The mystery field’s, and especially the MWA’s, notorious short memory is the only explanation I can see for Jeffrey Marks’s superlative « biobibliography » of Anthony Boucher not to have at least secured an Edgar nomination the year it was published. If you’re interested in the work and the short but extraordinarily busy and productive life of one of the greatest minds ever to grace our favorite genre then it’s the place to go or, should I say, the book to read.
This post is not a review, however, but rather a kind of a tribute. Boucher died 50 years ago and it’s safe to say that we’re not burdened with commemorations – that short memory, still and always. This pains me a lot, as I’ve always regarded him as some kind of a patron saint, not just because Marvin Lachman kindly but undeservingly named me as one of his (potential) heirs but because we have a lot in common, not the less our very catholic (pun intended) tastes when it comes to crime fiction, though he was admittedly more tolerant of noir that I am. Also, I think Boucher is still relevant today as unlike some of his fellow critics he has more often been proved right than wrong.
Let’s go back to Jeffrey Marks’s book. One of its most interesting features is an appendix listing Boucher’s favorite crime novels by year during his run at The New York Times. You’d expect some or most of the items to be now obscure and forgotten as is frequently the case with such lists – tastes and fashions are constantly evolving, and some works pass the test of time and others don’t – but it’s exactly the opposite. Bona fide or should-be classics, some of them not evident at the time, are the norm and most of the names are familiar to the seasoned reader. Of course there’s room for discussion of why this book and not another, and Boucher at times let friendship get in the way of clear-eyed criticism (No modern John Dickson Carr fan including me would dare to claim that The Skeleton in the Clock or (gasp!) Scandal at High Chimneys were among their respective years’s, or any other for that matter, best) but overall the guy recognized a great book when he met one, whatever its genre.
The latter point is where I think Boucher’s relevance to modern criticism lies. If you were kind and patient enough to follow me over this blog’s decade of existence you know that critics are one of my many pet peeves. All too often they display little or no knowledge of the history of the genre, regard plot as perfunctory and reduce crime fiction to what they perceive as its « grittiest », « edgiest » forms: thrillers, hardboiled and above all noir. Also, they expect a good crime novel to do more than « just » entertain; it must « say something » about society, politics, gender, race, religion and what have you – in short, a good crime novel is a
literary novel with a criminal slant. Such a book is said to « transcend the genre » which seem to be the highest praise you can give to a crime novel these days. As a result, lots of professional crime fiction reviews read like articles straight from the NYRB with every aspect of the book dissected but the distinctive features that make it – more or less – a mystery. Awards follow suit of course and needless to say, cosies and « entertainers » need no apply.
While a progressive in his tastes and always on the prowl for something different, Boucher never forgot that crime fiction like any genre exists primarily to entertain; he never looked down on those books that didn’t try to « transcend » anything – and I think he’d have loathed the term and its implications as much as I do. Also, he remained loyal all his life to the traditional mystery with its great detectives, clever plotting and fair-play clueing, and all his « Best of the Year » list include at least one specimen of the species – and here may be what differentiates most Boucher from most of his so-called heirs: He was, first and foremost, a fan, not just some folk that read mysteries for some reason other than that they’re mysteries.
If it is to survive as an independent form rather than an annex of literary fiction, the mystery genre must become a fan-driven genre again, both in the writing and reading departments. We definitely need more Bouchers and less – well, write here the name of a critic you particularly abbhor.