11/11/2015

Renaissance

Pendant des années, les amateurs de roman d'énigme ont prêché dans le désert. Ils faisaient effet de gentils excentriques à chanter les louanges d'auteurs et d'un genre frappés, les autorités compétentes ne cessaient de le répéter, de désuétude. Franchement, qui pouvait bien avoir envie de nos jours de lire Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr ou Gladys Mitchell quand le roman policier (non, pardon, le "polar") actuel était si riche et incomparablement supérieur sur le plan littéraire? Les critiques étaient unanimes et les éditeurs traditionnels acquiesçaient bien volontiers: le roman d'énigme était mort et enterré.

Alors vint la British Library et sa collection "Crime Classics" - et toutes les certitudes furent chamboulées.

Voilà-t-y- pas que la vénérable institution décidait de rééditer des ouvrages oubliés (y compris des amateurs) de l'Age d'or du roman d'énigme - et d'user de tous les moyens qu'offrent les médias modernes pour leur donner une visibilité qu'un éditeur spécialisé aurait été bien incapable de leur offrir. Le succès, à la surprise générale, fut au rendez-vous pour culminer quand Mystery in White de J. Jefferson Farjeon (publié à l'origine en 1937) s'invita dans la liste des best-sellers fin 2015.

Tout s'emballa dès lors. La British Library nomma le romancier et historien du genre Martin Edwards directeur de collection et annonça une flopée d'autres rééditions pour les années à venir. Sur une plus petite échelle, des petits éditeurs numériques comme Black Heath ou Dean Street Press s'engouffrèrent dans la faille et commencèrent de rendre vie à des auteurs jusqu'alors oubliés ou négligés comme Ianthe Jarrold, Annie Haynes, Fergus Hume ou E.R. Punshon.

Autre événement de première ampleur, la parution de The Golden Age of Murder du précédemment cité Martin Edwards, copieuse et exhaustive histoire du Detection Club et plus particulièrement de ses activités dans l'entre-deux-guerres. Le livre connut un retentissement et un succès public et critique que nul n'aurait pu prédire encore quelques mois auparavant. Après plusieurs décennies d'éclipse relative, le roman d'énigme était de retour.

Le rôle de la blogosphère dans ce "revival" ne doit pas être négligé. Des blogs comme The Passing Tramp de l'historien et critique Curtis Evans ont largement contribué à ramener le genre et ses classiques sur le devant de la scène. 

Un phénomène similaire serait-il possible en France? Je l'appelle de mes voeux, mais la situation est différente. Les fans sont clairsemés et sans influence face à un Landerneau massivement gagné au roman noir, les éditeurs au premier rang. Il n'y a pas d'équivalent français de Martin Edwards ou de Curtis Evans pour porter la "cause" et je vois mal la Bibliothèque Nationale, si soucieuse de respectabilité, se lancer dans l'édition de romans policiers. Et quand bien même elle le ferait, le succès serait-il au rendez-vous? La domination du roman noir en France est aussi le fait du public, comme en témoignent les palmarès des prix spécialisés qui lui donnent la parole. 

Faut-il désespérer? Je ne le pense pas. Le succès d'Agatha Christie et de séries télé comme Les enquêtes de Murdoch prouve qu'il existe un public pour le roman d'énigme; il faut juste faire preuve d'un peu d'audace et aller le chercher. Ce ne sera pas le fait des éditeurs traditionnels. L'édition numérique serait-elle la solution, comme elle l'a été dans les pays anglo-saxons?

10/11/2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Me & Mr. Queen (A Brief Autobiographical Interlude)

This article is my contribution for this week to Tuesday Night Bloggers, a weekly event conceived by Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp and hosted by Noah Stewart of Noah's Archives. After being on Agatha Christie for all of October, the group's focus is now on Ellery Queen.


As I said in my previous article on the subject, Ellery Queen is one of three writers who inoculated me with the mystery bug - but it hardly was love at first sight. It took a physician and a TV series to make me a fan. 


The first EQ book to enter my home was The Roman Hat Mystery, bought by my mother who loved the cover art (she put a great emphasis on such matters) I didn't express much interest for it - I had never heard of Ellery Queen and 14-year-old me didn't care for anything that wasn't written by Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr. On my mother's insistance I started reading it, only to stop circa page 20. The book just wasn't for me: it had no impossible crime and the detective was nothing like Hercule Poirot.

Things could have stayed there had not my then otorhinolaryngologist chimed in. I had severe asthma back then and had to see him regularly but it was not too much of a chore as he was a very erudite man who happened to be an avid mystery reader, much better-read and eclectic than I was at the time. We often took time to discuss our respective reads and one day he mentioned Ellery Queen as one of his favorites: Had I tried him yet? No? Well, I should. I was intrigued and back home tried again to read The Roman Hat Mystery, to no avail. But I was curious enough to go to the local bookshop and buy another book of theirs (there was a batch of them, paperback imprint J'ai Lu having undertaken to reprint the whole catalogue) this time A Fine and Private Place. EQ scholars regard this one as minor but to me it was a revelation. The plot and its solution floored me, the characters were more modern than Christie's or Carr's and Ellery Queen was really a great detective. I went back to the bookshop, bought all the other Queens they had in store and read them ravenously. Move over, Agatha and John! There was a new kid in town.

Some time later the French TV channel FR3 (now known as France 3) began airing a new* series in its afternoon slot. I missed the first two or three episodes and caught the fourth by sheer chance. Imagine my surprise when I found that the series's protagonist was none other than Ellery Queen himself! I became a faithful viewer at once, never again missing an episode. Ellery and his father now had faces - and even today I still imagine the former as Jim Hutton and the latter as David Wayne - and the plots were great (my only experience with mystery shows at the time was Murder, She Wrote which may account for my enthusiasm) I remember I was very disappointed when the series ended and was replaced by Poirot. 

Since then my tastes have broadened if not dramatically changed and A Fine and Private Place is no longer my favorite Queen (though I keep a soft spot for it) but the Brooklyn cousins remain key figures in my personal pantheon - and I look forward to reading those books of theirs that I haven't yet read. It's the French equivalent of Veterans's Day tomorrow and I may do my own celebration by finally reading The Player on the Other Side which I've postponed for years as I wanted to be in the right mood. Or maybe The Siamese Twins Mystery? Queen fan forever. 

* As you've probably figured out if you did the math the series took a long time (15 years!) to cross the Atlantic. It first aired here in 1989 and I didn't know at the time that Jim Hutton had died in the meantime. I was very sad when I learned about it.


04/11/2015

Des pommes, toujours des pommes...

"Dans les jours fastes et inoubliables de "Black Mask" alors que Dashiell Hammett et Raymond Chandler (pour reprendre le jugement de Chandler sur Hammett) étaient les "maîtres du genre", cette formule de détection [le roman noir] a pu passer pour une innovation. Hammett et Chandler semblaient avoir rompu avec la tradition pour en fonder une nouvelle. Mais avec le recul du temps, il est sans doute plus juste de dire que le récit policier noir n'a en rien brisé - pas même entamé - le moule premier, classique. 

Hammett, Chandler et d'autres ont introduit une variante originale, passionnante et utile de la forme et de la méthode classiques. Et au fil des ans, il devient de plus en plus évident qu'ils ont simplement trouvé une présentation nouvelle pour les éléments immuables du genre policier."


                                                  Anonyme, présentation de la nouvelle "Poissons rouges" 
                                                  de Raymond Chandler dans "Anthologie du Mystère" N°11

Où êtes-vous?

Je ne surprendrai sans doute personne en disant que ce blog ne bat pas des records de fréquentation; le sujet et l'irrégularité des mises à jour font qu'il ne sera probablement jamais un blog "grand public" et j'en ai pris mon parti. Le fait d'être - à ma connaissance - le seul blogueur français spécialisé dans le roman d'énigme me console, ainsi que le fait que mon audience, pour réduite qu'elle soit, est authentiquement internationale: si le gros de mes lecteurs sont anglo-saxons, je reçois également des visites de pays plus inattendus tels que l'Italie, le Portugal, la Russie, la Pologne, le Japon, la Malaisie... C'est très gratifiant. Mais il y a une ombre au tableau, comme toujours du reste. Un pays persiste à me bouder. Le mien.

Soyons juste: je reçois de temps en temps la visite de compatriotes, mais il s'agit le plus souvent de visites uniques et via Google: quelqu'un par exemple fait une recherche sur Noël Vindry, tombe sur l'article que je lui ai consacré, le lit et s'en va pour ne plus revenir.  Je ne fidélise pas ma clientèle. Bien sûr, le fait que j'écrive pour une grande part en anglais n'arrange pas les choses - mais même mes billets en français n'attirent personne! 

Peut-être est-ce aussi une question de visibilité et de "publicité". Il n'y a pas beaucoup d'endroits sur le web francophone pour faire la réclame d'un blog comme le mien - j'ai un fil dédié sur le forum Paul Halter et une présence sur Facebook mais c'est bien tout. Et bien sûr il y a le problème, déjà évoqué plus haut, de mon irrégularité - six articles pour la seule année 2015! - et ma tendance plus ou moins inconsciente à privilégier le lectorat le plus nombreux...

C'est d'autant plus frustrant que si j'aime l'anglais et apprécie le lectorat "universel" qu'il m'apporte, je préfère de loin m'exprimer dans ma propre langue où je suis infiniment plus à l'aise. Alors que faire? Lecteurs francophones qui par ici passez, je suis tout ouïes à vos suggestions. 


03/11/2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Ellery Queen in France


This article is my first (and meagre) contribution to Tuesday Night Bloggers, a weekly event conceived by Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp and hosted by Noah Stewart of Noah's Archives. After being on Agatha Christie for all of October, the group's focus is now on Ellery Queen.

Somewhat surprisingly given the local lack of enthusiasm for traditional mysteries, Ellery Queen has always been popular with French readers and critics - all of their canonical works were translated and remained in print long after they had faded into oblivion in their native country. The love story culminated with Queen winning France's top crime award, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, for And on the Eighth Day in 1974. Notable EQ fans include director Claude Chabrol (who made a film out of Ten Day's Wonder) noted critics Michel Lebrun, Jean-Pierre Deloux François Rivière and Ellery Queen Award winning publisher François Guérif among others.

The French view of EQ is not the same as the one prevalent in the rest of the world, however, and the choice of favorites differ. True to their Balzacian mindset, the French don't care much for the "nationality books" which they find too artificial and game-like. EQ to them picked up steam with the Hollywood books and reached their apex with the Wrightsville saga. One of the many surprises I had when I first joined English-speaking discussion groups was to find that the dominant view there was exactly the opposite! The French also like that EQ brought greater depth of characterization to the genre, were able to evolve with the times and let free rein to their imagination rather than sticking to antiquated rules (the French just hate rules in their crime fiction)

While I often disagree with my fellow-compatriots, especially where crime fiction is concerned, I am in agreement with their assessment of EQ and all of my many favorites of them are post-Wrightsville though I admit I don't know the nationality books well - their tone and flowery prose put me off every time I tried to read them. EQ matter a lot to me as they were one of three writers (the other being Dame Agatha and The Mighty John Dickson Carr) who introduced adolescent me to crime fiction and fashioned my tastes for life. Imaginative, clever and original - we really need another Ellery Queen.

01/11/2015

Michael Butterworth - Le noir est à la mode (The Black Look, 1972)

To my English-speaking readers:  This post is bilingual; scroll down for the English-language version.

Son nom ne vous dit probablement rien - à moins d'être comme moi un complétiste du Masque - mais Michael Butterworth est l'un de mes auteurs de chevet, que je ne me lasse pas de défendre et promouvoir depuis que je l'ai découvert voici une dizaine d'années avec le goûteux Des fleurs pour une sorcière (oui, le livre est à la hauteur de son titre) Ses livres sont à première vue des suspenses gothiques avec jolie jeune femme en danger, mais ils se distinguent du tout-venant par un sens très sûr de l'atmosphère menaçante, un goût non moins prononcé pour le morbide et la psychologie déviante ou anormale et un joli maniement d'intrigues retorses. Malgré l'image - souvent erronée - de son éditeur français à l'époque, ses livres n'ont rien de douillet, bien au contraire. 

Le noir est à la mode en est un bon exemple. Il commence en effet par la découverte d'une main coupée dans la valise d'un jeune et ravissant mannequin anglais, Candida Jeans, première d'une série de découvertes macabres - une autre main, puis une tête - qui conduiront l'infortunée jeune fille, à l'équilibre mental déjà précaire du fait d'une enfance troublée, au bord de la folie. Heureusement, le commissaire Haquin veille au grain...

Tous les thèmes chers à l'auteur sont présents dans ce livre, mais poussés à la puissance n. Le livre épouse le point de vue de Candida et se lit comme un long cauchemar éveillé, entrecoupé des souvenirs d'enfance de la jeune femme, traumatisée par une éducation puritaine. Avons-nous affaire à une tueuse psychopathe? L'incertitude demeure jusqu'aux tous derniers chapitres, pour se conclure par une révélation qui en laissera plus d'un bouche bée - Butterworth, en bon joueur de bonneteau, nous a bien baladés...

Vous devinerez sans peine que je vous conseille la lecture de ce court mais dense roman, que l'on trouve encore facilement chez les bouquinistes ou sur les sites de vente en ligne, et si vous accrochez des deux autres publiés chez Le Masque (je n'ai pas lu les gothiques parus aux Presses de la Cité sous l'alias Carol Sainsbury) Michael Butterworth est un auteur à redécouvrir, ou plutôt à découvrir, la chose n'ayant pas été faite - hélas! - de son vivant.



The name of Michael Butterworth is probably not familiar to you unless you confuse him with the sci-fi writer with the same name - and yet he has been one of my favorite crime writers ever since I read his &ppealingly named Flowers for a Dead Witch a decade ago. His books appear at first to be standard gothic thrillers with pretty young girls in jeopardy but their decidedly non-cozy blend of ominous atmosphere, abnormal or deviant psychology and deft plotting is quite personal.

The Black Look is a prime example of his work. It begins with a severed hand found in a young British model Candida Jeans's luggage and continues with more macabre discoveries that bring the already troubles young girl close to suicide - luckily Commissaire Haquin is there to sort things out. 

The book has all of its author's favorite themes and more. It's written from Candida's viewpoint and the least that can be said is that she's having a rough time as the book reads like a long nightmare - the Paris in the book is certainly not the friendly place tourists love so much! - interspersed with flashbacks from the young girl's far from idyllic childhood. Whether or not she is a psychotic killer remains in doubt to the end. The truth will come as a surprise to many readers, I for one certainly didn't see it coming. 

As you can guess from what precedes I strongly recommend this book. It is not always pleasant but makes for compelling reading. Butterworth was a highly individual writer who deserves being re-discovered or just discovered since he seems to have been largely ignored, and unfairly so, in his lifetime. 

23/09/2015

A Neanderthalian view of Christie

John Banville is no fan of Agatha Christie and is not afraid to speak his mind:

When I was a boy, back around the close of the Stone Age, I was an avid reader of the novels of Agatha Christie. Nowadays I am with Edmund Wilson, the title of whose 1945 New Yorker essay, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, expresses my feelings exactly. I say ‘novels’, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time.
Christie is certainly a kind of genius, but one cannot help feeling she would have been better off employed in Bletchley Park as a code-breaker, or working for a manufacturer of board games. Her plots, while highly ingenious, are also wildly improbable, if for no other reason than that the characters who drive them are not characters at all, but marionettes, jerking lifelessly on the ends of their all too visible strings. Her worst fault, however, is that we never feel the slightest twitch of sympathy for, or empathy with, the victim, lying there in the library in a neat puddle of blood. Who could possibly care?

Well billions of readers worldwide, Mr. Banville. I'm not sure there are quite as many caring for the fate of Christine Falls, but I digress. This diatribe suggests that speaking of the "Stone Age" Mr. Banville's thinking has not much evolved since then. It's 2015 and he still regards Edmund Wilson (whom I previously called a "buffoon" but there is a sadly untranslatable French three-letter word that describes him even better) as an authority on crime fiction and regurgitates "arguments" that have long been dismissed such as Christie's alleged poor characterization (guess he hasn't read Five Little Pigs or The Hollow in ages) or the improbability of her plots (inherent to the genre and bothering only to unimaginative sourpusses) As to the bit about the supposed emotionless treatment of victims it is another chestnut which Banville borrowed from Chandler and Robin Cook and like them his case is solid only to those who never read Christie seriously. Oh, and he apparently believes novels he doesn't approve are no proper novels.

Banville defenders will probably say I don't provide any counter-example or counter-argument and I agree - but living in a country that has long been inhospitable to traditional crime fiction I have spent the best years of my life fighting against such ill-informed, prejudiced bile and I have no desire to reiterate what I have said many and many times. My only advice is go and read Christie and make your mind for yourself rather than taking the word of people who diss her (and writers of her school) for not providing what they regard as paramount in fiction and don't see that she does, though not in the flashy, ponderous way they favor. Literary-minded people (and that includes some genre writers and fans) have no clue or appreciation of what the genre is and should be and that's why they're forever troting out Wilson or The Simple Art of Murder. We really don't need them spoiling our fun and should not take them seriously or waste our time replying. I just did and I already regret it. The piece suggests that, all things balanced, modern crime writers are more up-to-date in their understanding of the genre than Bainville's antiquated views make them appear to be. Let's forget about him and curl ourselves up in an armchair with one of Christie's best (or weakest, they all have something to offer - well, maybe not Postern of Fate) That's what life is for.

13/08/2015

C'est un oiseau, c'est un avion, c'est... Hercule Poirot!

L'un des arguments favoris des détracteurs du roman d'énigme est que sa figure centrale, le Grand Détective, est un être fantastique, désespérément irréaliste. Dans la vie réelle, les crimes sont résolus - quand ils le sont - par des professionnels travaillant en équipe, en suivant une procédure qui n'a rien de glamour - interrogatoires, recoupements, examen des preuves, etc. Les amateurs qui utilisent leurs petites cellules grises, c'est du roman (policier) Et de fait on ne les croise que rarement dans la littérature criminelle moderne, qui se pique de vraisemblance et de réalisme. Non, je ne vous donnerai pas mon avis sur cette évolution, mais vous le devinez si vous suivez ce blog régulièrement. Je voudrais seulement pointer que juger le Grand Détective selon des critères réalistes revient peut-être à comparer les pommes et les oranges.

Le Grand Détective est un super-héros au même titre que Superman ou Batman, à ceci près que ses super-pouvoirs à lui sont intellectuels et non physiques. Comme les personnages précités et bien d'autres que je ne citerai pas, il intervient là où la police est impuissante, et dispose d'atouts que celle-ci et le commun des mortels n'auront jamais - et les criminels qu'il affronte sont des super-vilains à leur manière, plus astucieux et retors que le gangster lambda et donc hors de portée de la procédure policière standard. 

Cette approche peut vous paraître tirée par les cheveux, mais elle a le mérite de dégonfler l'argument dont je parlais - oui, le Grand Détective est une figure fantastique, mais that is precisely the point. Les jeunes adolescents piqués par des araignées ne se mettent pas à grimper aux murs et à sauter d'immeuble en immeuble; personne ne va pourtant réclamer la mise au rencart de Spider-Man. Une fois admis que l'on est dans le fantastique et non dans le réalisme, tout devient possible comme dirait l'autre et il n'y a plus qu'à se détendre et apprécier le voyage. C'est ce que je fais depuis mes quinze ans et je vous assure que ça marche très bien.  

A pinch of Berkeley

There aren't many photographs of Anthony Berkeley Cox, a.k.a Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles. I know of only two, one of which - as it happens, the most often reprinted one - makes him look like Adolf Hitler. I am glad to report that I have found a third in Jacques Baudou's and Jean-Jacques Schléret's Le Guide Totem du Polar (Larousse, 2001) It was apparently taken in France in the late 40s or early 50s and shows Berkeley in the company of noted French crime writer Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe and writer/editor Germaine Beaumont. I don't know on which occasion it was taken but the presence of books on the table suggests some kind of book event. 


Endrèbe was a big fan of Berkeley, having translated two of his books (Not to be Taken as Sans Remords and The Vane Mystery as Une femme qui tombe) and repeatedly championed him in his columns and critical work. 

13/02/2015

Where It Comes From

"Anthony Horowitz, who was given official sanction by the Conan Doyle Estate to write a new Holmes novel, “The House of Silk” (2011), and whose “Moriarty” was published in December, said he thought that Sherlock Holmes was the father of all modern detective fiction.
“Every single detective story you read has the same structure: mystery, investigation, solution. And the tradition of the detective’s sidekick comes from there — Poirot has Hastings, Morse has Lewis,” he said, referring to the well-known characters in novels by Agatha Christie and Colin Dexter."

I can see readers of this blog scratching their heads and wondering: "Hey, what about Dupin?" While it would be too harsh and a bit simplistic to dismiss him as just a rip-off of the French detective, Holmes is certainly much indebted to Edgar Allan Poe's creation and most of the genre's features listed by Horowitz can be traced all the way back to The Murders in the Rue Morgue. And yet... Horowitz is right. While Poe and Dupin started it all, Doyle and Holmes certainly played a much more important role in shaping the genre as we know it. 

While initially successful, the Dupin stories made little impact in the long term. It took two decades for the genre to catch on and when it finally did it was in a way that had little in common with the model that Poe deviced. The smart (but not genius) detective was there for sure, but the plots often lacked the mathematical quality aimed at by Poe, stepped as they were in the figures and clichés of popular fiction of the time. At best they were feuilletons with a detective element.

Then Doyle came and changed it all. Sherlock Holmes was every bit a genius as Dupin, but he was also a character, which its predecessor was not (Poe had very little interest in characterization) Same goes for Watson who was a vast improvement in terms of character and voice over Dupin's anonymous companion. The stories (the novels are another matter) adhered to the structure of Poe's Dupin stories - they even refined it, adding a dramatic progression and human interest that were absent from Poe's work. The result was a delayed but ultimately massive success but most of all it was influential: by the end of the century every serious mystery writer was channeling Doyle - and as Horowitz pointed out the model has survived to this day, despite uncountable and sometimes successful attempts to break free from it.

Archive du blog