The Indispensable Edgar

It's always heartening to find oneself in agreement with a genius, though said genius on another hand may find it depressing depending on how bright one are. I hope Jorge Luis Borges wouldn't be too ashamed to be associated with yours truly. But I digress; let's get straight to the point.

Jorge Luis Borges 
Borges was famously a fan of detective fiction (I stress "detective" as other forms of crime fiction didn't seem to appeal to him as much) and it was thus inevitable that he addresses the subject in one of his conferences, which he did. Sadly the text doesn't appear to be available in English (though it is in French) and the content is too meaty for an extensive summary here; I may come back to it in future posts. What concerns us here is what he says about the putative father of the genre, Edgar Allan Poe. Borges credits him with being one of only two writers, both American as it happens, without which modern literature as we know it wouldn't exist and also for inventing a new kind of reader, one that doesn't take what the author says at face value. Borges then proceeds to show what such a reader would make of the famous opening of Don Quixote which admittedly allows itself particularly well to such a reading. The first point, however, is of particular interest as it is the one in which I have been in agreement with Borges even before I read him. 

English-speaking readers and critics, especially American ones, are often skeptical of Poe's literary value and bemused at his continued popularity, ascribing it either to the sensational and thus appealing nature of his work or to improvement in translation. Rarely do they take him seriously as a founding figure of American literature; they rather grant that status to the more literarily respectable Hawthorne or Melville. 

And yet Poe, as Borges saw, is indispensable in a way that neither Nathaniel or Herman are. The influence of both writers, and I'm saying that as a fan of the former*, is mostly limited to North American literature. Poe on the other hand is a global phenomenon, his heirs are to be found all over the world and many of them were major players in their own right. Strike him out and suddenly there is no Baudelaire, Stevenson, Dostoyevsky, Verne and of course Borges - to name just a few - at least as we know them. He is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for the existence of genres that didn't or barely existed before him - crime fiction of course, but also science-fiction, horror and even adventure in its modern sense. Finally, he contributed to the rise of the tale or short story as a viable and legitimate form of fiction. Now it doesn't necessarily make him a writer of Hawthorne's or Melville's caliber on purely literary grounds (I think it does, but I'm open to discussion) but his legacy is far more important and enduring. 

Not bad for a guy who died at 40 in abject poverty and near obscurity.


Edgar and Willard

Readers of this blog know my péché mignon is to go against the grain and taking stances that are deliberately provocative, counterintuitive or both. You had a prime exemple with my last post in which I bluntly attacked that founding element of the crime fiction genre, series characters. You won't be surprised then that one of my most recent exploits was a post on the Golden Age Detection FB in which I appeared to defend Van Dine's infamous rules, particularly the much-maligned #3 (no love stories) and #16 (no "literary flourishes") I expected some reaction and lots of reaction I had, most of it negative. Even hardcore GA fans love their romantic suplots and atmospheric touches it appears. 

Not that I blame them. My support for Van Dine was mostly tongue-in-cheek, as most of the writers and books I admire wouldn't pass muster if his rules were to be strictly enforced. Still, I think they are not quite without merit either, and certainly in line with the thinking of the "founder" of the genre, Edgar Allan Poe himself. 

While Poe nowadays is primarily known for his fiction and poetry, he was also famous in his lifetime for his literary criticism. Famous but not popular, at least with his colleagues as he eviscerated most of them for their slopping writing, inordinate length and, crucially to him, poor plotting. Poe was probably the first writer to realize that art is not only a matter of inspiration and emotion but of efficiency. He famously delineated his doctrine in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales:

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.

This approach ran contrary to the then-predominant Romantic ideas about creation and was received with skepticism or open contempt by those who thought Art and the Sublime couldn't be reduced to a simple matter of mechanics. To others, however, it was a good lesson and one they strove to follow. What connects Poe to Van Dine, for all their many differences, is this willingness to root out everything extraneous to the effect they sought to achieve, fooling the reader in Van Dine's case. We are fortunate that their respective followers didn't take their advice too literally for the genre wouldn't have gone very far had all detective stories (not novels; Poe was no fan of those) been in the same mould as the Dupin trilogy. On the other hand, we would have been spared much of the phonebook-sized rambling "crime fiction" that tops the bestsellers lists and wins plaudits and awards these days.

My position is a median one. I don't want my mysteries to be sudoku games in (flat) prose, focused on the puzzle at the exclusion of everything else - but neither do I want to be bludgeoned with pages of furniture description, personal relationships and angst whose sole raisons d'être are a higher page count and enhancing the writer's reputation with the Literati. Great crime fiction of the past was both economic and focused, which didn't keep it from being strong on atmosphere and character when the writer saw fit. Just because a book is longer and offers "literary value" doesn't mean that it's good. So maybe Van Dine's rules are still worth thinking over, if not being closely obeyed, after all. 

Further reading:

An "interview" of Edgar Allan Poe on his 200th birthday.

Noah Stewart on Van Dine's rules  


Unpopular Opinion: Down with Series Characters

They're popular with both readers and critics. 
They keep the books selling. 
They're ruining the whole crime fiction genre. 
Who's that? Series characters.

Faithful readers of this blog as well as of my ramblings at Yahoo or Facebook know that I'm of the Julian Symons persuasion on this (and this alone!) and I'd like to explain why. I'm perfectly aware that mine is a minority position in the fandom, even an unpopular one, hence the sayersian title - which is quite ironic given that DLS was partially responsible for the evolution that led to me taking this stance.

Series detectives are as old as the genre itself: the founding text was the first instalment in a  trilogy featuring a Parisian detective. Then came Monsieur Lecoq, Ebenezer Gryce and of course Sherlock and his many rivals and followers. Do I think the genre would have been better off without them or the likes of Ellery Queen, Gideon Fell or Albert Campion? Obviously not. So why don't I extend the same courtesy to James Rebus or Alan Banks? Because these are different series characters inhabiting a different kind of detective stories.

The Canon for instance is not about Sherlock Holmes - we learn very little about him over the course of the stories - but about Sherlock Holmes investigating. Same goes for most of the Great Detectives, including tough guys like Marlowe or Lew Archer. Those characters have distinctive personalities, they are sometimes personally involved in the case at hand and/or are personally affected by it, but their main purpose is to investigate and to solve. They evolve only marginally over time, and each case is forgotten at the beginning of the next book. 

Modern detectives, on the other hand, are the raison d'être of the stories in which they appear. Their personalities, their issues, their relationships, their reactions to the case they're working on are the real subject of the book and the reason why readers follow them. This is in line with the modern crime novel's emphasis on character over plot, in line too with the modern love of serialized fiction - think of how TV shows have evolved from self-contained episodes to complex storylines running over whole seasons, or how the Marvel Shared Universe has completely redefined the very concept of a blockbuster. The effect in most cases however is rather that of a long-running and bloodier than usual soap opera than of "serious" novels. Another drawback is the danger of becoming too formulaic, which already existed with "old" series characters but becomes even more threatening and visible when the necessities of the feuilleton bar you from experimenting with viewpoints and structure. Finally, this brand of crime fiction attracts a kind of reader that is not primarily concerned with the criminal element but with "what happens next" to the detective, which in turn encourages writers to focus on the latter at the expense of the former.

My main criticism, however, is of an artistic order. While I'm (correctly) seen as a lover and defender of vintage crime fiction, I want modern crime fiction to be modern, which it is not, at least on a literary level. The contemporary crime novel, with its clearly delineated characters and social realism, not to mention its impressive lengths, harks back to the Victorian, at best Edwardian, era. The novelties of the twentieth century have mostly bypassed it, probably because of the hostility of writers (I've lost a count of the times I've read crime writers patting themselves on the back for not succumbing to the modernist/postmodernist sirens that according to them killed literary fiction a long time ago) It wasn't always that way: Golden Age and psychological suspense writers were not afraid to experiment and learn from their literary colleagues; it was the hardboiled school that refused to go with the times and ultimately imposed a naturalistic framework upon the whole genre, a rare case of a successful counter-revolution in the field of the arts. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Philip MacDonald in the Thirties was more modern than John D. twenty years later.

Series characters as they do exist now stand in the way of the crime novel becoming fully modern, whatever that means to you. They must either become again what they used to be and leave the spotlight to the people involved in the case, or go the way of dinosaurs. It is of course wishful thinking as neither will happen; everyone from writers and readers to the all-(too)-powerful editors and publishers are okay with the state of things - and that's what makes this post an "unpopular opinion". 

Et le gagnant est.../And the Winner Is...

Sauf cas imprévu et improbable où je trouverais un chef-d'oeuvre à lire dans les huit prochaines heures, ce livre sera mon Livre de l'Année. 2017 n'aura pas été une grande année en ce qui concerne mes lectures, ayant souffert d'un blocage pendant plusieurs mois et très peu des livres que j'ai réussis à lire m'ayant fait une forte impression. Espérons que 2018 soit meilleure sur ce plan.

Unless I finally find something to read in the eight hours left before the big jump and it turns out to be a masterpiece, the book below will be my Book of the Year. 2017 was a rather so-so year as far as reading goes; I was on reader's block most of the time and few of the books I managed to read made a lasting impression. Let's hope 2018 is better.


John Dickson Carr's Lush Life Problem

This blog has been inactive for three months but it doesn't mean I'm not doing any thinking, far from it. One of my recent musings was about (surprise, surprise) JDC and the chances of a revival of his work. Everyone here knows I've been hoping for that for decades now and I have not forfeited every hope that it finally happens. Still, having re-read him lately I found that maybe things are more complicated than I thought for reasons that I'll call the "Lush Life" factor.
Since mystery and jazz are often linked in popular culture and even in the genre itself, I have no doubt there are connoisseurs of both over there. For others, though, a word of explanation may be necessary. "Lush Life" is a song by Duke Ellington's buddy Billy Strayhorn that has
Billy Strayhorn
become a staple of jazz music, recorded by everyone important or not in the field from Coltrane to Nat King Cole to Julie London. I don't have a count of all versions but it's certainly an impressive number. And yet the song has never been a hit. Why? Because of its complexity that makes it extremely difficult to play, to sing (Frank Sinatra famously failed to, and he was no slouch at the game) and for a casual listener to wrap his mind around as the song frequently changes chords and has no chorus. You can't hum "Lush Life" like you can do with, say, "Despacito" (sorry Billy for such a blasphemous comparison)
What's the connection with John Dickson Carr, you will ask? Well, Carr's plots are exceedingly complex and make huge demands on the reader's mind and attention. You miss one detail and you miss the whole plot. Also, you have to accept his decidedly unrealistic stance that requires you to swallow entire bottles of suspend-your-disbelief pills. That's not something everyone can do, accept to do, or even is suited to do. Carr, as Borges said about Poe, invents his own reader as he goes along - and leaves others behind.

What precedes is not a criticism. I, for one, love mysteries like I love my music - sophisticated and complex. But that's not what the general public wants, especially now. And so it's unlikely Carr ever regains his towering status commercially, though connoisseurs will always cherish his work (I certainly will) making equally unlikely that a major publisher reprints it. The indefatigable Martin Edwards has repeatedly hinted that he wanted Carr to join the British Library Crime Classics's stable but that the team behind it had always objected thus far because Carr, for all his "Englishness" was an American. Maybe the success of their foreign-themed anthology "Foreign Bodies" will mellow their stance enough for them to consider adding JDC to their roster of authors. I can't see any other way to bring him back into the spotlight in which he so richly belongs.


Agreeing to Disagreeing

Genre historians (or readers of my blog remembering my series on Edgar winners) know of that strange period in the Sixties when the MWA turned their backs on local talent and gave the Best Novel prize to British writers eight years in a row. I've always found this miniature "British invasion" interesting first for what it said about the current state of American crime fiction - then hardly in its finest hour coming after the creative explosion of the Fifties - and also because several (well, most) of those winners from abroad were virtually ignored at home.

If you take a glance at Golden Dagger and Edgar winners for that period you'll see that they overlap only once - when John Le Carré became the first of only two writers, both Brits as it happens, ever to scoop both awards for the same book. Of the other seven British Best Novel winners only two - Julian Symons's The Progress of a Crime and Eric Ambler's The Light of Day - secured a Gold Dagger nomination; the remaining ones didn't get any love and their Edgar success must have surprised a lot of people in their country of origin, probably including the authors themselves. Conversely, the Golden Dagger winners of the period barely made it to the Edgar shortlist, with only Lionel Davidson (The Night of Wenceslas) and H.R.F. Keating (The Perfect Murder) being able to achieve some recognition - but no win.

Obviously the Yanks had their own idea of what the best of British crime fiction was, an idea the persons concerned didn't agree with. The feeling was reciprocated for in the meantime the CWA rewarded two perennial American Edgar losers, Ross MacDonald and Emma Lathen, for books that the MWA had completely bypassed.

It was only the beginning. Over the next five decades both awards would routinely ignore each other's choices and now and then try to be smart by nominating/rewarding a book that was ignored on the other side of the Atlantic, a reminder that the Americans and the British still hold different views about "good" crime fiction - and that's fine by me. Besides, why should they agree when American awards themselves rarely do with each other? But more on this later.


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.