So The Puzzle Doctor’s Carr poll has ended, with the expected winner crushing its competitors by a very wide margin. That result echoes that of another poll that took place some years ago at the now defunct and much missed Tipping My Fedora blog. While some of this blog’s readers have questioned whether the admittedly tiny sample of voters was really representative of the state of fan opinion on the issue, He Who Whispers‘ newfound popularity at least doesn’t seem to be a passing fad. Does it have genuine lasting power however? Only time – and another poll – will tell.
The reason why I was not as surprised as some were at the rise of HWW and concomitant crushing defeat of established classics such as The Hollow Man is that almost two decades of discussing mysteries online, whether on discussion groups or blogs taught me lay readers often held views about the genre’s « cornerstones » quite at odds with those of the Establishment. Some writers whose names are spoken with utmost respect by academics and critics prove to be controversial with fans. Josephine Tey is a prime example, having both devout admirers and no less devout detractors – I’m speaking here from personal experience as I’ve been navigating from one side to the other and back over the years without ever being able to decide which one I’m on. Ngaio Marsh is another « established » writer that turns out to be more problematic than first appears, and I could name many other such « canonical » authors that get a bad rap from the Internet fandom.
Skeptics may retort that Internet is not the « real » world and that the online mystery community, especially the tiny figment of it that is the vintage mystery fandom, can’t claim to speak for everyone that reads and writes crime fiction or about it. That’s a fair point, and there’s a real danger that we become the genre’s own Twitter – a place where only extreme opinions can be heard, no matter how much traction they actually have outside.
Recent developments tend to prove however that we may speak for a sizeable if not yet majority share of the opinion. The current Golden Age and overall vintage mystery revival was largely brought about by « geeks » and bloggers whose years and years of vocal enthusiasm and campaining finally compelled publishers to take notice and ultimately risks and action.
I joined the GAdetection group back in 2002 and no one at the time would have thought possible that the books we discussed could ever see the light of day again. I don’t need to tell you how it worked out in the end; it took time and some early members didn’t live to see it but we’ve made it and hopefully there’s a bright and shiny future ahead. Also, critical opinion has greatly « evolved »: Golden Age mysteries are no longer unanimously sneered at as they used to be for eight decades and « serious » critics display a greater interest in them and the period in general. Martin Edwards’ Edgar win for his majestic Golden Age of Murder was a turning point in the reception of the genre, for it would have been impossible only ten years before. I’m not saying there is no resistance left – the remaining Chandlerians and Symonsians won’t surrender without a fight – but much as I hate the expression, we don’t seem to be on the wrong side of History on this.
So to sum up my argument, I think that we are not just a small coterie of contrarians and purists and that our voices matter. It may be true, as one of my readers said, that The Hollow Man‘s critical standing is safe for now and the near future but who knows who’ll make the call in the end? Life is full of surprises.