The Demise of Twisters

"Call me old-fashioned, bjt without twists I don't consider crime short stories worthy of the name, and regret that that seems no longer to be the rule."

Thus spoke the late British crime writer David Williams, as quoted by Tim Heald in his introduction to the final volume of the Folio Club's Great Stories of Crime and Detection. Heald contrasts this with Liza Cody's following statement about the story of hers that she selected for inclusion in the collection:

"It wasn't a whodunit or even a whydunnit and there isn't any suspense because you already know what happened. But it was horribly ambitious because it attempted to take you into the mind of an ignorant, prejudiced kid as she comes to some intuition about the real victim became a victim."

David Williams
Heald then goes on to say that both approaches are valid and takes them as evidence that the genre is more varied and ambitious than it was back in the Golden Age (Heald must have read and enjoyed Julian Symons's Bloody Murder) I for one would say that there is a fundamental difference between Williams and Cody's takes on their craft that Heald fails to see: Williams aims to write crime short fiction whereas Cody writes short fiction that happens to be (peripherically) about a crime. And Williams is right that his views while formerly mainstream are no longer predominant - it was already true back in 2002 and is a truism now as the perusing of any edition of Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories series will show. 

Jack Ritchie
Part of my upbringing as a mystery reader was done by reading Alfred Hitchcock anthologies; they were replete with the kind of stories David Williams cherished, and I loved them. Even when I guessed how it would end, I was admirative of the writers's ability to constantly renew their plots, characters and settings and pack the whole thing into less than thirty pages. Being an aspiring writer at the time who struggled with length, I was happy to see there was nothing wrong with keeping things short. People like Jack Ritchie, Henry Slesar, Arthur Porges, Edward D. Hoch, C.B. Gilford, Robert Arthur became demi-gods to me and I still read or re-read their work with untarnished pleasure.

None of their stories would make it into a modern anthology, however - and interestingly only Ritchie and Hoch won awards. They were too plot-driven and not "ambitious" enough at a time when a good crime story must read more like Raymond Carver than Stanley Ellin.  Most recent Edgar winners in the Short Story category I don't recognize at crime fiction - at least, my kind of it - at all (and some are openly not, such as John Connolly's otherwise fine The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository or Stephen King's Obits which are fantasy rather than mystery) 

I remember my amazement when reading Otto Penzler boasting in his preface to one of his anthologies that very few or none at all involved a detective or a puzzle, one of them dispensing with a crime altogether. I didn't buy the book and left the bookstore wondering what had happened to crime fiction. I should have asked David Williams; he knew. 



This entry is bilingual. Scroll down for the English-language version.

Le lecteur fidèle de ce blog (il a bien du mérite) a sans doute remarqué que j'y parle très rarement des livres que je lis, contrairement à la plupart de mes estimés collègues. Il y a deux raisons à cela. La première, c'est que je lis beaucoup moins qu'eux. Il fut un temps où j'atteignais la centaine de livres par an, mais cela fait un bail et à présent je considère que vingt ou trente est un bon score. La seconde, est que je suis incapable de décider de lire.  C'est le livre qui me choisit, et non l'inverse - et il peut me faire attendre très longtemps. Je viens ainsi de terminer Qui veut la peau de Philip Banter de John Franklin Bardin que j'avais dans ma bibliothèque depuis... 1992. Rassurez-vous, je n'ai pas attendu aussi longtemps pour essayer de le lire, j'ai même fait de nombreuses tentatives, mais elles se sont toutes soldées par un échec: je ne dépassais pas la première page. Pourquoi je suis parvenu cette fois à le lire en entier, c'est un mystère y compris pour moi mais - croyez-le ou non - il y a de nombreux autres livres sur mes rayonnages qui se font désirer depuis encore plus longtemps. D'autres en revanche sont moins farouches: mon préféré de cette année, Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour? de Georges Pérec, s'est laissé lire sans barguigner le jour même où je l'ai ramené de la médiathèque. Comment je l'explique? Je ne peux pas. Il faut donc vivre avec, même si c'est très frustrant. J'aimerais beaucoup pouvoir changer de modèle, ne serait-ce que parce que je ne rajeunis pas et qu'à ce train-là il y a quantité de mes livres que je ne lirai probablement jamais. Il y a aussi que je manque de place - ce qui ne m'empêche pas de continuer à acheter des bouquins - et que je me vois mal vendre ou jeter des livres que je n'ai pas lus. Que faire? La suite au prochain épisode. 

P.S.: Le Bardin est très bien, même si l'explication finale est un peu tirée par les cheveux. 

You may have noticed that I rarely review books on this blog, unlike most of my esteemed colleagues. The reason is twofold. First, I don't read as much as they do - there was a time when I averaged 110 books a year but it was long ago and now I call it a good year when I manage 20 or 30. Second, I'm unable to read on purpose. The book chooses me, not the other way round, and it can keep me hanging on a long, long time. To give you an example, I've just finished reading John Franklin Bardin's The Last of Philip Banter which I bought... in 1992. I made several attempts at reading it in the meantime but somehow it never worked - I couldn't get past the first page. Why I was finally able to read it this time is anyone's guess but, believe me or not, there are books on my shelves that have been taunting me for an even longer time. Some on the other hand are easier - I read my favorite novel of the year so far, Georges Pérec's Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? (not a mystery) on the very day that I borrowed it from my local library. How do I explain that? I can't - and I have to live with it, which is very frustrating. I'd really like to change my ways, if only because I'm not getting younger and going this way there are many books I own that I'll never read, a depressing prospect. Also I'm running out of place - worsened by the fact that I keep buying more books - and I can't bring myself to sell or dispose of books that I haven't read, that I might read. What can I do? Stay tuned for the possible answer - but don't hold your breath. 

P.S.: The Bardin is truly excellent, despite the final explanation being a little rushed. Strongly recommended. 


Golden Dozens, cont'd

Nobody asked for it but here they are nevertheless - my own twelve favorite crime/mystery stories! Hard as I tried to be more inclusive and contemporary than the 1950 jury, my list reflects my strong preference for vintage crime; the earliest story - which also happens to be the single French-language entry - is more than thirty years old. Also, despite my criticisms of the original Golden Dozen for being too biased towards traditional mysteries my own list heavily favors the genre too, though it makes room for two crime stories, one thriller and a story that defies any categorization. Finally, I had not realized until now the thing I have for Christmas mysteries - two of them feature in this list and I was about to add a third (Stanley Ellin's Death on Christmas's Eve) when I thought it might be a little too much. The keen-eyed will notice that my list has no title in common with the 1950 one but that's because 1°) I tried to be original - you'll tell me how well I've succeeded - 2°) I haven't read all of the stories in it and didn't rate the ones I read as highly as the jurors did*. But enough talk, here it is and feel free to use the comment sections to give your opinion and if needed throw me some tomatoes!

On Christmas Day in the Morning (Margery Allingham)
The Glass Bridge (Robert Arthur)
Blind Man's Hood (John Dickson Carr)
The Eye of Apollo (G.K. Chesterton)
Triangle at Rhodes (Agatha Christie)
The Adventure of the Naval Treaty (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Moonlight Gardener (Robert L. Fish)
The Answer (Bruce M. Fisher)
Lonely Place (C.B. Gilford)
The Unlikely Demise of Cousin Claude (Charlotte MacLeod)
Lettres de mon malin (Pierre Siniac)
The Fall of the Coin (Ruth Rendell)

*The greatness of The Hands of Ottermole still eludes me to this day, despite Boucher's praise and Doug Greene's attempts at converting me. Naboth's Vineyard I find to be one the weakest entries in the Uncle Abner canon; The Age of Miracles would have been a much better choice. 


Golden Dozens

The April 1950 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine deserves a place in the magazine's own hall of fame for introducing the world to John Dickson Carr's classic The Gentleman from Paris but the rest of the contents is equally impressive, boasting big names like Graham Greene, Rufus King, Margery Allingham or Lawrence G. Blochman. Anthony Berkeley is in too, with a reprint of The Avenging Chance, arguably his masterpiece in the short form and the matrix for his best-known novel, The Poisoned Chocolates Case. The story appears as part of a series devoted to the best mystery short stories ever - the Golden Dozen - as chosen by a "panel of perfectionists" composed among others  of James Hilton, Howard Haycraft, John Dickson Carr, Anthony Boucher, Vincent Starrett, August Derleth, Viola Brothers Shore, Ellery Queen (of course) and James Sandoe. Queen's introduction provides us with both the official list of the "Lucky Twelve" and Sandoe's personal picks. Both lists overlap at times, but also bear some differences as we shall see.

The "official" Golden Dozen

The Hands of Mr. Ottermole (Thomas Burke)
The Purloined Letter (Edgar Allan Poe)
The Red-Headed League (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
The Avenging Chance (Anthony Berkeley)
The Absent-Minded Coterie (Robert Barr)
The Problem of Cell 13 (Jacques Futrelle)
The Oracle of the Dog (G.K. Chesterton)
Naboth's Vineyard (Melville Davisson Post)
James Sandoe
The Gioconda Smile (Aldous Huxley)
The Yellow Slugs (H.C. Bailey)
The Genuine Tabard (E.C. Bentley)
Suspicion (Dorothy L. Sayers)

James Sandoe's Golden Dozen

The Avenging Chance
The Hands of Mr. Ottermole
The Other Hangman (Carter Dickson)
The Red-Headed League
The Gioconda Smile
Sail (Lester Dent)
The Yellow Slugs
The Honour of Israel Gow (G.K. Chesterton)
Death on Pine Street (Dashiell Hammett)
The Man Who Murdered in Public (Roy Vickers)

To a modern reader the most striking features of both lists are the heavy bias towards traditional detective stories and the strong showing of now comparatively obscure plot-spinners like Post, Futrelle, Bailey or Bentley. Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich are nowhere to be seen. Hardboiled, noir and psychological suspense despite their popularity at the time with the reading public don't seem to exist (though Sandoe departs by including two hardboiled stories in his list) 

This is not to say that their choices aren't good, for most of them are (don't get me started with Ottermole whose appeal I'll probably never understand) but they're typical of a mindset firmly stuck in the pre-WW2 years. A 2017 list would probably be more inclusive - but it would also lack most of the items listed here, which would be a pity. It would be interesting to know the other jurors's personal picks; I'm most curious as to Boucher's and of course Carr's (no risk of having him picking up a Chandler story!) 

What would be your own Golden Dozen? Feel free to post it in the comments section or on the blog's FB page - maybe I'll post mine if someone's interested. 

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