Born Again… and Again

The report of my death was an exaggeration.

Mark Twain

There has been much writing done, including here, about the recent resurgence of the traditional mystery in Britain, most notably exemplified by Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and Stuart Turton’s The Twelve Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. The main take was that the genre was finally back, a conclusion supported by the concomitant Golden Age revival driven by the British Library and Dean Street Press among others. It was both right and wrong.

Right because there is indeed a revival at work and which appears to be only beginning. Wrong because the whole reaction postulates erroneously that the traditional mystery had been dead, or at least dormant, for decades and was only now regaining its due place in the order of things. It simply isn’t true. The traditional mystery never died or hibernated since its Golden Age heyday, it just ceased to be mainstream. I have often compared the genre to traditional pop as both share the same riches-to-rags story but an even better equivalence would be jazz – a genre that once was popular but no longer is even though it remains active and vital and experiences minor or major revivals once in a while. I’m old enough to remember when Ronny Jordan, Tony Bennett or US3 put it back on the map in the early nineties when everyone thought the genre was definitely lost to the sea. The current « Whodunit revival » is quite comparable; what’s more it isn’t even the first one for the traditional mystery is actually revived once every two decades or so, keeping being rediscovered then forgotten again until next time.

Perhaps the most important « resurrection » prior to the one we’re witnessing now took place in Britain (where else?) in the early 1960s when a large swath of writers best described as neoclassical suddenly appeared and took the publishing world by storm. Their names were Patricia Moyes, D.M. Devine, Ellis Peters, Sara Woods, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell among others and while diverse in tone and inspiration appeared to share a similar commitment to the old rules – though in a thoroughly modern context. Having the benefit of hindsight we may be surprised to see James and Rendell as traditionalists but that’s the way critics perceived them at the beginning of their careers and with good reason. Neither the former’s Cover Her Face or the latter’s From Doon with Death can be said to have shattered contemporary norms regarding crime fiction – they were straightfoward whodunits though in Doon‘s case with a pinch of « scandal » that foreshadowed the author’s later work. What’s more, contemporary critics were not particularly enthousiastic about the two newcomers – Anthony Boucher famously praised Patricia Moyes over P.D. James whose debut left him unimpressed. Both James and Rendell needed more time to fully develop their « voices » but in the meantime they were widely seen, much to their chagrin, as « wannabe Christies ».

This first revival didn’t last. The « new blood » either dried out (D.M. Devine) or changed colour (Peters, James, Rendell) Only Patricia Moyes remained committed to the traditional ways until her death three decades later. The genre didn’t disappear however – it just returned to its relative marginality and obscurity until the next revival, a smaller one and more vintage-focused, that took place in the United States in the 1980s. Only time will tell whether the current one will last longer and, we hope, « make the whodunit great again ».

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Un commentaire sur “Born Again… and Again

  1. Excellent post, Xavier, as always. My view is a bit different, because I think that talk of the revival does not so much postulate that no traditional mysteries were being written – of course they were – but rather that they were deeply out of fashion, except for Christie. The likes of Moyes, Devine, and Sarah Caudwell wrote some excellent books in the GA vein, but they were never big sellers.

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