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.


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.


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



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.


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.


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. 


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."

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