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by the People Who Know that Golden Age mysteries with the exception of the ubiquitous Crime Queens were desperately outdated, of no interest to modern readers and the province of collectors and small presses; and now books by John Bude and Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, not really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. 



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.

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