A friend of mine to whom I complained of the relative paucity of comments on this blog told me it might have to do with so many of my posts dealing with « big ideas » which intimidate readers into silence. I think he may have a point but the fact is – I can’t help it. I don’t read enough to post reviews on a regular basis like most of my colleagues do, besides which most of the books I read are so elusive that no one else would be able to find them. Also, being French, I have a very theoretical mind; I just love to dissect things to find how they work and might work even better. So be warned if you’re not into that stuff: here is another « big ideas » post that you may (but hopefully won’t) want to skip.
While this blog is seen as primarily GAD-themed, the truth is that I don’t talk about GAD mysteries that often. All periods and genres interest me in principle. One recurring subject is the subgenre known for lack of a more specific term as « psychological suspense » which had its heyday in the years following WW2 and after a long eclipse is now back in the news and on the best-sellers lists thanks to the runaway successes of writers like Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins. Other than the simple fact that many of my favourite crime writers belong to that « school », the prime reason why « psychological suspense » interests me is its flexibility that allows, or at least allowed, authors to experiment with the form, something that always gets plaudits from yours truly. It occurred recently to me, however, that this feature is both a virtue and a problem.
Said I, some years back:
It may have to do with the nebulousness of « Suspense » as a concept. Of all mystery subgenres it is certainly the hardest one to define, in part because it encompasses a wide variety of approaches. There may be obvious differences between The Nine Tailors and The Judas Window but there’s no denying both are whodunits, following each in its own fashion the basic structure and rules of the whodunit genre. You’d be hard-pressed on the other hand to find such common ground between, say, Armstrong’s A Dram of Poison and Millar’s A Stranger in my Grave. Suspense fiction may derive from the traditional mystery or HIBK or the psychological crime novel; it may even incorporate some hardboiled elements. Its identity doesn’t lie in what it is but what it does – you just don’t read a novel by Mary Higgins Clark the same way that you read one by P.D. James and the experience is markedly different – and it’s a major problem in a time like ours when books are supposed to fit in well-delineated categories.
I obviously underestimated publishers’s own flexibility as the last five years have showered us with books marketed as « suspense » – being them psychological, « domestic » or with no qualifier at all. I also realize that my definition of « suspenseful reading » was way too narrow, as suspense means first and foremost that you keep turning the pages to see what’s going on, and P.D. James readers are just as prone to do that than Mary Higgins Clark ones. I was right however that there was a problem, but it was a structural one, not a marketing one – the lack of cohesion. My point in comparing Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar stands even stronger now than it did six years ago, and raises a question which I didn’t ask at the time: Does suspense really exist as a genre?
Even in its critical and commercial halcyon days of the Fifties, « suspense » had no fixed meaning but « books written by women in which someone is in danger ». The same definition had previously been used to describe (and disparage) so-called HIBK fiction, but it was widely understood that « suspense » was more ambitious and thus respectable. (Never forget how much respectability matters to crime fiction reviewers…)
Structurally suspense novels fell, and still fall for that matter, into two distinct categories: those that retain some puzzle and some detection, and those that dispense with them entirely. The former are a continuation of the traditional mystery by shifting focus from the detective to the victim; the latter on the other hand are a distant cousin of the Francis Iles crime novel by way of James M. Cain. Why then are they seen as belonging in the same genre despite coming from different traditions? Because they’re both designed as nail-biting narratives in which something vital is at stake. The problem is, this description applies just as well to lots of books that no one would call « suspense ». What’s more, suspense is an integral part of fiction in general, with the possible exception of literary fiction in which readers are too busy counting syllabes and pondering the writer’s intentions to care about what comes next. When everything is suspense then nothing is suspense – and publishers have understood that very well as they now label as such the latest offerings of Stephen King, Peter Robinson or Laura Lippman. The word has lost any tiny figment of meaning it might have had.
Is this to say that, answering my question, « suspense » is not a thing but just a marketing ploy? Not necessarily. As I said, the genre is defined by what it does rather than what it is, much like horror in another field. The problem is that its flexibility can turn to instability which can then result in confusion. Not all fiction with suspense is suspense. More than ever we need to invent, or rather re-invent, a more specific lexicon of crime fiction which allows us to give every book its right place. Sadly that’s not the way we’re going, with « suspense » and « noir » becoming increasingly ubiquitous and interchangeable.