The People’s Choice

The Puzzle Doctor having spent years in search of the classic mystery novel recently embarked into another colossal task: finding which Carr novel is the best of them all. He thus started a poll which after several rounds has left three candidates but like with The Highlander there can be only one, which the final vote will designate. There is actually little suspense about the ultimate winner but whichever of the three wins will signal a major reversal of paradigm in Carrian criticism, for four reasons:

1°) All of the « canonical » Carr masterpieces have been soundly defeated – no Hollow Man, no Judas Window, no Burning Court, no Crooked Hinge.

2°) Voters strongly favoured Carr the Writer over Carr the Plotter. None of the three finalists is lacking in the plot department – at least two of them can be called major triumphs in this respect – but their interest arguably lies elsewhere. All of them in particular are powerful rebuttals to the tired « Carr couldn’t write/do character » trope.

3°) They also favoured Carr’s – comparatively – darker side over his more optimistic work. Only one of the three finalists has a thoroughly and unambiguously happy ending, whereas the other two are at best bittersweet or frankly tragic. (The fact that in one case Carr later recanted doesn’t change the overall tone)

4°) While two of the candidates indeed feature one or several impossible crimes, none is a proper locked room mystery. So much for Carr’s reputation as the all-time master of the subgenre.

Assuming the voters are representative of the average contemporary Carr fan – and there is no reason to think otherwise – then it means that Carr’s literary legacy may ultimately be different from the one both critics and scholars had agreed upon for years. It is a major and possibly unprecedented case of fans reclaiming their favourite writer and deciding for themselves what his major work is and what makes it so great. Internet now allows lay people to have their say about Canons and it’s probably only the beginning. It took centuries but democracy has finally come to literary criticism. It was about time.

10 commentaires sur “The People’s Choice

  1. but whichever of the three wins will signal a major reversal of paradigm in Carrian criticism, for four reasons:

    1°) All of the « canonical » Carr masterpieces have been soundly defeated – no Hollow Man, no Judas Window, no Burning Court, no Crooked Hinge.

    Colour me sceptical. In polls like this there’s always a huge temptation to nominate obscure titles just to prove that one is an original thinker. Even professional critics will fall for this temptation. But eventually the critical consensus will return to sanity.

    I’m sure if you conducted a poll to pick Hitchcock’s greatest film there’d be people who’d choose Under Capricorn just to prove how original and edgy their judgment is.

    And the people who want to be seen as original and edgy are the ones most likely to respond to such a poll.

    Have no fear that In the long run The Hollow Man, The Judas Window, The Burning Court and the Crooked Hinge will be recognised as his best books.

    Aimé par 2 personnes

    1. I have no fear but I’m not particularly hopeful either as none of those books ranks among my favourites. I rarely see eye to eye with critical consensus anyway and always welcome it being challenged, hence this post.

      Regarding the Carr poll and its results, I don’t think it has anything to do with being original and edgy. He Who Whispers has spectacularly gained in popularity in recent years as any Google search will demonstrate, not to mention the many discussions I’ve had online or IRL with fellow fans, especially younger ones. It has never been obscure by the way – Boucher hailed it as a major work when it was first published – but its relative neglect by the consensus-makers then « rebirth » in the digital age may reflect a generational shift in standards. The people that crowned The Hollow Man were probably putting technical prowess first and it certainly outdoes HWW from this viewpoint, but only from this viewpoint. It is however possible to take other factors into account and that’s what this poll’s voters apparently did. Now it may very well be that the critical consensus stays the same as the critical establishment tends to ignore us poor readers – they wouldn’t keep inflicting the same boring « classics » upon us that they’ve been doing for centuries now – but the good thing is that another kind of music can finally be heard.

      P.S.: I wouldn’t vote Under Capricorn as Hitchcock’s best movie, but neither would I Vertigo or Rear Window.

      J’aime

  2. I agree, Xavier. Three of those four old “consensus classics” would make my top ten, but my choice of He Who Whispers and Till Death Do Us Part as the very best two Carr’s is not a effort at iconoclasm— it’s just the way I feel.

    Similarly, while my favorite films of 1942, 1943, and 1944 rather predictably Casablanca, Shadow of a Doubt, and Double Indemnity, respectively, my top two films of 1936 are the fairly obscure Piccadilly Jim and the tremendously obscure Love Letters of a Star.

    Aimé par 1 personne

  3. As the good doctor said from the outset, the seeding of titles was going create to bad juxtapositions. On the other hand, I agree that this reflects a view of readers who are well-versed in the genre and appreciate more than a good plot, looking for substance too. I think the result of the semi finals, with a top 12 that basically we can all largely agree with, tells one story. But you are right about the top 3 telling a different story. Good.

    Aimé par 2 personnes

  4. As pointed out in my comments at Puzzle Doctor’s place, I voted for the three final winners because I found they had something extra, the human touch, besides the plot and not because I wanted to show myself off as an original thinker (as dfordoom wrongly and insultingly claims) !
    Take the case of The Hollow Man vs The Black Spectacles. Both have good plots, but can the Black Spectacles match the superb atmosphere and superb characterisation of He Who Whispers ?

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. The notion, mentioned by dfordoom, that going against the grain/consensus in part explains the public reviews and ratings by experts and high-status people (true or merely self-perceived) is actually supported by research. Also, I noticed that dfordoom did not mention « showing off » as a motive. Indeed, the « social distinction » signal that one sends through one’s ratings need not be aimed at others but may be aimed at oneself.

      J’aime

  5. very interesting & valid points about canons overall and Carr’s ouevre in particular. But, personally, I’m shocked, bewildered & flabbergasted that The Emperor’s Snuff-Box should win in the ‘others’ category over, say, such a masterpiece as The Burning Court – probably has to do with the latter’s subversive approach to ‘fair play’ as far as whodunnitry is concerned. But if you want characterization and whatnot over plotting, then where was, say, Poison in Jest? Or even Patrick Butler for the Defence, another underappreciated standalone?

    Aimé par 1 personne

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