only L&O in its prime managed the same feat. Formulaic it was, but intelligently so: modern executives take notice!

Also it was and remains quite an achievement to make an iconic figure out of a character about whom so little is actually known. His first name remains shrouded into mystery. He is the only source for information on his personal and family background and we can never be 100% sure whether what he says is true. For instance he incessantly talks about his wife but she never appears on screen, and it's unclear whether they have kids; the only member of his family we ever meet is... his dog.

The most puzzling thing about Lieutenant Columbo, however, is his forever "underdog" status. How can a detective who tackles - and solves! - only high-profile cases remain such an obscure figure? In the course of his career Columbo sent senators, country singers, film stars, secret agents and the likes to jail and yet no one seems ever to have heard about his exploits - suspects keep taking him for a bumbling fool despite abundant past evidence that he isn't. Rather implausible, but then implausibility often makes for great fiction as any mystery fan knows - and Columbo brilliantly testifies to that.


The Problem With "The Final Problem"

While one of the pivotal tales in the Canon - Sherlock Holmes dies! - The Final Problem is also one of the weakest. Despite its misleading title, this is not a detective story at all and the plot upon close examination makes little sense. Moriarty in particular is little more than a deus ex machina which Doyle conveniently pulls out of his hat so as to cause Sherlock's death; that he came to become one of the most famous characters in the Holmesverse is thus extremely ironical.

Of course these weaknesses may be explained away by the simple fact that Doyle was looking for the easiest way to get rid of a cumbersome character but even as a hatchet job The Final Problem is rather feeble; by no producing a corpse it leaves the door open to a possible "resurrection". Which leads us to the Big Question: Did Doyle really want to kill his creature? He could have settled the matter once and for all by giving him a proper "burial"; Holmes certainly would have had difficulties rising of the dead had his body been found and taken to the grave. Agatha Christie did this with Poirot and it's certainly one of the reasons why we don't see pastiches and continuations popping up on the shelves.

Doubts are furthered by the way Holmes was ultimately "revived". He had first returned with The Hound of the Baskervilles which Doyle stressed was set prior to the detective's "death". This approach was a sensible one and Doyle might have kept up with it; it was certainly simpler and more "realistic" than asking readers to believe Holmes had survived and spent years in hiding across the world before reappearing in a somewhat melodramatic fashion. So why did Doyle choose this latter option? And why does this "resurrection" fit so well with the events in The Final Problem, looking like their logical outcome rather than a later, recalcitrant change of heart? Is it possible Doyle knew all along that Holmes might be back someday?


The P-word

Like it or not, mystery fiction is a very plot-driven genre. This is not to say that plot trumps everything - characterization, writing, setting have their importance as well - but plotting is more crucial to mystery fiction than it is to, say, sci-fi or western; one might even say that it is a defining feature of it. How comes then that modern critics tend to focus on a mystery novel's literary virtues, while either downplaying or ignoring outright plot?

An obvious answer is that many contemporary mysteries tend to be stronger in the literary department than the plotting one, not necessarily because their authors are weak plotters but simply because their interests are elsewhere. And yet "literary" mysteries with strong plots get the same treatment. A good example is Thomas H. Cook who is regularly (and rightly) praised for the elegance of his prose and the depth and richness of his characterization but almost never for his plots even though he is arguably the finest plotter in American crime fiction since Margaret Millar (with whom he has a lot in common, but I'll leave that for another post) I do agree with critics that Instruments of the Night or Red Leaves are fascinating studies in character and tragedy, but they're also masterful exercises in bamboozling and their final twists are central to the books' effects.

One of the mistakes that dragged so much of "literary" fiction into the pit of irrelevance and self-indulgence was to discard plot as unimportant. It is thus worrying to see mystery critics follow in the same trap. A good plot, as any serious mystery buff knows, is a hard thing to find - and it should be celebrated rather than swept under the rug. The P-word is not a dirty word.


And The Nominees Are.../Et les nominés sont...

The nominations for the 2012 Edgar Awards are out. My thoughts:

- I've been complaining for years about the awards being too insular so I'm glad to see that four out of five Best Novel nominees are foreign; what's more, two hail from non-English-speaking countries! Let's hope it translates into an actual foreign winner, the last one to date being Jason Goodwin's The Janissary Tree in 2007.

- The Edgars should contemplate renaming themselves the Arthurs or the Conans, for they really seem in thrall of anything doylean. Michael Dirda is nominated in the Best Critical/Biography category for his latest book on Doyle and Neil Gaiman lands a (way overdue) nomination for Best Short Story with a sherlockian pastiche whereas both Best Play nominees reference the Great Detective. This makes Anthony Horowitz's much-hyped and critically acclaimed The House of Silk failing to get a nomination all the more surprising!

- The apparent absence of any Best Picture nominees tells probably a lot about last year's cinematic offering, though I can think of one worthy nominee or two.

On connaît à présent les nominations pour les Edgars; voici quelques pensées en vrac.

- Le grand évènement est sans aucun doute l'ouverture sur le monde après plusieurs années de relative insularité: quatre des cinq auteurs nominés pour le prix du meilleur roman sont étrangers; mieux, deux d'entre eux (Hagishino et Holt) viennent de pays non-anglophones! Rappelons que le dernier auteur étranger - non-américain si vous préférez - est l'anglais Jason Goodwin (Le complot des Janissaires) en 2007 et qu'aucun ouvrage traduit n'a été couronné depuis 1971 (Le policier qui rit, de Sjöwall & Wahlöö).

- Les Edgars devraient sérieusement envisager de changer de nom et de s'appeler les Arthurs ou les Conans, car rien de ce qui est doylien ne leur est étranger! Ainsi, le critique Michael Dirda est nominé dans la catégorie Meilleur Ouvrage Critique ou Biographique pour son dernier livre consacré à Doyle tandis que Neil Gaiman reçoit une nomination (bien méritée) pour une nouvelle sherlockienne; sans parler des deux pièces nominées pour le prix de la Meilleure Pièce, dont les titres se passent de commentaire... On ne peut donc que s'étonner de l'absence dans la liste de La maison de soie de Anthony Horowitz, dont la sortie s'est pourtant accompagné d'un vaste battage publicitaire et médiatique.

- Pas de nominés dans la catégorie Meilleur Film cette année. Cela en dit long sur la qualité de l'offre en 2011, quoique l'on aurait pu aisément sauver un film ou deux.


A Historical Event

Historical mystery fan (and fellow GAD-er) Alan Cassaday-Bishop has just started a blog which he intends to be a "forum for comment" on his readings. Alan is the man behind Criminal History, a fine website about - you've guessed it - historical mysteries; need I say that I strongly advise you to visit it?

The Great Detective is back... on TV

I haven't seen the British crime drama Luther for which Idris Elba just won a Golden Globe but its premise and creator Neil Cross admitting he took inspiration from Sherlock Holmes make it part of a most interesting trend in current television: the return of the Great Detective.

It's fair to say that the concept hadn't been very popular in the last decades, mostly because television's focus had increasingly moved away from the individual. Whereas most crime shows from the 50's to the 70's had been built around a single, often eponymous, character, ensemble police procedurals had dominated the airwaves in the 80s and 90s. The motto was realism, with cops being shown as everyday, flawed people working as a team to solve "regular" cases. The often impersonal titles of those shows - Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets or Brooklyn South - reflected that new direction.

Then came a new century and all of a sudden everything changed. Adrian Monk, Robert Goren, Charlie Crews, Brenda Leigh Johnson, Shawn Spencer or Richard Castle - to name just a few - returned the eccentric detective with golden little grey cells to the small screen. Even a non-mystery show like House, M.D. featured a protagonist explicitly modelled after Sherlock Holmes. This ongoing phenomenon is all the more interesting as the Great Detective (for lack of a better term) has scarcely been seen on print recently and its revival as of now remains confined to television. It probably has a lot to do with practical concerns: obviously it is easier to create and manage a show with a single protagonist than an ensemble; also, the modern Great Detective almost always comes with the quasi-contractual angst and personal problems. But it's still good news to the traditional mystery fan as it suggests the genre keeps its appeal and can adapt to the times; it also suggests than not all revolutions (and the rise of the ensemble, modular procedural was undoubtedly one) are irreversible.


Pour saluer Reginald Hill

C'est peu de dire que Reginald Hill, qui vient de nous quitter à l'âge de soixante-quinze ans, n'est pas très connu du public français, bien qu'il ait remporté le Prix du Roman d'Aventures en 1990 pour "Un amour d'enfant" (Child's Play en VO) Il fut ensuite l'un des auteurs-maison du Masque pendant une quinzaine d'années, sans jamais devenir une de ces figures "cultes" que l'on invite dans les festivals et auxquels les revues branchées consacrent leurs numéros. Hill avait le tort d'être étiquetté "classique" - anglais, qui plus est! - dans un pays qui ne jure que par le noir.

Classique, pourtant, Hill ne l'avait jamais vraiment été. Le mot ne peut s'appliquer sans rire à un personnage aussi hénaurme que son héros, le superintendant Andrew Dalziel ("Fat Andy" pour les intimes) Vulgaire, cynique, peu soucieux des règles et des convenances, le bonhomme est une offense permanente au politiquement correct et aux valeurs bourgeoises. Il forme un tandem merveilleusement mal assorti (et donc indestructible) avec le très "civilisé" Peter Pascoe. Tous deux évoluent dans une Angleterre très éloignée du petit monde douillet auquel ceux qui n'y connaissent rien réduisent trop souvent le roman policier anglais. Les thèmes abordés, leur traitement n'ont rien d'édulcoré, bien au contraire. Hill fait preuve du même esprit frondeur dans ses intrigues, et son approche du genre. Si ses premiers livres suivent assez fidèlement les sentiers du police procedural, les oeuvres ultérieures deviendront de plus en plus inclassables, Hill multipliant les expériences narratives, les références littéraires, les emprunts à d'autres genres: l'un de ses derniers romans traduits en français, Soeurs d'armes, réécrit l'Illiade! Toutes ces qualités se retrouvent en mineur dans son oeuvre "non-dalzielienne" comme la série de romans humoristiques mettant en scène le détective privé Joe Sixsmith ou les thrillers signés Patrick Ruell.

Alors oui, certes, ce n'est pas du noir. Ce n'est pas Ian Rankin. Mais il n'y a pas que le noir dans la vie. Et lire Reginald Hill est de ces choses qui la rendent plus belle. Espérons qu'un éditeur nous donne un jour de nouveau cette chance.

Suggestions de lectures:

Le partage des os (Bones and Silence, 1990 - qui valut à Hill le Gold Dagger Award)
Retour vers le présent (Recalled to Life, 1992)
Un si beau tableau (Pictures of Perfection, 1994)
Au bois mourant (The Wood Beyond, 1996)
Les chemins de l'enfer (On Beulah Height, 1998)
Les dialogues des morts (Dialogues of the Dead, 2002)
Good Morning Midnight (2006, inédit en France)


Some Modest Proposals

One of the blogger's most cherished prerogatives is that he can give his opinion even when no one is asking - especially when no one is asking. So, as the time nighs when the nominees for this year's Edgar Awards are announced, I'd like to give the MWA some unrequited advice. Readers of this blog know I've long been interested in the most famous mystery award in the world (I even did a six-part series on the Best Novel prize some years ago) despite often scratching my heads at the comittees's choices. My aim in making these suggestions is to make the Edgars more reflective of the scope and variety of the mystery field while correcting some glaring injustices in the current process. The MWA are free to ignore them (which they'll probably do) or pick those they see fit or even the whole lot (I can dream, can't I?)

So here we go.

1°) Shorter fiction matters. There are currently five competive awards for novels but only two (counting the Robert L. Fish award) for shorter works. Considering that the Edgars honour the memory of one of the greatest short-story writers of all time, that's rather odd. Create distinct categories for proper short stories, novellas and novelettes would be a nice way to set the balance right and recognize the crucial importance past and present of short fiction to the genre.

2°) Stop discriminating against paperbacks. Why should a terrific novel be barred from competing for the Best Novel just because it was published as a paperback? It's discrimination plain and simple and like all discriminations it has little basis in fact. Whatever shape a book takes is irrelevant to its quality.

3°) Internet is here to stay. Few would deny that some of the most knowledgeable and perceptive writing on the genre is now done online - and that's why greater recognition in the form of a distinct category is badly needed. I realize it's hard job to monitor all of the many great crime/mystery blogs and websites around and pick a year's best; but it would definetely be worth it.

4°) Don't forget translators. The past decade has seen the American market finally opening its gates to foreign (i.e., non-English-speaking) crime fiction and it's a good thing. None of this would have happened without those admirable people who translate, and their work deserves recognition.

5°) What about critics? The Outstanding Mystery Criticism should be revived. With the genre being more and more popular, sound criticism is more needed than ever and must be recognized.

6°) Judge books by their covers. And give those who design them their due.

The Traces of Rinehart

Sarah at Crimepieces had her first introduction to Mary Roberts Rinehart, and she liked it:

I have to admit I was a completely ignorant of the writings of Mary Roberts Rinehart and read it without any preconceptions. What immediately struck me was how modern the book was. Written in 1908, in England this is the period of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles and the Victorian era has not yet been shaken off. However, in the US, Rinehart wrote this book which seems to me to be firmly set in twentieth century America. Embezzlement, revolvers in the shrubbery, young women fleeing across the country by railroad. This is a country house mystery you couldn’t have written in England, although there is a whiff of Victorian (Wilkie Collins) melodrama about the plot.

The much-maligned (most often by people who hadn't read her books) Rinehart was indeed instrumental in bringing a distinctively American spin on the mystery tale, one that focused on the people affected by the crime rather than just those solving it. Such an approach, which was actually a throwback to the Sensation Novel of which Wilkie Collins was the most illustrious exponent, may seem commonplace today but was revolutionary at a time when most American mystery writers took their cue from England. Also, Rinehart merrily dispensed with the rather turgid protocolary tone which had been associated with the genre ever since Poe - her characters are supposed to be ordinary people (well, almost ordinary people) in extraordinary situations, and they write/speak accordingly. But most of all, her books were meant to have the reader eagerly turning the pages to see what's next; they were definetely not purely cerebral affairs. In short, she sowed the seeds from which a whole new genre - psychological suspense - would be born three decades later. That she all too often fails to get credited for that and remains clouded in oblivion is crying injustice.

Non merci/No Thanks

Le livre numérique gagne du terrain, et ce n'est sans doute qu'un début. Certains parmi mes amis ont d'ores et déjà fait le grand saut, et s'en félicitent. Mais la révolution se fera sans moi. Je suis bien conscient qu'un jour viendra où je n'aurai plus le choix, et où je devrai m'adapter. Pour l'instant toutefois, je me cramponne à mes livres-papier.

Luddisme? Peut-être, et je ne le prends d'ailleurs pas comme une insulte. Mais le désaccord est essentiellement d'ordre "esthétique": je suis incapable de dissocier le support du contenu. J'aime une belle maquette, l'odeur et la sensation du papier et même s'ils ne me feront pas aimer un mauvais livre, ils participent à leur manière unique et irremplaçable de l'expérience de lecture. Les livres électroniques à l'inverse et quelque soient leurs nombreux avantages pratiques, sont avant tout des textes désincarnés*. A certains cela ne pose pas de problème (le nombre de gens qui considèrent le livre papier comme un simple support dont ils se passent sans problème ne cesse jamais de me surprendre) mais moi je ne peux pas, tout simplement. A chacun ses goûts, donc. Pour le moment.

E-books are all the rage now and it's only the beginning. Some people I like and respect have already made the jump and they say it's great. But as far as I'm concerned, it's still "no thanks". I know that sooner or later I'll no longer have a choice and I'll have to adapt - but in the meantime I prefer my books the old way.

Luddism? Maybe, and it's not a dirty word to me. But the core of the disagreement is an "aesthetical" one: I cannot dissociate the medium from the content, and the former is integral to my enjoyment of the latter. I love a beautiful cover art, I love the feel and smell of paper and while they can't make up for a poor book they enhance my reading experience in an unique, essential way. E-books on the other hand, no matter how their practical advantages, are texts devoid of any physical incarnation and while it can work for some (The number of people who don't need physical books nor care for them is a perpetual source of puzzlement for me) it doesn't for me*. To each his own. For now.

* Même s'il m'arrive d'en lire à l'occasion quand je ne peux pas faire autrement.

* Though I read them when no other option is available.


Mystère à l'Italienne/Mystery, Italian Style

Le roman d'énigme, c'est dépassé et ça n'intéresse plus personne. C'est du moins ce que l'on nous répète en France, et il n'existe d'ailleurs plus de collection spécialisée dans notre pays depuis que Le Masque s'est converti à la "modernité" dans les années 2000. A quoi l'on pourrait répondre: "Regardez en Italie". Car non seulement les célèbres Giallo Mondadori rééditent ponctuellement des classiques du genre, mais l'éditeur Polillo a crée une collection qui rassemble les plus grands noms de l'Age d'Or, d'Anthony Berkeley à John Dickson Carr en passant par Christianna Brand et J.J. Connington. "I Bassotti" (Le Basset) compte déjà une centaine de volumes, joliment présentés et choisis avec un goût exquis - et le succès semble être au rendez-vous. Si le roman d'énigme est mort et enterré, visiblement les Italiens ne sont pas au courant... et c'est tant mieux.

The traditional mystery is outdated and no one cares about it. That's what we're often told here in France, and the last local specialized imprint, Le Masque, converted to "modernity" over the last decade, leaving a wide gap that has yet to be filled. One might advice those doomsayers to check what's going on in Italy. Not only is the country's oldest mystery imprint, Giallo Mondadori, regularly reprinting classics of the genre but publisher Polillo started an imprint called "I Bassotti" (The Basset Hound) gathering the greatest names of the Golden Age from Anthony Berkeley to John Dickson Carr to Christianna Brand or J.J. Connington. As of the writing of this post I Bassotti has over 100 volumes, all well-chosen and exquisitely conceived. News of the traditional mystery's demise seem not to have reached Italian shores yet... luckily.

Halter rebondit

C'est l'histoire absurde de ce début d'année: un auteur français de romans policiers, raisonnablement connu et détenteur de plusieurs prix, qui publie un nouveau livre... aux Etats-Unis. L'auteur en question n'est autre que Paul Halter, fréquent "invité" de ce blog, qui fait paraître ces jours-ci un recueil de nouvelles, "La balle de Nausicaa" via le service d'auto-édition américain Createspace. On pourrait croire que le torchon brûle entre Halter et son éditeur historique, Le Masque - 2011 n'aura vu la publication d'aucun inédit - si un nouveau roman, "Le visiteur du passé" n'était annoncé sous la fameuse couverture jaune pour le mois d'avril. Quoi qu'il en soit, "La balle de Nausicaa" est déjà en rupture de stock chez Amazon.fr, ce qui confirme la popularité d'un auteur que le Landerneau s'obstine à bouder. Espérons seulement qu'un éditeur traditionnel sache rattraper cette balle au bond et l'offrir à un plus vaste public...

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