I have frequently written on how unavailability hurts the legacy and prospect of many a once-famous mystery writer. French impossible crime master Noel Vindry used to be my favourite example of this but I’m glad to report his best work is now available again in both French as ebooks and in English thanks to John Pugmire’s invaluable Locked Room International imprint. The recent renewed success of John Bude, George Bellairs and J. Jefferson Farjeon after their books appeared in the equally invaluable British Library Crime Classics series appears to confirm that all it takes for a good mystery to be rescued from oblivion is to be reprinted – and shrewedly promoted.
There are more complex cases, however. Take John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen. While not technically in print until recently, their books were pretty easy to find and quite affordable – Ebay is replete with people selling literal lots of them for reasonable prices. Also, they have – well, Carr has – a sizeable, loyal and very enthusiastic fanbase that is extremely active online. Carr in particular has to be one of the most discussed of all « forgotten » writers. So why then do they remain at best niche, at worst obscure? Why does the current vintage revival not benefit them (for now) whereas it does writers that have never been first-tier?
One obvious answer is that they’re just not that good, but it’s not one I’m willing to entertain. Another is that they haven’t aged well, which I’m even less willing to accept as some of the lucky fellows that were rescued from oblivion have badly aged too – and it actually seems to work in their favour. Finally there is the « changing tastes » explanation. The kind of narratives that Carr or Queen penned are no longer popular with contemporary readers – too complex, too « mechanical », not character-driven enough and what-have-you. It might not help either that readers themselves have changed, not just their tastes. The readership of crime fiction back in the Golden Age was evenly divided between both genders; it is now largely female and – allow me some generalization – most modern female readers have expectations that stand in stark contrast with and even complete opposition to what Carr or Queen or any other « forgotten » GAD writer – most of whom are males by the way – have to offer. The Carr fanbase, as Curtis Evans I think once pointed out, is very mostly male. Not that there aren’t any female Carr fans – there are, and I know many of them – but they don’t appear to be representative. There is a saying that geniuses always write for readers yet to be born; the problem with our writers might be that they wrote for readers that have died long ago.
Now I may be overly pessimistic, as my nature draws me to. Several Carr books have been reprinted recently both in America and Britain, and Ellery Queen is making a more modest comeback too. They may find new readers and hopefully regain the visibility that was theirs once. I certainly hope so. But what if they don’t? Well, we fans will have to try harder preaching the Golden Age Gospel. That’s what we are here for, and frankly we haven’t done that bad a job at it so far.