24/07/2017

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. 


19/07/2017

Confession

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. 

06/07/2017

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. 

04/07/2017

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
Suspicion
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. 

22/06/2017

What's New? Futrelle!

You may remember this article years ago in which I bemoaned the then-current rise of the ebook and pledged everlasting love to the printed paper. Amazon and its Kindle would never conquer me, I swore. Time passed and, well, only fools never change their minds as the old French saying goes. I now have two Kindles and use them a lot, mostly to read those long-lost, most but not all public domain, mysteries that the ebook bubble suddenly brought back to light. I still cling to my paper books and they prevail every time I'm allowed to choose, but I would have missed a lot of amazing stuff had I stuck to my initial Luddite feeling.


One of those digital discoveries is Jacques Futrelle and his Thinking Machine stories. Rediscovery would be a better word as I already knew both the creator and his creature for having read a sample of their output via Roland Lacourbe's excellent French-language anthology Treize enquêtes de la Machine à Penser. They made a more than favorable impression upon me and I was eager for more, but alas those thirteen stories were all that was available in French at the time, and my English was not yet good enough to allow me to read Futrelle in the original language. Besides, most of his stories were out of print and not easily available. I moved on to other, more recent writers but kept an eye on Amazon and other purveyors in the hope that someone reprints the whole Van Dusen canon.

Fast forward fifteen years and nearly all of Futrelle's output is available for free or very cheap in the Kindle store. I bought a Thinking Machine megapack and started to read, one story at the time, a little afraid not to be able to recapture my initial enthusiasm. I needed not worry: the stories I had read were as good as I remembered them, and the other were for the most part very pleasant surprises.

What amazed me and still amazes me most is how well the stories have aged - probably because they were ahead of their time in many respects. The plots are imaginative and clever if sometimes far-fetched and play fair with the reader at a time when it was not yet a requirement. They also use a lot of misdirection, which is another unusual feature in pre-Trent detective fiction. This is not to say that Futrelle saw his stories as a duel of wits between him and the reader, but neither did he think of them as pure exercises in ratiocination - he was out to puzzle and fool, not just lay down a problem and then provide an explanation. 

Another modern feature of his work, perhaps the one that keeps it fresh after all those years, is the writing, which is much less stilted than that of his contemporaries, especially British ones. Being a journalist by trade Futrelle knew how to tell a gripping story with a few words and without excessive flourish. This kind of writing, which John Dickson Carr would call "journalese", would become a distinctive feature of the American school of crime fiction, regardless of the subgenre and may have been a leading factor in its global success and influence on the long run. 

Finally there is the Thinking Machine, Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen himself. Futrelle may have created him partly with his tongue in his cheek, as Van Dusen like Poirot later exhibits some physical features (the size and shape of his head in particular) that were bigger than life even then. Still, he is a memorable character and one of the best detectives of his time. Modern readers may find him unlikeable, but so were many of his colleagues at the time - readers then didn't seek to relate to a fictional detective but to be awed by him, and Van Dusen certainly delivers in that department. It is interesting to compare him with the other great detective scientist of the time, Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke - both share an encyclopaedic knowledge and near-universal expertise but Van Dusen has a more abrasive temper and speaks in a much less ornate way. Also, Van Dusen tend to rely less on arcane knowledge than Thorndyke's. 

The only serious problem with Futrelle, and one he sadly couldn't fix, is that he died too soon to reach his full potential. Had he not embarked on the Titanic he might have gone to even greater things and maybe dramatically hastened the evolution of American crime fiction. Be that as it may, he remains of those few writers who gave its country a distinctive voice at a time when most of his fellow-compatriots contended themselves with channeling Conan Doyle. 

31/03/2017

MBE contre JDC

Les prénoms et nom de Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe ne disent plus grand-chose aujourd'hui qu'aux polardeux fondamentalistes tels que votre serviteur, mais il fut pendant plusieurs décennies l'un des piliers du roman policier français, en tant qu'auteur, critique, traducteur? éditeur et fondateur du Grand Prix de Littérature Policière.  Il fut à son époque et demeure encore à ce jour ce qui se rapproche le plus d'un Anthony Boucher français et sa contribution ne doit pas être négligée: on lui doit au moins un chef-d'oeuvre incontesté (La Pire des choses) et il a traduit, popularisé et défendu nombre d'auteurs majeurs du genre - même s'il n'hésitait pas à retoquer/abréger/réécrire quand il le jugeait nécessaire, comme cela se faisait couramment en ces temps moins éclairés. Son dévouement sans faille et à contre-courant au roman d'énigme est également digne d'éloge. Il avait pourtant ses limites et surtout ses têtes. Il fut ainsi l'un des nombreux critiques français à "casser" du Ross MacDonald ce qui ne laisse pas de surprendre tant cet auteur est de tous les grands du "noir" le plus à même de séduire les tenants d'un classicisme strict. Une autre de ses têtes de turc, plus surprenante encore, était John Dickson Carr et c'est ce le sujet de ce post. Endrèbe traduisit plusieurs de ses livres, dont le célèbre (chez nous) La Chambre ardente, mais en bon français cartésien ne goûtait guère la veine plus... imaginative de l'auteur. J'avais cité dans un article de la version MSN de Mayhem Parva (disparue depuis) une recension par lui et Georges Rieben du Meurtre des Mille et une nuits où tous deux qualifiaient le livre d'absurde et regrettaient que le traducteur ne l'ait pas coupé de moitié; j'aurais pu citer également si j'en avais eu connaissance à l'époque la diatribe suivante que l'on trouve dans le courrier des lecteurs du numéro 32 de Mystère Magazine, Endrèbe répondant à un lecteur qui avait eu le front de considérer que les romans policiers anglo-saxons de l'époque étaient supérieurs à ce qui se faisait alors en France:

"Je passe à la lettre de M. Bruni et je suis obligé de protester quand il écrit que même les moins bons romans de Dickson Carr sont infiniment supérieurs à ceux de Pierre Boileau. J'en appelle à tous vos lecteurs: est-ce que Le Repos de Bacchus et Six crimes sans assassin ne valent pas vingt fois mieux que La Flèche peinte (sic), La Maison de la Peste, La Maison de la Terreur, Suicide à l'écossaise ou L'Habit fait le moine? Enfin, comme je ne traduis que des livres sélectionnés par moi - et il m'en faut bien lire vingt pour en trouver un bon - votre correspondant me rendrait un fier service en m'indiquant ceux auxquels il fait allusion dans son dernier paragraphe, mais s'il s'agit de The Blind Barber, It Walks by Night ou The Unicorn Murders de Dickson Carr, non merci!"

On s'amusera soixante ans plus tard de ce que les livres de Carr que Endrèbe considère comme des repoussoirs soient considérés par les spécialistes comme comptant parmi les chefs-d'oeuvre de leur auteur, alors que ceux qu'il estima dignes d'être traduits par lui sont (Chambre ardente excepté) relativement mineurs. Et osera-t-on dire que les livres de Boileau qu'il encense pâlissent un peu en regard du point de vue de l'astuce et de l'imagination? C'est après tout cohérent de la part de quelqu'un qui dans la même lettre considère que Noël Vindry n'a jamais écrit de véritable grand livre ou que Je ne suis pas coupable de Christie est un roman "faible", inférieur à Meurtre au champagne. La règle étant de ne jamais médire des morts, seul le silence s'impose - mais je serais curieux de savoir si M. Bruni ou quelque autre fan de Carr s'est manifesté pour défendre l'honneur du Maître de Mamaroneck. 

29/05/2016

Ba-bye

I'm done with blogging, at least for now. It's not another instance of writer's block but just the plain fact that I have nothing left to say.
When I started At the Villa Rose almost ten years ago, there was no other blog that I know of that dealt exclusively with vintage crime fiction and promoted it; everyone loved contemporary stuff and found no reason to explore what came before. Had anyone at the time said that Golden Age mysteries would soon be the rage and the British Library would reprint J. Jefferson Farjeon and F.W. Crofts, I and most of my few readers would have laughed it off.

A decade passed and everything changed. Other blogs appeared and suddenly vintage crime fiction was everywhere on the web; publishers finally took notice and broadened their horizons; people like Martin Edwards and Curtis Evans played a decisive part in bringing this about, with the former's towering "The Golden Age of Murder" winning almost every award going its way, something unimaginable ten years before.
As for At the Villa Rose... Its readership remained tiny, the infrequency and the brevity of the posting not helping it find a broader audience. Why would people read it anyway? Other blogs did the same thing much better, with more scope and erudition. I slowly lost my mojo though I didn't realize it immediately, my posts became ever more infrequent and now the blog is on hiatus indefinitely. Maybe the mojo will come back someday. Maybe it won't. As the French saying goes, "Qui vivra verra".