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.


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. 


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.


Lettre ouverte aux scénaristes de France

Mesdames, Messieurs,

Parce qu'il faut bien vivre et que c'est quoi qu'on en dise la forme la plus populaire de la littérature criminelle, vous prétendez écrire des whodunits que vous entendez faire diffuser à la télévision et regarder par le plus grand nombre. Etant moi-même un grand amateur de ce genre d'histoires (au point d'en faire le sujet de ce blog) je ne vous en ferai pas grief et j'apprécie l'initiative. J'apprécie moins, en revanche, ce qui en résulte.

Je sais que malgré sa popularité que j'évoquais plus haut, le whodunit n'est pas en odeur de sainteté auprès de ceux qui écrivent dans ce pays. On lui reproche son caractère mécanique, artificiel, éloigné de la vraie vie contrairement à ce genre si vrai et réaliste qu'est le roman noir. Mais à partir du moment où l'on choisit d'écrire dans un genre, il faut en respecter les règles même si c'est pour mieux les subvertir; or vous semblez en être incapables.

Contrairement au roman noir, le whodunit ne repose pas simplement sur une histoire, mais sur une intrigue. Cela suppose une construction, or vos tentatives sont tout sauf construites. Tout est aléatoire, gratuit, superflu, sans colonne vertébrale. La révélation finale est rarement une surprise, puisque rien ne la prépare et que vous ne cherchez pas vraiment à surprendre de toute façon. Il faut un coupable, alors vous tirez au sort. C'est du moins l'impression que cela donne.

Une autre règle du whodunit est que tous les indices doivent être fournis au spectateur. L'auteur ne doit pas cacher d'atouts dans sa manche. Eh oui, le whodunit est aussi un jeu. Mais impossible de "jouer" avec vous, puisque des indices vous n'en donnez pas du tout - ni au spectateur, ni même au détective. Celui-ci n'en a d'ailleurs pas besoin puisque (clin d'oeil à Maigret?) il/elle ne déduit jamais rien. La solution lui vient sur un plateau, généralement à cause d'une erreur de l'assassin ou d'une confession spontanée mais commode de celui-ci ou d'un témoin. Vous me direz que cela se passe souvent comme ça dans la sacro-sainte réalité. Je vous répondrai que cela ressemble surtout à un aveu d'incompétence.

Et ne venez pas me dire que le whodunit n'est pas une tradition française; le genre a eu son "Golden Age" entre les deux guerres ici aussi, et se survit encore aujourd'hui avec des gens comme Paul Halter ou Fred Vargas (mais oui) Et vos prédécesseurs étaient tout à fait capables de construire des intrigues solides et cohérentes, revoyez n'importe quel épisode des Cinq Dernières Minutes avec Raymond Souplex si vous en voulez la preuve. Non, avouez-le, vous ne vous cassez pas la nénette parce que vous méprisez le genre, et surtout le public auquel vous vous adressez. Vous préféreriez écrire The Wire

Parfait. Envoyez donc votre CV à David Simon et travaillez pour Engrenages ou Braquo en attendant sa réponse. Mais par pitié, arrêtez de martyriser un genre qui ne vous a rien fait. Ou alors, ayez la dignité élémentaire de bien faire votre boulot. 

Xavier Lechard


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.