The Last Will Be First

Something I find quite remarkable about the current Golden Age Revival is how it mostly benefits second-tier, even downright obscure, writers rather than the leading lights of the period.

We have after all witnessed in recent years the literary resurrection of Molly Thynne, George Bellairs, Peter Drax, Moray Dalton, J. Jefferson Farjeon, Annie Haynes among others whose success with modern readers would probably have had most critics at the time scratching their heads in bewilderment. In the meantime, writers hailed as major players in their lifetime are comparatively neglected: I expected for instance that the entry of Dorothy Bowers and A.E.W. Mason’s works in the public domain would bring a flow of reissues and a resurgence of interest but neither has so far materialized. Conversely, no one as of now seems to be interested in bringing that long-sleeping giant of the Golden Age, H.C. Bailey, back to the shelves. Others like J.J. Connington, Anthony Gilbert, Helen McCloy, Gladys Mitchell or Henry Wade have had most of or their entire catalogue made available again without eliciting much response or enthusiasm from either critics or readers.

This I think is a curious phenomenon – a revival that also turns out to be a redefinition and in some cases a corrective. Most people who lived through the actual Golden Age, be them authors, critics or readers, would have difficulty recognizing it in the one that is now being brought back to the light. That’s very much a Golden Age for our time.

Not that it is something I bemoan, or at least not entirely. The spotlight on the lesser-known writers have allowed some truly talented wordsmiths to finally get their due – also, who I am, well-known lover of the obscure and unconventional, to object to long-forgotten books suddenly becoming successful again? Still, I think this revival to be complete has to embrace the period in all its richness and complexity; there are sure elements of it that are more to our taste than others but we have to know them all if we are to see the big picture.


6 commentaires sur “The Last Will Be First

  1. I imagine most of the reissues are determined by rights more than worth. We’ve seen lots of Bude because the estate are willing to play ball with the British Library, whereas one gets the impression that Carr’s rights are a Gordian knot no-one will ever be able to untangle. And, really, aren’t the « leading lights » those authors who have remained in print anyway? Once you get past Carr, there’s Christie, Sayers, Queen, Gardner, Marsh, Stout, and a handful of others who are considered the cream…and they’re all in print. So surely that only leaves the obscure writers left to uncover..>!

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    1. « So surely that only leaves the obscure writers left to uncover! »

      Don’t forget this has been happening since the very early stages, late ’90s and early ’00s, of this Golden Age revival. House of Stratus reprinted Anthony Berkeley and Freeman Wills Crofts, who were practically forgotten at the time, while Crippen & Landru specialized in compiling collections of long out-of-print short stories. Rue Morgue Press specialized in obscure, but top-drawer, mystery writers like H.C. Bailey, Glyn Carr, Clyde B. Clason, Gladys Mitchell, Stuart Palmer and Kelley Roos. They even reprinted a handful of Dr. Gideon Fell and H.M. mysteries.

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    2. You have a point but being in print doesn’t mean you’re popular or even widely remembered. EQ or ESG’s catalogues for instance are now available again as ebooks but they no longer commend the same audience they once did and are rarely discussed outside the fandom. Many other former « major players » are in the same situation, neither gone or forgotten. Part of the problem may be that most of them are now housed by small presses either unable or unwilling to market them adequately like the BL does. Also and perhaps inevitably readers (and publishers!) tend to favour books that fit in their preconceived idea of what a Golden Age mystery must be and so « comedy of manners » mysteries have an edge at the expense of more baroque stuff.

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      1. Sometimes, perversely, not being forgotten is a disadvantage. Take Erle Stanley Gardner – he gets taken for granted because his books have always been ridiculously easy to get hold of on the second-hand market. So every detective fiction fan has almost certainly read him early on in their exploration of the genre. Had he been completely forgotten and then rediscovered then he would have been hailed as an incredibly exciting rediscovery.

        Whereas fans get very excited by writers who are in every way Gardner’s inferior simply because they’re rediscoveries.

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