Some years ago Sergio Angelini hosted a poll on his now defunct and sorely missed blog, Tipping My Fedora, and the results proved very interesting even though I’m commenting on them only now.
Sergio asked his readers to name their favourite John Dickson Carr novel, and received enough answers to be able to compile a Top Ten. Such exercises often end validating the consensus, but this one didn’t as Carr’s most critically praised works underperformed – The Crooked Hinge, often touted as one of his masterpieces, didn’t even made the list – in favour of comparatively lesser-known stuff. In a striking upset, The Hollow Man and The Judas Window, two regulars on the lists of best locked-room mysteries ever, came respectively third and second to the much less ubiquitous He Who Whispers.
This was not entirely unexpected as He Who Whispers has (deservingly) experienced a revival of interest and appraisal in the last two decades. While The Hollow Man and The Burning Court remain for now Carr’s most frequently cited books, it is HWW that gets the best online reviews and the most devoted fandom. It is not impossible that as years go by and more people read it it ultimately replaces The Hollow Man as Carr’s official masterpiece. I for one would certainly second the motion.
This is but one of the many reappraisals that the Internet brought about in the field of classic crime fiction. Canonical works endure but are challenged and in some cases dismissed in favour of books that once were deemed minor or secondary. Cyril Hare is a case in point. His fame once rested almost completely on one single book, the classic legal mystery Tragedy at Law, which was and still is said to be his towering achievement. Recent years have brought a challenger, however, the later country house mystery An English Murder which is slowly but surely building a reputation of his own, with some readers even admitting they like it better than Tragedy. As a result and also probably hoping to score a massive seasonal bestseller, Faber & Faber reissued the book in a lovely edition in 2017.
What is happening is that for the first time lay readers are allowed to have their say in what book enters the Canon or doesn’t – and their opinion is not necessarily the same as that of the critics. Discussion groups, blogs and social networks take much heat these days and not always undeservingly so, but they are to be lauded for making it possible. Thanks to them we now know that not all Christie fans think Roger Ackroyd to be her absolute masterpiece, that some Ngaio Marsh readers like Clutch of Constables better than A Surfeit of Lampreys or that A Stranger in My Grave beats Beast in View in some Millarians’ opinion. What’s more, they have arguments!
To call this a revolution is for once not an exaggeration, and we’re seeing its first effects with the current vintage crime revival which has been in a large part driven by fans unhappy with the consensus. The crime fiction establishment is also taking notice by opening its doors to bloggers and fans, something which would’ve been unthinkable two decades ago. Jon L. Breen in an old article about sci-fi/mystery crossovers lamented than our genre’s fandom was less organized and powerful than the SF one was – it has finally happened and hopefully it’s only the beginning.