Curt’s latest article at The Passing Tramp about Bernice Carey I found extremely welcome as this writer certainly deserves to be in the spotlight again and also because I started worrying that I was the only person in the world to have heard of her – but most of all because it gave me me a subject and the impetus for a new post, the first on this platform by the way.
Bernice Carey, as Curt points out, was very popular with critics in her day. She was a particular favourite of Anthony Boucher, who praised her as one of those writers that « pushed the envelope » and wrote mysteries that were also « real novels ». (The catchphrase « Transcending the genre » hadn’t been invented yet) Probably the apex of her career, 1953’s Their Nearest and Dearest made Boucher’s « Best of the Year » list and was also favourably reviewed by French critic Igor Maslowski, not one usually to have much time for « feminine » crime fiction. I haven’t read it, but the virtues that Boucher and Maslowski extolled about this book and the one Curt reviewed are also found in the only one I’ve read, her debut The Reluctant Murder which is a whodunin a la Patricia McGerr though Carey’s treatment is completely different. Carey on the basis of this book was an adept plotter but was more interested in characterization and social comment. In short, she was very much a forerunner of modern « literary » crime fiction.
Why then is she completely forgotten, with her books out of print for several decades? How can a writer rightly praised for « transcending the genre » be so obscure in a time when doing so is almost mandatory?
Of course she’s not the only one. Post-war crime fiction, especially that of the Fifties, is very much the Terra Incognita of contemporary mystery criticism and publishing. Of the first ten Best Novel Edgar winners, only two are currently in print and the perusal of Anthony Boucher’s « Best of the Year » lists for the period is equally dire in terms of name recognition and availability. Imagine waking up in 2070 to find out nobody knows who Gillian Flynn or James Ellroy were and you get an idea.
As many, if not all of those forgotten writers are female one might be tempted to think it’s a gender thing, another nefarious effect of the patriarchy. The problem is that male writers are not necessarily better treated by posterity: Who other than diehard mystery buffs reads Bert Spicer, Alan Green, Matthew Head, Maurice Procter or William Campbell Gault in 2018? Even arguably the dean of post-war crime fiction, Ross MacDonald, is not remotely close to the household name he should be. Only one writer of the period other than Raymond Chandler still sells books, and he is the most reviled of all: Mickey Spillane. Boucher must be doing triple axels in his grave!
An explanation I have often given for these memory lapses is that the mystery genre suffers from the Goldfish syndrome: it remembers you only for as long as you’re actually there – be gone even one minute and you no longer exist. I think however two more factors may be at play. The first is the popularity of series – most, even all, crime writers to have successfully entered the Hall of Fame did so with series characters. Post-war crime fiction on the other hand was mainly standalones, which is a problem in a time like ours when readers want their characters to « grow » over time and become members of the family – that’s not something I approve of as readers of this blog are well aware of but that’s a fact.
The second one, which may be more controversial but has to be envisioned, is that character-driven crime fiction doesn’t age as well as the plot-driven one. The average reader finds it easier to look for who killed Roger Ackroyd than relate to a 50s housewife’s angst. Crime fiction, like all popular fiction but to an ever greater degree, is concerned less with what people are than what they do and readers whose priorities run the other way are a small minority that is not enough to keep a book in print.
The good news, for there are some, is that new publishing forms allow small-audience writers to resurface and live again – but the challenge is to go one step further and prove to the world at large that reading vintage crime fiction is not just escapism but that those writers are still relevant, have still something to say – to do. As we say here, « Chiche »?