A Blogger’s Manifesto

A blogger’s life is rife with misunderstandings, most of which they have nothing but themselves to blame for. I am no exception. As most of my writing activity consists in extolling long-dead authors no one but the diehard fan has heard of, or railing against contemporary trends in crime fiction, I may give an impression that I am some sort of reactionary curmondgeon longing for the good old days who refuses to read anything that was not written at least fifty years ago and doesn’t have a butler and a locked room in it – « un vieux con » as we say here (the absence of an adequate equivalent for « con » is one of the English language’s few deficiencies) There is certainly evidence enough on this blog to support this theory.

The truth is, I hope not surprisingly, completely different. While I am often described as a « Golden Age enthusiast » I am not a specialist of the period and most of my reading actually lay outside it. To be sure I rank the likes of Christie, Sayers, Queen, Allingham and of course Carr highly and being a proud and active member of the Golden Age of Detection forum allowed me to (re)discover how glorious and diverse that era was – but ultimately I’m more drawn to crime fiction written after WW2 than before. Also and while I readily admit that the British school is in many ways richer I also have to recognize that I feel more affinity as a reader and a writer with the Yanks, though this slight preference is not an uncritical one. Finally, vintage crime fiction is not my main diet because I’m in love with the past but because most contemporary fare doesn’t satisfy my needs.

What are they? Well they are quite simple – I want my mysteries to be mysteries, that is, to be mysterious. I have no objection to crime fiction that tells everything from the start, I even read and enjoy some on occasion but the puzzle or some sort of mystery at the core of the plot is what makes the genre unique and why I love it. That is why I prefer Simenon’s Maigret novels over his « romans durs » and Ruth Rendell over Barbara Vine. That is also why I’ve never regarded Patricia Highsmith, David Goodis or Jim Thompson as « members of the family » – they certainly wrote about crime but to me they’re outside the genre and their influence has been mostly detrimental to the kind of crime fiction that I favor.

I also like my mysteries to be original, be it in their plot, their writing, their approach to the genre or all of these together. « Plain whodunits » to borrow an expression from Dennis Lehane (not a favourite of mine either as you probably guessed) bore me to no end. A mere corpse is not enough to sustain my attention. I want the puzzle to have something intriguing, not conventional about it and ask more questions than just who did it. While I don’t consider myself an archetype of the French reader (or of anything French for that matter) I’m most definitely Gallic on this – I have no time or patience for fiction that blindly and slavishly follows the rules.

Finally, I like my mysteries to be imaginative. It may sound redundant with the point above but it is not. One thing that is not French about me is my loathing of realism in fiction and art in general. « True to life » has never been a selling point to me; actually it’d rather be a deal-breaker. I just don’t see the point in art imitating life when it can, and should, improve on it. Not that I want crime fiction to sugarcoat or gloss over the many nasty things in this world; I just don’t want it to be the literary equivalent of a newspaper or a documentary. Crime writers should be free to tell whatever stories they want without being chastised for an alleged lack of realism, verisimilitude, plausibility and the ilk. It’s fiction, fellows, and no matter what St. Raymond said it has always been intended to be – well, fictional.

Most contemporary crime fiction, at least in my experience, fails one or all of those requirements – not because it is inherently bad but because modern crime writers’s priorities lay elsewhere. The genre to them is realistic by definition and a perfect vehicle for either the examination of the human mind in crisis or the often shrill denounciation of whatever social ill that irks them. Having « outgrown ingenuity » they are not interested in producing stunning pieces of plotting – and being committed to naturalism to the point that they research everything they write they can’t be expected to come up with wildly imaginative stories or situations. As a result, modern crime novels – at least those that retain some pretence of a mystery element – are often « plain whodunits » when stripped of all their « literary » varnish and social relevance. Someone gets killed, the detective investigates the case and solves it, the only difference with standard mysteries of yore being that chance and guesswork replace logic and reasoning and that truth doesn’t set people free but instead makes them even more miserable. I know it’s kind of a caricature, but not by much.

Of course not all modern crime fiction is like that. There are still writers who either cling to the old ways or try to find new ones; some of them are friends of mine and read this blog so they’ll recognize themselves. The problem is, they are not the ones who win awards and get glowing reviews in the NYT or the Guardian. They are not representative. For better or worse the idea that crime fiction has a duty to hold a mirror to this sorry excuse for a world is deeply ingrained in the minds of writers, critics and readers alike and I see no change coming anytime soon.

So I’m reading vintage crime fiction.

It too at its best « has something to say » about the subjects that so obsess contemporary writers but it doesn’t make it its only justification or prime concern. It’s perfectly possible to read, say, Margaret Millar without giving a damn about the gender or race issues that she frequently raises. Vintage mysteries follow Raymond Queneau’s idea of the novel as an onion: it’s up to each reader to peel them as they please – and no one has to feel guilty because they prefer staying on the surface rather than getting to the core. It is also more original and adventurous, despite or maybe because of the existence then of strict rules thay you had to break without appearing to – and also because no one or very few cared about what the Literati deemed « good » and « bad ». Michael Innes, while a Literati himself, is a prime example of a crime writer who spent his whole career giving the finger to literary conventions. Finally most of those books were short or if not had to justify their excess length with a story worth the paper it was printed on rather than endless descriptions with no other purpose than meeting editorial requirements and/or showing what a way with words the author has.

That’s what I like and that’s why I do most of my writing about books that are older than me and probably you as well, Dear Reader. I’ll be the happiest mystery fan on Earth the day when the genre comes to its senses and becomes readable (to me) again. In the meantime I’ll stick to my oldies and be their champion on the world wide web. I didn’t do too badly so far.

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