It Had to Happen

Tocqueville famously said of the French Revolution that it was already over when it started, meaning that its basic elements had already been there for a long time before the Sans-Culotte took to the Bastille.

To some extent the saying applies just as well, and perhaps even more so, to that other Revolution that took place in America and shook the genre down to its roots – the joint advent, rise and then domination of hardboiled fiction and psychological suspense. None of both genres were born from scratch – they had been long in the making and were the logical outcome of a peculiar national tradition.

I did a piece two weeks ago about the respective plotting abilities of the American and British schools of crime writing, and how different were their approaches to the « Grandest Game in the World ». What eluded me at the time was that those different approaches are the reason why the Revolution took place in one country and not the other. It can be summarized, somewhat sketchingly, like this: The British wrote detective stories, whereas the Americans wrote mysteries.

Both are not synonymous as frequent interchangeable use would have us believe. The inverted detective story (not coincidentally invented by a Brit) is proof that the genre can do without a mystery. Conversely, a mystery doesn’t necessarily need a detective or at least not as the lead protagonist. British Golden Age and later crime fiction is about a sleuth, amateur or professional, patiently investigating then solving a mystery. Its American counterpart on the other hand is primarily about the mystery itself and its solution; the way it is solved and by whom is a secondary matter.

That’s why American mysteries tend to have more spectacular, and sometimes frankly over-the-top, premises than their British counterparts even when they try to channel them. S.S. Van Dine may have initially wanted to imitate British mysteries, but the plots he concocted and the game-like way in which he handled them were typically and uniquely American. Same with early Ellery Queen, Anthony Abbot and other members of what Mike Grost called « the Van Dine school ». American writers and readers can’t content themselves with a « mere » whodunit, they want more. More in the way of imagination, more in the way of originality, more in the way of thrills. That paradoxically makes them closer to the French school, which accounts in part for the latter’s one-sided love story with American crime fiction.

They also display a greater interest in the people involved in the case than the people solving it. American mysteries are less cerebral, less detached affairs than British detective novels and more concerned with everyday life. There is often something at stake much more pressing than just restoring order. The dramatis personae come from every area of society and are treated equally in term of dramatical importance. The detective themselves occupy a wholly different function; they cease to be remote observers and interpreters of clues to either become directly involved in the case or a mere deus ex machina. Most of the time – and that’s another typically American feature – the story isn’t even told from their point of view, but from that of a Watson (usually much more physically active and taking more risks than the British version) or of one of the people affected by the case at hand. This shift of focus as it became more pronounced resulted in a paradigm change that gave us psychological suspense and it’s telling that so many American GA writers ended writing out-and-proud suspense novels whereas their British colleagues basically stuck to the whodunit, however updated.

Those thoughts occurred to me lately as I read back to back Helen McCloy’s Who’s Calling? and John Dickson Carr’s And So To Murder. Neither are considered to be among their authors’s highest achievements, and they differ in many ways as to their subjects, settings, approaches and ambitions; and yet they both show where the American school (of which Carr was a typical and integral part, his anglophilia notwithstanding) was heading at the time. None of them qualifies as a detective novel in the traditional meaning of the word. There is admittedly a great detective that sorts everything out in the end, but he appears late in the story and is rarely seen. There is no or very little investigation taking place; both books are about people reacting to the events, trying to make sense of them but ultimately having little influence on the narrative. The dominant mood is not one of mere puzzlement but outright fear and danger. Carr’s book is admittedly funnier than McCloy’s, but both don’t treat crime as a parlour game. Shades of that other most American form of crime fiction, HIBK, are present throughout both especially in the Carr book which uses and parodies at the same time the tropes of the genre. It’s not suspense yet but this way of writing mysteries inevitably leads there.

I could give other examples but this article is long enough like this. I’ve made my overall point, which that suspense was not a rupture but had actually always been in the American school’s DNA waiting to be « activated ». Same goes for the naturalism and convoluted narratives of hardboiled fiction, which is basically a blend of the traditional mystery, the dime novel and… HIBK again, though told from a male viewpoint. Both genres can actually be traced to a single common ancestor, who happens to be one of the first distinctively and uniquely American mystery writers – but more on this later.




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