Un temps révolu?

Pierre Sérisier à propos de la série Origines:

Personne n'a eu l'audace d'expliquer que cette intrigue relève du Cluedo. Vous savez, ce jeu où c'est toujours le colonel Moutarde qui est le meurtrier avec un chandelier dans le salon. J'y jouais quand j'étais gamin au début des années 70. Et bien, on en est encore là. On réfléchit aux séries policières françaises comme s'il fallait adapter Boileau-Narcejac ou Georges Simenon. Non, c'est fini. Ce temps est révolu. Agatha Christie appartient au passé.

Mettre dans le même sac des auteurs aussi différents et qui, pour d'eux entre eux, sont parmi les plus lus dans le monde et en France*, et proclamer leur obsolescence - voilà qui peut surprendre. Les assimiler au jeu de Cluedo (quand seule Christie ressort du roman d'énigme dont le Cluedo est une caricature) et taxer celui-ci de ringardise, aussi. Mais nous sommes en France, et tout s'explique.

Le whodunit, puisque c'est lui qui est visé, est pratiquement absent du paysage éditorial français depuis plusieurs décennies, si l'on excepte la valeur sûre qu'est Christie, des anomalies en voie de résorption comme Paul Halter et quelques rééditions éparses - toujours les mêmes d'ailleurs - qui ne suscitent que peu d'intérêt dans les médias. Cela ne tient pas, malgré les apparences, à une désaffection du public mais au fait que ceux qui font la pluie et le beau temps dans ce domaine - éditeurs, critiques, journalistes - préfèrent largement des formes plus modernes et à leurs yeux plus "littéraires" à commencer par le sacro-saint roman noir qu'ils n'ont donc de cesse de promouvoir. Le whodunit, à leurs yeux, est dépassé, ringard et aussi peu digne d'attention et de soutien que les romans de Barbara Cartland. C'est ainsi que le dernier éditeur spécialisé en France, Le Masque, a définitivement tourné casaque au début de ce siècle sous la férule d'une directrice dont l'objectif avoué était d'en faire un Rivages bis** (comme si un seul ne suffisait pas...) Adieu Peter Lovesey, bonjour Don Winslow!

Difficile dans ce contexte d'admettre que le genre se porte bien dans les pays anglo-saxons, sous une forme certes modernisée et parfois caricaturale, le "cozy" (douillet, parce que peu porté sur la violence et le sexe contrairement au noir et au thriller) Son auteur-phare, la canadienne Louise Penny, connait un succès critique et commercial retentissant, consacré par de nombreux prix et distinctions. On ne s'étonnera pas qu'elle n'ait jusqu'ici suscité qu'un intérêt limité et passablement étonné ("ça existe encore, ce genre de truc?") chez nous, et on la cherchera en vain dans la sélection pour le Grand Prix de Littérature Noire Policière.

La vision déformée et réductrice que se fait la France de la "Planète Polar" est un sujet que j'ai abordé à plusieurs reprises sur ce blog et quelque chose me dit que je n'en ai pas fini.

* Tellement populaire dans le cas de Christie qu'une suite vient d'être donnée aux aventures de son détective Hercule Poirot!

** Le Masque a semble-t-il décidé de renouer avec ses racines depuis le départ de Mme Aubert vers d'autres cieux, comme le suggère le réveil de la "collection jaune" et des rééditions de Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout et autres.


Sir Richard

Je ne connais pas très bien son oeuvre en tant que réalisateur, mais j'apprécie ce que j'en ai vu (Les Griffes du Lion en particulier, qui me semble un film très sous-estimé) C'est surtout en tant qu'acteur que je me souviendrai de lui - et quel acteur! Gang de tueurs, La Grande évasion, Hold-up à Londres, Le Rideau de brume, Le Vol du Phénix et tant d'autres. Son moment de gloire à mon avis fut le très sous-estimé 10, Rillington Place où il offre l'une des interprétations les plus inquiétantes de l'histoire du cinéma. Si les Oscars se gagnaient vraiment au mérite, il aurait reçu une nomination et peut-être même une statuette. R.I.P.

I'm not familiar with his work as a director, but I like what I've seen (his You-Know-Who biopic, Young Winston, is very underrated I think) I'll remember him first as an actor - and what an actor! Brighton Rock, The Great Escape, The League of Gentlemen, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, The Flight of the Phenix and many others. His greatest moment, I think, was the much underrated 10, Rillington Place where he delivered one of the most chilling performances in film history; if Oscars were really about merit, he would have earned a nomination and maybe won. R.I.P.


Those Who Don't Know History...

Over at the Facebook Golden Age of Detection group, Jeffrey Marks said something which, I think, deserves closer examination:

"Science fiction has a fandom that knows its history. Mystery does not. I would love to see that change to honor all the incredible writers of the past 150 years."

Sci-fi fans are indeed very knowledgeable about the history of their favorite genre. So are horror/fantasy and western buffs. I would venture to say that crime fiction is the only genre with such a blatant lack of interest in its past. Why is it so? I can think of several factors:

1°) The influence of the hardboiled school which convinced everyone that all crime writing prior to the advent of Dashiell Hammett was utter rubbish and that a "good" mystery must be realistic, gritty and socially and politically conscious. As most vintage crime fiction fails to pass that arbitrary test, it is deemed to be uninteresting and left to rust by fans and critics alike.

2°) The mystery community's longstanding craving for respectability. Vintage crime writers rarely took themselves or their work "seriously" and very few attempted to "transcend the genre"; their aim was to entertain and that they did very well. In short, they were not "literary" and, to the modern mystery fan, are artifacts of an embarrassing past that is thankfully behind us. Better to let them buried deep.

3°) A significant lot of contemporary mystery fans are not fans at all. They come from the mainstream (much like the authors they most admire) and the kind of mysteries they enjoy most is the one that has all the trappings of mainstream fiction. They're not interested in plots and puzzles or only very peripherically; what they want first is characters they can "relate" to, hence their enthusiasm for series and character-driven crime novels. They also want substance which for them is measured by length. They are not averse to vintage crime fiction, but they mostly stick with the valeurs sûres like Doyle or the Crime Queens. They have no desire to go further.

Needless to say, that is a situation that I don't like. But how can it be fixed? Most people don't even see that as problem, and it is a logical result of the evolution of the genre in the last sixty years from pure escapism to "literary significance".  We lovers of vintage crime fiction must learn to accept our minority status and support those brave publishers who keep the old stuff alive or bring it back to light. They may ultimately come in handy someday to today's presentists: if the "tradition" is to hold, maybe no one in 2070 will know who Gillian Flynn and Dennis Lehane were.


Abe, Poor Abe

I have nothing against fantastic retellings of history (I wouldn't read Tim Powers otherwise) and silly movies can be fun sometimes (think of Invasion U.S.A.) So I had no objection a priori to the concept of Old Abe killing vampires. My problem - well, my main problem - with Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is that it looks awful and fake.

Like all too many recent Hollywood flicks, ALVH looks like it's tinted: some scenes are all blue, some are all brown, others are all yellow, etc. What few colours survive are invariably flattened for fear that they might look bright - for brigtness is bad, not "serious" and not "artistic". I was shocked when the end titles told me the one responsible for all that hideousness was none other than Caleb Deschanel, hardly a lightweight or a newcomer and apparently not stricken with daltonism. Clearly there is now a mandate in Hollywood for visual blandness and ugliness; no surprise then that Terrence Malick works as an independent. Better not to imagine what Black Narcissus or Lawrence of Arabia would look like if they were made today. Leon Shamroy and Russell Metty need no apply.

As if that wasn't bad enough, ALVH is also high on CGIs (nearly all action scenes are virtual to some extent) and very obviously studio-bound. The sets look painfully like sets, no matter how digitally altered they are. As to What's-his-name who plays the title role, he's as credible playing Lincoln as Sylvester Stallone would be playing Queen Elizabeth. Same thing goes for Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd. Hollywood has never been comfortable with ugliness and average looks (the 70s being a notable but short-lived exception) and there's little that can be done about it, but it's no reason to accept anything.

That being said, maybe the book is better (though I have my doubts as the author adapted it for the screen himself and can't pretend to have been betrayed by the result) I bought it when it came out, and should give it a look - if only I could remember where it is. 

Further reading:

"Teal and Orange - Hollywood, Please Stop the Madness" by Todd Miro

"Whatever Happened to Colour?" by Pete Emslie



Nothing New Under The Sun

The blurb which I scorned in my previous post, thinking it exemplified the changing tastes in crime fiction, was actually copied-and-pasted from the original edition. The Passing Tramp's Curtis Evans blogged about it one year ago. The preference for "easier" (some might say, "dumbed-down") crime fiction is thus nothing new. That writers like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr were big at the time doesn't mean that everyone was looking for elaborate, deliberate and complicated plots. There have always been people looking for the cheap version. Murder, She Wrote would never have been a success otherwise.


You've Come a Long Way, Baby

From the blurb of the Book Revivals edition of Dorothy Cameron Disney's THE STRAWSTACK MURDERS which I received today (along with another book of hers, her first, Death in the Back Seat)

"Unlike many of the mystery stories of the time, STRAWSTACK avoids devices that may become annoying: There is no omniscient detective, no long, boring, repetitious interviews with servants, no scientific tests and experts, and, best of all, no complicated, confusing house or room plans."

Promoting a Golden Age mystery by trashing Golden Age mysteries: Talk about inventive advertising. To think that what BR people deem "annoying" was once what made the genre popular - and unique! This tells us everything we need to know about the evolution of said genre over the last half century - some will say it was for the good, but it won't come to you as a surprise that I'm not so sure. The late Milward Kennedy who was so fond of floor plans (a fondness that much amused John Dickson Carr) would surely be shocked to see that his pet device is now regarded as "complicated" and "confusing"!

P.S.: Has anyone read Cameron Disney's book? I've read only two of her books, Thirty Days Hath September (co-written with George Sessions Perry) and her swan song, The Hangman's Tree. I liked both enough to want to give her another look: well written, atmospheric, good characterization and competent plotting. I see she's often associated with the HIBK school but I didn't feel it when reading her - but then neither did I feel it when reading Mary Roberts Rinehart, the alleged founder and queen of that much-maligned subgenre.


Men Under the Influence

I'm re-reading for the upteenth time French scholar François Rivière's masterful and beautifully illustrated survey of the genre, "Les Couleurs du Noir" (Colours of Noir) While he was somewhat biased in favor of psychological suspense and the modern crime novel at the time of its publication (he has reversed course since) Rivière makes some interesting points, one of them being that Christie was probably more influential on male writers rather than female ones, who tend to be more innovative and less convention-bound.

It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but actually makes sense when you're familiar with the history of female crime fiction. While most of the credit for breaking off from Golden Age orthodoxy goes to the very male-driven hardboiled school and some British mavericks like Anthony Berkeley or Richard Hull, the truth is that female writers did more than their share to bring up the change, and sometimes initiated it. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes or Elizabeth Sanxay Holding dispensed with the puzzle plot (which most hardboiled writers, starting with Hammett and Chandler, kept adhering to) long before the likes of Francis Iles and James M. Cain; and the arcane plots of hardboiled fiction and psychological suspense can be traced to the early twentieth century work of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Writers most comparable to Christie in terms of approach, plotting and virtuosity are almost all males - Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, even S.S. Van Dine. The other so-called crime queens (Allingham, Marsh, Sayers, some would add Mitchell and Tey) were typically less interested in orthodox puzzle plotting, deception and more likely to "push the envelope". (As a matter of fact, Sayers or Allingham are today more celebrated as "literary" writers than detective writers) 

So I think Rivière had a point, though I disagree that following in Christie's steps is a bad thing and a sign of backwardness. I like mysteries that "push the envelope" (don't say "transcend the genre"!) but I also like some orthodoxy; it may even be more challenging. Breaking the rules is easy; expressing one's personality while following them is much harder and far more rewarding.