Finding the Motive(s)

If you’re getting tired of me speculating on the reasons why the Golden Age ended and who/what is responsible for the downfall of traditional mysteries, you may as well skip this article for I’m about to engage in this dubious passe-temps once again. The subject I think is inexhaustible and I feel (to your horror I guess) many more articles coming before I finally give up.

My two previous ramblings suggested that the Golden Age had been terminated not because it ran out of ideas but because some people wanted it to end. I still think it true to some extent, but any mystery fan knows that the detective must not content themselves with answering the « Who? » but must deal with the « How? » and the « Why? » as well. The latter question is the focus of the present article. Even assuming that it wasn’t some dark hand pulling the lever, it remains that the traditional mystery suddenly stopped being the predominant subgenre of « crime fiction » and never regained its previous status. To know why we don’t need to go any further than looking at the criticisms most often levelled at it by its critics and enemies.

The most frequent one, and the most damning in the eyes of many, is that traditional mysteries are artificial, unrealistic, excessively plot-driven and poorly written – in other words they’re not proper literature. Leaving aside the fact that the definition of « literature » held by such critics is somewhat partial and antiquated, none of those negative features are exclusive to the genre and I can think of many traditional mysteries that are « realistic », character-driven and beautifully written. Certainly no one in their own minds can fault Cyril Hare, Ngaio Marsh, Henry Wade or more recently P.D. James for being soft on characterization and writing with a sloppy hand. They are the tip of the iceberg, though, as there are many lesser-known writers whose work is evidence too that traditional mysteries can be « literature » (whatever that word means now) too. Those sticking to that caricature are attacking a strawman born from a literalistic reading of the Gospel according to S.S. Van Dine.

Another criticism, less frequent but with maybe more explanative power, is that the genre is excessively rule-bound and relies on a tiny set of themes and figures, making any kind of creativity impossible. This is the same argument used by some to dismiss vocal jazz as « the same people all singing the same songs about the same subject in the same way », and it’s very much of our time. One of Romanticism’s least savory legacies is the worship of originality conflated with genius, and the resulting hatred of rules and conventions. We – well, critics, since we hoi polloi have long been driven out of the conversation – grant artist status only to those that break the rules, do away with the past and bring something new to the table. The evolution of « crime fiction » mirrors that of poetry, to which traditional mystery has often been compared by its defenders, from an extremely formal and formalized art to one where basically anything goes, the artist being the only one that gets to decide which rules, if any, they’ll follow. It’s certainly progress from the viewpoint of authorial freedom, but it comes at a cost: We (see above) are no longer able to see that it’s possible to be creative while sticking to the rules and that it takes no less talent, or even genius, to express one’s individuality inside a pre-existing model than to just break free and create a new one – and so « we » deem the few remaining traditional mystery writers or formal poets or figurative painters « archaic », « reactionary » and not worthy of serious consideration. That’s a loss for everyone involved. It also blinds us to the fact that the « rules » have never been as fixed and rigid as we’re now making them to be, and were challenged and broken almost from the start; the thing is, you don’t get to realize it if you don’t know them first, and that’s why the greatness and, yes, originality of some traditional mysteries past and present often elude modern critics with only patchy a knowledge of the genre and its history.

This is not to say, however, that there is no merit at all to the criticisms that I adressed above. They were already current back in the Golden Age itself, including among traditional mystery writers themselves. Berkeley or Sayers basically said the same thing as Chandler did a decade later, except with more restraint and out of genuine love and concern for the genre instead of spite and desire to send it to the dustbin of History. Having one single model being trotted out as the only one of artistic value, with no alternative allowed or deemed respectable, must have been pretty frustrating for crime writers with other/higher concerns and ambitions or no particular interest in crafting clever puzzles. It was understandable, predictable and necessary that a revolt would occur someday. The problem is, it went too far in the opposite direction, so that we are now in a landscape that is as narrow as it was back in the Thirties.

P.S.: While my regular tirades may indicate otherwise, I have no objection against modern « crime fiction ». I’m not pushing for a return to the Golden Age, first because it would be impossible and second because I also love the stuff that was made after or in opposition to it. My attitude would basically be « Live and let live » if only the « crime fiction » establishment – by which I mean writers, critics, scholars, editors and juries – would return the favour. They don’t. One of the reasons why I started this blog eleven years ago was that there was almost no one else online then defending the kind of « crime fiction » that I like. Most « crime fiction » bloggers either ignored it or dismissed it as – okay, you know it already. Things have changed over the decade, for the better but there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that all kinds of « crime fiction » are treated equally; thanks heavens I’m no longer alone on the job. 🙂 

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