Okay, I’m cheeky again and indulging once more in the polemical with a title-question that probably will irk some of my readers. Let them know however that my intentions are pure and my puzzlement sincere.
It all started with this clip from the latest issue of Publishers Weekly posted by John Pugmire over at his Locked Room International website. It features a box review, and a starred one to boot, of LRI’s latest offering, French GAD writer Gaston Boca’s The Seventh Guest (« Les Invités de Minuit ») This was nothing to surprise me since Boca was a first-rate writer well deserving of such an honour and Publishers Weekly has always been (rightly) supportive of John’s work over the years. What surprised me on the other hand was to see the recent reissue of Julian Symons’s The Belting Inheritance relegated to the bottom of the page, with no star in sight. The clip omits the reviewer’s overall judgement but you can find it online and as expected it’s far from enthusiastic, though I question the unfavorable comparison to Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar*. Granted, Belting is neither one of Symons’s most famous or most notable works but the very fact of one of the putative fathers of modern crime fiction having one of his books sidelined in favour of an arch-traditional mystery making its first appearance eighty years after its original publication is breathtaking, all the more so as it is not an isolated occurrence.
The current vintage mystery boom has so far mostly benefited Golden Age and traditional mysteries, both in terms of availability and visibility. Long-lost traditional mystery writers, including some that were already obscure in their lifetimes, are now back on the bookshelves and if critical and public reaction is to judge by we can expect much more coming. I’ve already commented many times on this welcome resurgence so I won’t dwell on it except to emphasize how unexpected, inexplicable and above all counter-intuitive it is. Post-war received wisdow had it that whodunits were toast and that the future belonged to that loosely defined but widely admired newcomer, the « crime novel ». E.C.R. Lorac, E.R. Punshon, J. Jefferson Farjeon or F.W. Crofts to name just a few were on the wrong side of History and would never be seen in print again, while the names of Julian Symons, Margaret Millar, Nicholas Freeling or Celia Fremlin would still be remembered with awe centuries from now.
I guess something went wrong or progress was slightly delayed because we’re currently witnessing the opposite. The Julian Symons case is especially striking: once the Dean of English-language crime fiction he is now almost completely forgotten with most of his books out of print and the few still available ones eliciting polite respect rather than enthusiastic acclaim. Were it not for Bloody Murder remaining a milestone history of the genre (despite being out of print too) he would be the genre’s version of George Meredith. Other post-war crime writers fare barely better: Sarah Weinman‘s dedication and talent succeded in putting domestic suspense back on the critical maps, but it still keeps a low profile as far as the general public is concerned; neither the reissues of the Fremlin or Charlotte Armstrong catalogues or the Library of America welcoming Millar and Dorothy B. Hughes resulted in a massive renewal of interest in them or in the period. Besides most vintage « crime novels » when available tend to be so only as ebooks, suggesting that publishers – often small presses by the way – find them not profitable enough to be worth the paper they’d be printed on.
Modern crime fiction, the kind that gets rave reviews and sells in millions, certainly is much more indebted to Julian Symons than J. Jefferson Farjeon – so why do modern readers (and critics!) prefer the latter over the former? How is it possible that Mavis Doriel Hay has all of her books in print whereas Shelley Smith has none? I posited in a previous post that crime fiction being a plot-driven genre, character-driven books were at a disadvantage when it comes to survival but I think another explanation might be that it’s easier for the reader (and, sadly, often the critic) ignorant of the history of the genre to grasp what makes a whodunit special than a « crime novel ». And Then There Were None still has the power to surprise and disturb after seventy-eight years and even someone familiar with the plot can marvel at how well constructed it is; virtuosity never ages. On the other hand, it takes a lot of familiarity with the context of its writing to fully enjoy The Hours Before Dawn, for the plot has been copied so many times afterwards that it can no longer fool anyone.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not rejoicing in that. I respect or love all the writers whose name I mentioned in the course of this article, and it pains me that some of them remain obscure or little known outside the « family circle ». I’m just noticing a fact that I find intriguing and trying to find answers and possibly solutions. Yours are, as usual, welcome.
*Symons would probably too, as he was no Tey fan.