Suspense, A Biography

Suspense is unique in that it is both an effect and a genre. The former has been an integral part of storytelling ever since human beings have been able to speak then write, and we can imagine Cro-Magnon people in their cave gathered around the fire and chewing nails while the Elder told them about the time he singlehandedly defeated a smilodon.

Mystery fiction first had little use for it, being a mostly cerebral genre in which the primary reason to turn the pages was to know who did it and why. Breathless narratives were to be found in the slums of the genre, thrillers and dime novels. Things changed in the early twentieth century when an American writer decided to focus on the people and what happened to them rather than the detective and his little grey cells. Purists frowned and still do, but it was too late: suspense had come to the genre and was there to stay. Even worse, it would soon become a genre in itself – and that’s where things get complicated.

As I said above, suspense can be found in any kind of fiction in various degrees. What makes suspense as a genre different is that having the reader’s heart beating faster is its sole function and only fixed characteristic. Mystery is defined by what it is. Hardboiled is defined by its style. Noir is defined by its mood. Suspense is defined by what it does. It is an extremely volatile genre which like The Thing can take any form at will, borrowing from every other subgenre. This is why an origin story of it is so hard to write, as it requires settling first on a catch-all definition, which is impossible in this case.

Let’s try it nevertheless.

As the first « noble » genre aimed at thrilling readers rather than moving or teaching them, the Victorian « sensation novel » is often cited as one of the putative ancestors of the suspense genre and they indeed have a lot in common. Wilkie Collins, Ellen Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sheridan LeFanu certainly meant their narratives to be compelling and unnerving like the great suspense writers would one century later. The problem is, the genre fell out of fashion by the end of the nineteenth century as alleged people of taste embraced cooler and they thought more intelligent kinds of fiction such as the burgeoning detective story.

Fear, as said above, would return to crime fiction thanks to Mary Roberts Rinehart and from then on would become a mostly « feminine » specialty. The so-called « Rinehart school » also known as « Had-I-But-Known » or HIBK proved to be the most serious challenger to the detective novel during the Golden Age, in terms of sales if not critical appraisal. A significant part of the genre’s appeal was that it was less cerebral and more vital than its cousin – not everyone was into following a detective’s complex reasoning leading to forty pages of an equally complex solution. Another selling argument was its unabashed romanticism, which made it definitely more to the taste of female readers, already a large segment of the readership back then. Of course the reasons why the genre was popular were the same that made it a bane of « serious » readers and critics. It was still seen as inoffensive and unthreatening to the status quo because of the strict separation between the families of crime fiction enforced by both critics and publishers.

It couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t. The revolution once again came from America that witnessed a slow yet inexorable convergence of the three main families – traditional, hardboiled and HIBK – starting in the mid-Thirties. Rex Stout had already showed that the ratiocinative and the tough could be blended into popular and critical success, so why not doing it on a greater scale? Detective stories became more eventful, even suspenseful. Hardboiled became more plot-focused. HiBK started including some detection. If you add on top of that the influence of pulp fiction all the conditions were there for the emergence of something new.

That something new slowly materialized through the early Forties, first under the familiar clothes of the – almost – traditional detective story then as an increasingly autonomous genre. This evolution is reflected by that of Patrick Quentin’s Puzzle stories, which started as detective novels with a pinch of suspense and ended suspense novels with a pinch of detection. The revolution was once again led by women writers but this time critics were on board almost from the start. The new genre unlike its predecessors relied on solid plotting borrowed from the classic detective story but also shared the social realism of the hardboiled though in a less radical and thus more palatable fashion. What’s more, it displayed literary ambitions that HIBK lacked, or appeared to lack. In short, it had everything to become a critics’ darling, and become it did. Anthony Boucher’s role in its rise and ultimate domination cannot be overstated, but Alfred Hitchcock must also be mentioned as the one that took it from the printed page to the silver then television screens.

The Fifties were the Golden Age of the suspense genre as it was the best suited one to a decade that tried to push the boundaries of crime fiction – but its reign was to be short-lived. The resurgence of the thriller and the boom of spy fiction in the early Sixties proved lethal to the genre as readers once again betrayed it in favour of these more exciting and faster-paced offerings. Suspense then went mostly dormant until its resurrection of sorts in the mid-Seventies thanks to Mary Higgins Clark’s runaway success. Gone however were the literary ambitions, and the genre returned to its « feminine » roots, courting an almost exclusively female readership. Things remained that way until the twenty-first century when a new generation of female writers embraced it and brought it back to bestsellerdom and critical praise. Rebranded « domestic suspense » the genre is more popular than ever, though I’m not quite sure it’s reaching again the creative summits it did in its Golden Age. Only the future will tell whether the genre is back for good and can rise again. In the meantime, please allow me to choose Jean Potts over Gillian Flynn.

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