The Curious Case of the Reception of the Humdrums in France

Our old friend Received Wisdom has it that the French don’t like traditional mysteries and never did – noir to them is the thing, and they have no patience for that tedious, boring British cosy stuff. France is, after all, the country where writers like James Ellroy or Dennis Lehane enjoy their biggest sales. 

French edition of « For Murder Will Speak »

Received Wisdom, as usual, is wrong or only partially right. Noir in France is more popular with the elites than it is with the public, and said public now even loves itself a little cosy now and then as witnessed by the belated but massive success of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books. Also, noir became the locally dominant form of crime fiction only from the 70s onwards, with a peak in the 80s and 90s – the crime field before and afterwards was, and is, much more diverse than listening to the Cercle Polar podcast would lead one to think. Finally, there was indeed a time when the French loved traditional mysteries, including one of the most definite British kind. The years between the wars saw local readers buying detective novels in droves and les Anglais were by far the leading force in the market, just like les Américains would be after WW2. The writers most popular with publishers and readers were somewhat unexpected, though, at least from our perspective. The French by then hadn’t yet fallen in love with Dame Agatha – it took almost a decade for the first edition of Roger Ackroyd to go out of print – and were, and still are to this day, not that enthused about her fellow Crime Queens. They were, on the other hand, very fond of the so-called Humdrums. 

The « Humdrums » is a term coined by the late Julian Symons to describe an informal school of British detective writers who shared the same painstaking, and in Symons’s eyes tedious, attention to technical detail and cared more about elaborate plotting than character. The exact composition of the movement varied according to Symons’s mood swings but the core members are widely perceived to be Freeman Wills Crofts, Cecil John Street under his various aliases, J.J. Connington and – much to the bewilderment of those who actually read him – Henry Wade. Symons would probably be surprised to learn that most of these writers were French favourites in the Thirties and, in some cases, much later. 

FW Crofts, France’s favourite GA writer

The most striking example is Freeman Wills Crofts who remains to this day one of the very few Golden Age writers seen by French critics as worthy of serious consideration. His fans include people as different as Léo Malet, François Guérif, Roland Lacourbe and Claude Chabrol to name just a few. While English-speaking critics often deride Crofts for his dryness and lack of character development, their French colleagues praise him for his realism and – yes – characterization. He is certainly in proportion one of the most translated GA writers in France, with nearly all of his books having enjoyed French-language editions, most of them in the year following their British release. Oddly enough his first and most celebrated work, The Cask, was the one that waited the longer for its French debut – 77 years! – but it was a hit too with both critics and readers.

Not only France imported Humdrum fiction but it produced some of its own as well. The most notorious specimen is probably Noel Vindry who is basically a humdrum writer who specialized in impossible crimes rather than unbreakable alibis. 

This enthusiasm seems in retrospect not only surprising, but weird in that in the meantime some Golden Age writers we now hold as the period’s major stars barely made a blip on the French radar. John Dickson Carr for instance only had four novels translated prior to the war and would not become a household name until well after his death. None of this shall be unexpected, as we French pride ourselves in never doing things like the others, and crime fiction is no exception. 

Further reading:

Masters of the Humdrum Mystery by Curtis Evans

Un commentaire sur “The Curious Case of the Reception of the Humdrums in France

  1. When you think about it I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that the rather intellectual approach of the Humdrums would find favour in France.

    I'm relieved to hear the the French still haven't fallen for the tedious Crime Queens.

    J’aime

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