15/12/2014

Lettre ouverte aux scénaristes de France

Mesdames, Messieurs,

Parce qu'il faut bien vivre et que c'est quoi qu'on en dise la forme la plus populaire de la littérature criminelle, vous prétendez écrire des whodunits que vous entendez faire diffuser à la télévision et regarder par le plus grand nombre. Etant moi-même un grand amateur de ce genre d'histoires (au point d'en faire le sujet de ce blog) je ne vous en ferai pas grief et j'apprécie l'initiative. J'apprécie moins, en revanche, ce qui en résulte.

Je sais que malgré sa popularité que j'évoquais plus haut, le whodunit n'est pas en odeur de sainteté auprès de ceux qui écrivent dans ce pays. On lui reproche son caractère mécanique, artificiel, éloigné de la vraie vie contrairement à ce genre si vrai et réaliste qu'est le roman noir. Mais à partir du moment où l'on choisit d'écrire dans un genre, il faut en respecter les règles même si c'est pour mieux les subvertir; or vous semblez en être incapables.

Contrairement au roman noir, le whodunit ne repose pas simplement sur une histoire, mais sur une intrigue. Cela suppose une construction, or vos tentatives sont tout sauf construites. Tout est aléatoire, gratuit, superflu, sans colonne vertébrale. La révélation finale est rarement une surprise, puisque rien ne la prépare et que vous ne cherchez pas vraiment à surprendre de toute façon. Il faut un coupable, alors vous tirez au sort. C'est du moins l'impression que cela donne.

Une autre règle du whodunit est que tous les indices doivent être fournis au spectateur. L'auteur ne doit pas cacher d'atouts dans sa manche. Eh oui, le whodunit est aussi un jeu. Mais impossible de "jouer" avec vous, puisque des indices vous n'en donnez pas du tout - ni au spectateur, ni même au détective. Celui-ci n'en a d'ailleurs pas besoin puisque (clin d'oeil à Maigret?) il/elle ne déduit jamais rien. La solution lui vient sur un plateau, généralement à cause d'une erreur de l'assassin ou d'une confession spontanée mais commode de celui-ci ou d'un témoin. Vous me direz que cela se passe souvent comme ça dans la sacro-sainte réalité. Je vous répondrai que cela ressemble surtout à un aveu d'incompétence.

Et ne venez pas me dire que le whodunit n'est pas une tradition française; le genre a eu son "Golden Age" entre les deux guerres ici aussi, et se survit encore aujourd'hui avec des gens comme Paul Halter ou Fred Vargas (mais oui) Et vos prédécesseurs étaient tout à fait capables de construire des intrigues solides et cohérentes, revoyez n'importe quel épisode des Cinq Dernières Minutes avec Raymond Souplex si vous en voulez la preuve. Non, avouez-le, vous ne vous cassez pas la nénette parce que vous méprisez le genre, et surtout le public auquel vous vous adressez. Vous préféreriez écrire The Wire

Parfait. Envoyez donc votre CV à David Simon et travaillez pour Engrenages ou Braquo en attendant sa réponse. Mais par pitié, arrêtez de martyriser un genre qui ne vous a rien fait. Ou alors, ayez la dignité élémentaire de bien faire votre boulot. 

Cordialement,
Xavier Lechard

27/11/2014

The Public Gets What the Publishers Want

The massive success of the British Library's Crime Classics imprint is great news to fans of classic crime fiction. For years, even decades, we were told by the People Who Know that Golden Age mysteries with the exception of the ubiquitous Crime Queens were desperately outdated, of no interest to modern readers and the province of collectors and small presses; and now books by John Bude and Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, not really household names even in their lifetimes, reach bestseller status almost a century after they first appeared in print! And judging by the next books in line and Martin Edwards's appointment as series consultant, the best is yet to come. 

Such a phenomenon may come as a surprise to some: those of course who don't like vintage crime fiction but also some fans and supporters. As said above, Golden Age mysteries are not exactly critics's and historians's darlings - they and the whole traditional mystery genre have been proclaimed dead on many occasions. Their perceived artificiality, gentleness and emphasis on plot over character is allegedly not in line with modern readers's craving for realistic, gritty character-driven stuff. So why do they now sell? The answer is simple: a good publisher and a good marketing campaign.

It has long been my opinion that the neglect of classic crime fiction is not due to the indifference of readers but to the pusillanimity and biases of publishers. The continuing success of cozies or TV shows like Midsomer Murders proves that the public is not hostile to traditional mysteries; it may even on balance like them better than their grittier "cousins". The problem is, pace Paul Weller, the public doesn't always get what the public wants; publishers who are either afraid to take risks or in the thralls of influential but not necessarily representative editors or profess to know better than the interested party, may and often do stand in the way. Thanks in large part to its state-funded status, the British Library was able to take risks which a "normal" publisher couldn't or wouldn't take and market its books in a way that a small press can't afford to - and suddenly John Bude was back in stores and people who might want to read him were told about it. Maybe that's not all that it takes to make a bestseller, but it certainly helps.

It's too soon to say whether the British Library's initiative will remain isolated or will prompt imitations or answers (I certainly hope French publishers take notice but knowing them I'm not holding my breath) But it's now clear for everybody that Golden Age mysteries are bankable. And that's a huge step in the right direction. 




 

12/11/2014

Regarding Henry/A propos d'Henry

While he is all but forgotten here today as he is in the English-speaking world, British crime writer Henry Wade seems to have been very popular with French readers in the Thirties and most of his books enjoyed translations at the time thanks in no small part to the enthusiasm of Alexandre Ralli, founder of the legendary imprint L'Empreinte which also introduced John Dickson Carr, John Rhode/Miles Burton, F.W. Crofts or Philip MacDonald - to name just a few - to French readers. 

Unlike the notoriously rare and expensive originals, the French editions of Wade's books are relatively easy to find at a reasonable price, and some are the highlights of my (meagre) collection. The only exception also happens to be the one I want most to read: Constable, Guard Thyself! The book has a rather laudatory entry in the seminal impossible-crime survey Chambres closes, crimes impossibles praising it both for its plot and its treatment of a theme then taboo in British crime fiction, police corruption. I've been looking for it for years, setting alerts at various websites to no avail so far: the book is as elusive as a Juge Allou novel and whoever owns it doesn't want to part with. The only remaining hope is that the book gets reprinted either in English (which might happen) or in French (I'm not holding my breath) The current neglect of Wade is hard to understand as he was very much a "modern" crime writer, emphasizing character and social themes over the puzzle plot and later dispensing with the latter completely as in the Ilesian Heir Presumptive or the proto-noir Released for Death. I have often railed in the past against Golden Age stereotyping and Wade is one of its most glaring casualties. Let's hope time (and a publisher) finally does him justice.


Bien qu'il soit aujourd'hui complètement oublié en France comme dans les pays anglo-saxons, Henry Wade fut apparemment très apprécié du public français dans les années trente, la plupart de ses livres étant traduits grâce en grande partie à l'enthousiasme d'Alexandre Ralli, fondateur et animateur de la mythique collection L'Empreinte qui permit également de faire connaître aux lecteurs gaulois des auteurs tels que John Dickson Carr, John Rhode/Miles Burton, F.W. Crofts ou Philip MacDonald. 

Si ses livres sont extrêmement rares et onéreux en version originale, il n'en va pas de même pour les éditions françaises qui sont relativement faciles à trouver à des prix décents; j'en compte d'ailleurs quelques-uns dans ma maigre collection. La seule exception est comme par hasard celui que je souhaite le plus lire, On a tué un policier (Constable Guard Thyself en anglais) Ce livre bénéficie d'une assez bonne réputation, étant cité et encensé dans le séminal Chambres Closes, Crimes impossibles pour son intrigue et son traitement d'un thème à l'époque peu abordé par le roman policier britannique, la corruption policière. Je l'ai cherché partout en vain; ceux qui le possèdent ne souhaitent apparemment pas s'en séparer (et s'il est aussi bon qu'on le dit, je les comprends) Il ne reste plus qu'à espérer que le livre soit réédité un jour, en anglais ou - soyons réalistes, demandons l'impossible - en français. L'indifférence actuelle autour de l'oeuvre de Wade est assez difficile à comprendre dans la mesure où il fut à bien des égard un pionnier du polar "moderne", s'intéressant de plus en plus à la psychologie et aux grands thèmes sociaux au détriment de l'énigme jusqu'à se passer complètement de celle-ci (voir les romans Hallali ou Justice est faite qui pour le dernier présente plusieurs caractéristiques typiques du roman noir) J'ai souvent protesté dans ces colonnes contre les stéréotypes attachés au roman d'énigme, et Wade en est parmi les plus tristes victimes; espérons que le temps (et un éditeur) lui rende justice.

08/10/2014

Missing

Ayant créé une alerte pour cet auteur, j'ai reçu aujourd'hui un mail de eBay m'informant qu'un livre de Noël Vindry venait d'être proposé à la vente. Comme pas mal d'amateurs de romans policiers, j'entends parler en très grand bien de cet écrivain - grand spécialiste français des chambres closes et crimes impossibles dans les années trente - depuis des lustres, mais n'arrive jamais à mettre la main sur ses livres. Ils sont en effet extrêmement rares, sauf ceux de sa dernière période au Masque qui de l'avis général ne comptent pas parmi ses oeuvres majeures. Et qui dit rares, dit chers. Très chers. Or donc, si vous souhaitez acquérir Le double alibi, dans son unique édition de 1934, il vous en coûtera... 100 euros. Et ce n'est même pas le plus cher que j'aie vu pour un livre de Vindry; je me souviens avoir croisé une fois La Bête hurlante à 140 euros sur Abebooks. Dommage que les héritiers de Vindry ne touchent pas un sou de ces ventes; ils en tireraient une rente appréciable. En tout cas ce n'est pas encore aujourd'hui que j'aurai un Juge Allou dans ma bibliothèque, et il en sera ainsi tant que Vindry ne sera pas réédité. 

Pourquoi ne l'est-il pas? C'est une question qui fait le tour de la communauté polardière depuis des décennies. Ce ne sont apparemment pas les héritiers qui s'y opposent; plusieurs Juge Allou ont été réédités... en Espagne dans les années 80, ce qui me fait regretter d'avoir laissé mon espagnol en jachère car ces éditions-là se trouvent facilement et à bas prix. Il faut donc en conclure que ce sont éditeurs qui ne sont pas intéressés, et de fait on voit mal qui dans le paysage éditorial français actuel pourrait s'intéresser à Vindry. Le Masque était le choix le plus "logique" mais a tourné le dos au roman d'énigme qui fut longtemps son terrain d'élection. Grands Détectives? Autrefois ouverte aux grands auteurs du passé, la collection est désormais réservée aux auteurs contemporains et se spécialise dans le roman policier historique. Rivages/Mystère n'est plus et les romans d'énigme, déjà fort peu nombreux, ont disparu du catalogue Rivages depuis la mort de Claude Chabrol. En outre, les éditeurs ne font pas dans la philanthropie; ils ne publient que des livres pour lesquels un marché existe, et cela ne semble pas être le cas ici. La seule tentative récente de réédition, un omnibus réalisé par Roland Lacourbe qui reprenait A travers les murailles, n'a rencontré que peu d'écho. Le roman d'énigme, en particulier dans sa forme "impossible", avait connu un regain d'intérêt dans les années 90, notamment grâce au succès des rééditions de John Dickson Carr. La page semble tournée désormais, les amateurs d'énigmes se tournant vers la télévision et abandonnant les rayonnages aux fans de thrillers et de noir. Resterait l'édition numérique, qui a déjà permis outre-Manche et outre-Atlantique à des auteurs comme J.J. Connington ou Stuart Palmer de retrouver une visibilité qu'ils n'avaient plus dans les librairies traditionnelles, mais le marché est encore balbutiant en France et rien ne peut se faire sans l'accord des ayant-droits. Ou l'espoir qu'un petit éditeur ait un coup de coeur; c'est après tout une presse universitaire de province, Les Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, qui a enfin permis aux lecteurs français de découvrir Gaudy Night de Dorothy L. Sayers.

Mais en attendant, que faire? Lire et relire A travers les murailles. Garder un oeil sur eBay, PriceMinister et Abebooks. Et faire les brocantes, en croisant les doigts pour trouver la perle rare, vendue par cette providence du chineur: la bonne poire qui ne sait pas ce qu'elle vend (elle existe, je l'ai rencontrée plus d'une fois)



07/10/2014

Me Like Some Comments

A few more words to tell you that comments on this blog are welcome and much appreciated. Feel free then to say what you think, even (and most particularly) if you disagree with me! And if you prefer to keep it private, you can drop me a line at lechardxavier-at-gmail.com. 

Hear from you soon!

Of Definition and Standards

Says Leslie Kendall Dye:

My obsession with Wilkie Collins started, strangely, with The Moonstone. It's often credited with being the first "detective novel," but it isn't. It is considered a classic, but it's boring and poorly plotted. I read it to please my father, who had loved it. When I told him what I thought of it, he said, "Oh, yes, I remember now, it is boring. Try The Woman in White, that's much better."
Indeed. I spent that year collecting and reading every Collins novel I could find. The Woman in White, while perhaps the least needing of publicity, is the best book with which to introduce Wilkie Collins to the uninitiated.

Funny - or revealing - that my personal experience was quite the opposite. I, too, had my first taste of Collins with The Moonstone but I loved and still love it; multiple visits have not eroded its charm a little bit. I don't find it boring at all, and the plotting is one of the things that make it a favorite of mine. Part of the book's appeal is to witness the birth of a genre - yes I know L'Affaire Lerouge came first, but there's no denying The Moonstone is closer to detective fiction as we know it. T.S. Eliot may have overstated his case but not by much.

Fresh from The Moonstone I went on to read The Woman in White with great expectations as I'd been repeatedly told it was even better, and... well... I liked it, but was somewhat disappointed as I didn't think it lived up to its reputation. Sure the writing was great and the characterization too, but the plot failed to elicit significant interest or thrills from me. Don't get me wrong: it wasn't boring, but neither was it extremely compelling. Suffice to say that I never felt the urge to re-read it.

Part of my disappointment may have to do with the fact that unlike The Moonstone it is not a detective novel. There is a mystery, or kind of, but the emphasis is on suspense, not detection. The guilty party is known almost from the start and the book is not about unmasking him but tweaking his schemes. All fine if you're into that kind of thing; the problem is, I'm not - much. I'm very much a puzzle/mystery-focused reader and that's probably why I've never been keen on crime novels or noir fiction - genres where there is nothing or little to solve.

Back in the Golden Age, when puzzle and plot were paramount and the traditional model was mostly unquestioned even by those trying to break free from it, The Moonstone was by far the most admired of the two novels. But times and priorities have changed and The Woman in White is much closer to our definition of what a good mystery - I mean, a good crime novel must be. 

Shifting tastes and evolving definitions account for the difficulty in identifying the Great Ancestors of the genre. To an orthodox reader/scholar including, say, Balzac's A Murky Business in the Canon makes no sense - it is obviously not a detective story. For the more modern-minded, however, the book has criminal events at its heart and is high on realism and characterization so it qualifies. Here like everywhere else in the genre, judging requires agreeing on definition and standards as Chandler in an exceptional bout of wisdom noted.  And there is very little agreement on anything nowadays in the mystery field.


17/09/2014

Les lauréats du Grand Prix de Littérature Policière 2014 sont connus.

Bon, c'est officiel: ce prix, qui n'était déjà pas très glorieux au départ, est devenu une vaste blague, un véritable Goncourt du polar - et je ne dis pas ça comme un compliment. Il serait vraiment temps de mettre les choses au clair et de changer le nom d'un prix qui, en fait de littérature "policière", ne récompense pratiquement que des romans noirs, si possible engagés politiquement, ou des livres que seule une interprétation très large du genre permet d'y inclure, comme c'est le cas du lauréat étranger cette année encore. La littérature policière "traditionnelle", non noire, reste elle sur le pas de la porte. Louise Penny reçoit des prix un peu partout, mais les beaux esprits français l'ignorent, et Thomas H. Cook est prié pour la troisième année consécutive d'aller se rhabiller. Je suggère aux jurés du GPDLP de fusionner avec les Trophées 813 et le Prix Mystère de la Critique: ce sera plus franc et on gagnera du temps. Quant à moi j'en ai ma claque que le milieu du polar français ignore et méprise les trois quarts de la littérature criminelle.

Fin du coup de gueule.

10/09/2014

Un temps révolu?

Pierre Sérisier à propos de la série Origines:

Personne n'a eu l'audace d'expliquer que cette intrigue relève du Cluedo. Vous savez, ce jeu où c'est toujours le colonel Moutarde qui est le meurtrier avec un chandelier dans le salon. J'y jouais quand j'étais gamin au début des années 70. Et bien, on en est encore là. On réfléchit aux séries policières françaises comme s'il fallait adapter Boileau-Narcejac ou Georges Simenon. Non, c'est fini. Ce temps est révolu. Agatha Christie appartient au passé.

Mettre dans le même sac des auteurs aussi différents et qui, pour d'eux entre eux, sont parmi les plus lus dans le monde et en France*, et proclamer leur obsolescence - voilà qui peut surprendre. Les assimiler au jeu de Cluedo (quand seule Christie ressort du roman d'énigme dont le Cluedo est une caricature) et taxer celui-ci de ringardise, aussi. Mais nous sommes en France, et tout s'explique.

Le whodunit, puisque c'est lui qui est visé, est pratiquement absent du paysage éditorial français depuis plusieurs décennies, si l'on excepte la valeur sûre qu'est Christie, des anomalies en voie de résorption comme Paul Halter et quelques rééditions éparses - toujours les mêmes d'ailleurs - qui ne suscitent que peu d'intérêt dans les médias. Cela ne tient pas, malgré les apparences, à une désaffection du public mais au fait que ceux qui font la pluie et le beau temps dans ce domaine - éditeurs, critiques, journalistes - préfèrent largement des formes plus modernes et à leurs yeux plus "littéraires" à commencer par le sacro-saint roman noir qu'ils n'ont donc de cesse de promouvoir. Le whodunit, à leurs yeux, est dépassé, ringard et aussi peu digne d'attention et de soutien que les romans de Barbara Cartland. C'est ainsi que le dernier éditeur spécialisé en France, Le Masque, a définitivement tourné casaque au début de ce siècle sous la férule d'une directrice dont l'objectif avoué était d'en faire un Rivages bis** (comme si un seul ne suffisait pas...) Adieu Peter Lovesey, bonjour Don Winslow!

Difficile dans ce contexte d'admettre que le genre se porte bien dans les pays anglo-saxons, sous une forme certes modernisée et parfois caricaturale, le "cozy" (douillet, parce que peu porté sur la violence et le sexe contrairement au noir et au thriller) Son auteur-phare, la canadienne Louise Penny, connait un succès critique et commercial retentissant, consacré par de nombreux prix et distinctions. On ne s'étonnera pas qu'elle n'ait jusqu'ici suscité qu'un intérêt limité et passablement étonné ("ça existe encore, ce genre de truc?") chez nous, et on la cherchera en vain dans la sélection pour le Grand Prix de Littérature Noire Policière.

La vision déformée et réductrice que se fait la France de la "Planète Polar" est un sujet que j'ai abordé à plusieurs reprises sur ce blog et quelque chose me dit que je n'en ai pas fini.

* Tellement populaire dans le cas de Christie qu'une suite vient d'être donnée aux aventures de son détective Hercule Poirot!

** Le Masque a semble-t-il décidé de renouer avec ses racines depuis le départ de Mme Aubert vers d'autres cieux, comme le suggère le réveil de la "collection jaune" et des rééditions de Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout et autres.

25/08/2014

Sir Richard

Je ne connais pas très bien son oeuvre en tant que réalisateur, mais j'apprécie ce que j'en ai vu (Les Griffes du Lion en particulier, qui me semble un film très sous-estimé) C'est surtout en tant qu'acteur que je me souviendrai de lui - et quel acteur! Gang de tueurs, La Grande évasion, Hold-up à Londres, Le Rideau de brume, Le Vol du Phénix et tant d'autres. Son moment de gloire à mon avis fut le très sous-estimé 10, Rillington Place où il offre l'une des interprétations les plus inquiétantes de l'histoire du cinéma. Si les Oscars se gagnaient vraiment au mérite, il aurait reçu une nomination et peut-être même une statuette. R.I.P.
 

I'm not familiar with his work as a director, but I like what I've seen (his You-Know-Who biopic, Young Winston, is very underrated I think) I'll remember him first as an actor - and what an actor! Brighton Rock, The Great Escape, The League of Gentlemen, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, The Flight of the Phenix and many others. His greatest moment, I think, was the much underrated 10, Rillington Place where he delivered one of the most chilling performances in film history; if Oscars were really about merit, he would have earned a nomination and maybe won. R.I.P.


24/08/2014

Those Who Don't Know History...

Over at the Facebook Golden Age of Detection group, Jeffrey Marks said something which, I think, deserves closer examination:

"Science fiction has a fandom that knows its history. Mystery does not. I would love to see that change to honor all the incredible writers of the past 150 years."


Sci-fi fans are indeed very knowledgeable about the history of their favorite genre. So are horror/fantasy and western buffs. I would venture to say that crime fiction is the only genre with such a blatant lack of interest in its past. Why is it so? I can think of several factors:

1°) The influence of the hardboiled school which convinced everyone that all crime writing prior to the advent of Dashiell Hammett was utter rubbish and that a "good" mystery must be realistic, gritty and socially and politically conscious. As most vintage crime fiction fails to pass that arbitrary test, it is deemed to be uninteresting and left to rust by fans and critics alike.

2°) The mystery community's longstanding craving for respectability. Vintage crime writers rarely took themselves or their work "seriously" and very few attempted to "transcend the genre"; their aim was to entertain and that they did very well. In short, they were not "literary" and, to the modern mystery fan, are artifacts of an embarrassing past that is thankfully behind us. Better to let them buried deep.

3°) A significant lot of contemporary mystery fans are not fans at all. They come from the mainstream (much like the authors they most admire) and the kind of mysteries they enjoy most is the one that has all the trappings of mainstream fiction. They're not interested in plots and puzzles or only very peripherically; what they want first is characters they can "relate" to, hence their enthusiasm for series and character-driven crime novels. They also want substance which for them is measured by length. They are not averse to vintage crime fiction, but they mostly stick with the valeurs sûres like Doyle or the Crime Queens. They have no desire to go further.

Needless to say, that is a situation that I don't like. But how can it be fixed? Most people don't even see that as problem, and it is a logical result of the evolution of the genre in the last sixty years from pure escapism to "literary significance".  We lovers of vintage crime fiction must learn to accept our minority status and support those brave publishers who keep the old stuff alive or bring it back to light. They may ultimately come in handy someday to today's presentists: if the "tradition" is to hold, maybe no one in 2070 will know who Gillian Flynn and Dennis Lehane were.

18/08/2014

Abe, Poor Abe

I have nothing against fantastic retellings of history (I wouldn't read Tim Powers otherwise) and silly movies can be fun sometimes (think of Invasion U.S.A.) So I had no objection a priori to the concept of Old Abe killing vampires. My problem - well, my main problem - with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is that it looks awful and fake.

Like all too many recent Hollywood flicks, ALVH looks like it's tinted: some scenes are all blue, some are all brown, others are all yellow, etc. What few colours survive are invariably flattened for fear that they might look bright - for brigtness is bad, not "serious" and not "artistic". I was shocked when the end titles told me the one responsible for all that hideousness was none other than Caleb Deschanel, hardly a lightweight or a newcomer and apparently not stricken with daltonism. Clearly there is now a mandate in Hollywood for visual blandness and ugliness; no surprise then that Terrence Malick works as an independent. Better not to imagine what Black Narcissus or Lawrence of Arabia would look like if they were made today. Leon Shamroy and Russell Metty need no apply.

As if that wasn't bad enough, ALVH is also high on CGIs (nearly all action scenes are virtual to some extent) and very obviously studio-bound. The sets look painfully like sets, no matter how digitally altered they are. As to What's-his-name who plays the title role, he's as credible playing Lincoln as Sylvester Stallone would be playing Queen Elizabeth. Same thing goes for Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd. Hollywood has never been comfortable with ugliness and average looks (the 70s being a notable but short-lived exception) and there's little that can be done about it, but it's no reason to accept anything.

That being said, maybe the book is better (though I have my doubts as the author adapted it for the screen himself and can't pretend to have been betrayed by the result) I bought it when it came out, and should give it a look - if only I could remember where it is. 


Further reading:

"Teal and Orange - Hollywood, Please Stop the Madness" by Todd Miro

"Whatever Happened to Colour?" by Pete Emslie


 

16/08/2014

Nothing New Under The Sun

The blurb which I scorned in my previous post, thinking it exemplified the changing tastes in crime fiction, was actually copied-and-pasted from the original edition. The Passing Tramp's Curtis Evans blogged about it one year ago. The preference for "easier" (some might say, "dumbed-down") crime fiction is thus nothing new. That writers like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr were big at the time doesn't mean that everyone was looking for elaborate, deliberate and complicated plots. There have always been people looking for the cheap version. Murder, She Wrote would never have been a success otherwise.

13/08/2014

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

From the blurb of the Book Revivals edition of Dorothy Cameron Disney's THE STRAWSTACK MURDERS which I received today (along with another book of hers, her first, Death in the Back Seat)

"Unlike many of the mystery stories of the time, STRAWSTACK avoids devices that may become annoying: There is no omniscient detective, no long, boring, repetitious interviews with servants, no scientific tests and experts, and, best of all, no complicated, confusing house or room plans."

Promoting a Golden Age mystery by trashing Golden Age mysteries: Talk about inventive advertising. To think that what BR people deem "annoying" was once what made the genre popular - and unique! This tells us everything we need to know about the evolution of said genre over the last half century - some will say it was for the good, but it won't come to you as a surprise that I'm not so sure. The late Milward Kennedy who was so fond of floor plans (a fondness that much amused John Dickson Carr) would surely be shocked to see that his pet device is now regarded as "complicated" and "confusing"!


P.S.: Has anyone read Cameron Disney's book? I've read only two of her books, Thirty Days Hath September (co-written with George Sessions Perry) and her swan song, The Hangman's Tree. I liked both enough to want to give her another look: well written, atmospheric, good characterization and competent plotting. I see she's often associated with the HIBK school but I didn't feel it when reading her - but then neither did I feel it when reading Mary Roberts Rinehart, the alleged founder and queen of that much-maligned subgenre.

06/08/2014

Men Under the Influence

I'm re-reading for the upteenth time French scholar François Rivière's masterful and beautifully illustrated survey of the genre, "Les Couleurs du Noir" (Colours of Noir) While he was somewhat biased in favor of psychological suspense and the modern crime novel at the time of its publication (he has reversed course since) Rivière makes some interesting points, one of them being that Christie was probably more influential on male writers rather than female ones, who tend to be more innovative and less convention-bound.

It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but actually makes sense when you're familiar with the history of female crime fiction. While most of the credit for breaking off from Golden Age orthodoxy goes to the very male-driven hardboiled school and some British mavericks like Anthony Berkeley or Richard Hull, the truth is that female writers did more than their share to bring up the change, and sometimes initiated it. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes or Elizabeth Sanxay Holding dispensed with the puzzle plot (which most hardboiled writers, starting with Hammett and Chandler, kept adhering to) long before the likes of Francis Iles and James M. Cain; and the arcane plots of hardboiled fiction and psychological suspense can be traced to the early twentieth century work of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Writers most comparable to Christie in terms of approach, plotting and virtuosity are almost all males - Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, even S.S. Van Dine. The other so-called crime queens (Allingham, Marsh, Sayers, some would add Mitchell and Tey) were typically less interested in orthodox puzzle plotting, deception and more likely to "push the envelope". (As a matter of fact, Sayers or Allingham are today more celebrated as "literary" writers than detective writers) 

So I think Rivière had a point, though I disagree that following in Christie's steps is a bad thing and a sign of backwardness. I like mysteries that "push the envelope" (don't say "transcend the genre"!) but I also like some orthodoxy; it may even be more challenging. Breaking the rules is easy; expressing one's personality while following them is much harder and far more rewarding. 

04/08/2014

A Halter skeptic speaks out

One of the last remaining readers of this blog (a courageous species if there ever was one) wrote me yesterday to get some news and commented on some of my old posts, including those about Paul Halter of whom he is decidedly not a fan. I share his thoughts with his permission:

"While pointing out his limitations, I think you're way too generous to [Halter] - the whole mystery community is. I'm so tired to see him branded the new John Dickson Carr and the Great White Hope of the puzzle story. His first two books were good, if flawed, but it's gone all downhill ever since. Carr had his share of clunkers (mostly in his late career) but he could write and do character (when he wanted to) and he was able to conjure up an atmosphere. Also, his England if folkloric at times was real - hey, he spent three decades there! Halter doesn't deliver on any of those things, he doesn't even try. His writing is sloppy and clichéd, his characters are not even sketches and it's obvious his knowledge of English culture and mores is fourth-hand. He's all about plot, which wouldn't be so bad if he could come up with good ones, but most of them are implausible and incoherent, not to mention filled with logical and factual errors (I remember a story where a knife that had spent several hours underwater still had the murderer's fingerprints on it!) Also his obsessions are very tiresome and often imposed on the story with no purpose. What he writes is not even bad detective fiction, it's bad altogether, on the level of what you read on Fanfiction.net. Why then has he such a huge following? That is, I think, because fans of orthodox detective stories (I am one) are so desperate for someone to rescue their favorite genre from oblivion that they will embrace anyone practicing it, no matter how actually gifted they are. The same thing happened to traditional pop and in both cases it plays into the hands of detractors of the genre who are all too happy to point out how corny and outdated its practicioners are. Do you believe that it's only because of bigotry that Halter has never won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and will likely never be nominated for an Edgar - and has to resort to self-publishing to get his work published? I honestly believe in the greatness of the traditional detective story and that it is still able to produce quality work but Paul Halter is not the man. Not at all."


08/03/2014

Sigh

CADS 67 arrived this week and it's all great stuff as usual. I could have done without Mike Ripley dissing traditional mysteries, though. He writes:

The idea of a novel as an artificial puzzle, a literary parlor game or an extended cryptic crossword did not appeal to me: then or now. I am firmly of the opinion that the so-called Golden Age of that sort of English detective story ended in 1949 when it was replaced by the board game Cluedo. Not, in my opinion, a moment to soon. ("Albert & I", p.11)

Traditional mystery fans often have to deal with such attacks. "Modernists", especially those of the hardboiled/noir persuasion, never waste an occasion to badmouth the Golden Age and what few "classicists" are still working today - even though they have largely won the war and most contemporary crime fiction is under the shadow of Raymond Chandler rather than Agatha Christie. Are they feeling insecure, or do they just have fun shooting an ambulance? I don't know. But I'm certainly surprised (and somewhat upset) to encounter such comments in a periodical that does so much for the cause of older mysteries. 

 

 

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