Having been an active, talkative and combative member of the online crime fiction community for nearly twenty years, I have « met » and befriended lots of people and acquired an enviable if not entirely accurate reputation in this selective and competitive milieu. I am, painting with the broadest of broad brushes, « that extremely knowledgeable French guy who hates modern mysteries and reads stuff that nobody else has ever heard about ». This is of course an exaggeration both in the positive and the negative, but there’s at least something absolutely true: Obscure mysteries, so obscure that sometimes they don’t appear in reference books, make up a significant portion of my reading diet, at times at the expense of bona fide classics I should have read a long time ago. If you’re looking for a guy who has never been able to finish The Glass Key but is one of only three people in the world to have read and enjoyed Albert Harding’s Death on Ravens’scar, well you’ve come to the right place. I could give many other examples but this one gives you the idea. This quirky feature of mine is a source of amused bemusement to my friends whom I’m forever pestering with books that no has read but me – and are freakin’ hard to find to boot.
I swear it isn’t my fault. I am not some snob taking some wicked pleasure in reading books that are not familiar even to specialists. The answer is much simpler: I read primarily in French, and the books that leave most of my English-speaking friends scratching their heads and rummaging through the internet to find a copy are very easily findable and affordable in that language.
French publishers in the years following WW2 faced a massive demand for crime fiction and to keep up with it published everything they could find that dealt with violent deaths, leaving up to the reader to separate the chaff from the wheat. As a result, French bookstores found themselves inundated with floods of books ranging from the utterly brilliant to the utterly mediocre, the former rarely being the ones that struck gold. The pseudo-hardboiled and the simili-Christie were particularly popular. This industrial approach had its downside, with many an excellent book lost in the flood or left aside because it didn’t fit « market requirements », but it had its advantages too, as it gave a second chance to books that had been sidelined or ignored in their countries of origin. Had French publishers been fussier and contented themselves with the stuff that sold big and got strong reviews, the names of Day Keene, Harry Whittington, David Goodis or Jim Thompson would probably be forgotten nowadays.
All this to say that French vintage crime lovers have plenty to choose from, including some books that have long been extinct everywhere else, and that a lost treasure is always at hand provided that you’re willing to go further than the usual suspects. As I’ve said many times in the past, what appeals to me in a mystery is the mystery: If I find a book whose title or pitch excites me then I have to read it, no matter who wrote and/or published it. One of the best mysteries I’ve ever read appeared under a romance imprint, and probably went unnoticed because of that. I would gladly recommend it to you but it appears to be « unavailable » in both its English and French editions, meaning that I have a rarity in my library – okay, one more.
In case anyone is interested and courageous enough to go hunting for copies I’m willing to do an article listing my favourite « lost » mysteries, with the corresponding French-language editions for speakers. Let me know in the comments.