In the Beginning(s)

The suspense genre – whether one calls it « psychological » or « domestic » – was born when Mary Roberts Rinehart realized that crime is something that happens to people rather than just an exercise in deduction. It can be argued that her discovery was actually a rediscovery, as the so-called sensation novel so popular in the Victorian era had worked off the same premise until the detective story edged it out. Where Rinehart diverges from this precedent is by trimming out the narrative, writing in a more colloquial tone and being more « democratic » in her choice of characters and settings. Her approach to sum it up is wholly and distinctively American, explaining why the new genre would always be a primarily Yankee province.

Perhaps because her way of writing mysteries met with a violent backlash from male readers and critics more interested in the mechanics of plotting than the perils of hapless heroines, perhaps also because her mix of crime and romance appealed most to a female readership, Rinehart’s immediate followers were almost all women. This school, quite popular in the Twenties and Thirties, was derisively known as the HIBK (Had-I-But-Known) school because of their perceived reliance on cheap thrills, crude plotting and inane starry-eyed romanticism. While there was in some cases truth to this description, the whole HIBK thing seems in retrospect to be nothing more than an attempt by the orthodox to dismiss a genre that was anything but and drew readers/clients away from « proper » mystery fiction.

The transmutation of HIBK into what we know now as « suspense » was the work of two very different writers, the first (again) a woman and the second an American-based male writing tandem who each gave the genre a new shape and new, if opposite, directions.

The former, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, was a late bloomer, coming to the genre after first making herself a name writing romances. Despite this background her work is nothing romantic however, and differs sharply from that of her forerunners and contemporaries. HIBK while putting a greater emphasis on character largely remained a plot-driven genre. Holding’s stories by contrast are in-depth character studies of protagonists that are much more psychologically complex than was the norm at the time. Her most radical trait and departure from the tradition though is in the plotting department. Holding after a couple books ditches the puzzle element almost completely – not only there is no detective to work things out but there is no mystery in the first place. The main issue is no longer « Who did it? » or « What will happen? » but « What will they do? » and suspense grows out of this interrogation. The door is thus open for even more radical writers like Dorothy B. Hughes (whose mature work is basically a continuation of Holding’s with a noirer slant) Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith and maybe even Cornell Woolrich.

The other two are the third and more popular incarnation of the Fregoli-like duet Patrick Quentin. Unlike Holding, Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler have a traditional mystery background to which they’ll remain mostly faithful for all their time writing together – even their most radical works retain a strong, fairly clued puzzle element at their core. Their genius is in the fusion of the best of both worlds, the sophisticated plotting of the detective story and the tension of the HIBK, which they achieve basically by replacing the apparatus of the former with that of the latter. Crime in Quentin’s hands is no longer abstract and a « mere » puzzle to be solved by the Great Detective for order to be restored in the end. For starters there is not even a Great Detective but instead a commoner (Hugh Westlake or Peter Duluth) who is personnally involved in the case at hand and does his best to solve it with his limited means. What’s more, someone or several people including sometimes the main protagonist are in danger of being killed and the threat is real and ominous. Detection stops being a game and becomes a matter of life and death. The old « Who did it? » question is still there, but coming now with an emergency that had been unheard of in the genre until then.

Holding, Quentin – these are the roots from which modern suspense fiction will grow out, a two-faced genre with no basic structure that can be either strong on plotting or devoid of any in the conventional sense, retain a puzzle element or do away with it completely, and whose only consistency is in trying to give its readers the shudders. The only crime fiction subgenre that is defined not by what it is, but what it does (I know I’ve used this formula before, but it’s too good one to use it only once)


2 commentaires sur “In the Beginning(s)

    1. You are right that I should have mentioned Ethel Lina White as she was the first (and at the time only) British exponent of the genre, but my purpose was not to be exhaustive – I didn’t mention Mignon G. Eberhart either, even though she was Rinehart’s most important and successful follower. What I wanted to do was summing up my current views on how the genre came to be, said views being open to discussion, amendement or correction. This is not a closed subject as far as I’m concerned.

      Regarding Offord the main reason why I didn’t mention her is that I’m not familiar enough with her work. Yes there are some crime writers whose work I’m not familiar with, no matter how hard I try. 😉


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