Long-time readers of this blog may remember an early post where I denied the idea of the mystery genre having « evolved » or « improved » over the years, supporting my claim with a Boileau-Narcejac quote saying that the genre was like an apple tree giving all kinds of apples but always and only apples. I still think it to be basically true but what I didn’t see at the time was that there indeed is a way to circumvent that limitation. All it took is to pretend that apples and oranges were the same. Aren’t they both fruits after all? Once that leap is made then is no reason to stop and soon your tree is ripe not only with apples and oranges, but also ananas, coconuts, raspberries and so on. Some people will still insist that apples are the real thing, but their increasingly few numbers mean they can safely be ignored and in the end you have a new genre, one that can be said to be very different from what it was in the beginning. This is what has been happening to and in crime fiction for the last two decades, with a swift acceleration in recent years.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take only one example: Robert Clark’s 1999 Edgar-winning novel, Mr. White’s Confession.
When this book won the Edgar Award for Best Novel back in 1999, it had the mystery fandom scratching their heads in bewilderment. « This book is not a mystery » they said. « It has no business winning a mystery fiction award. »
People back then still believed that only apples could be apples.
They were not the only ones this surprised – Clark himself didn’t think his novel was a mystery and was as puzzled as everyone else when he found out it had been nominated and even more when it ultimately won. For a long time afterwards, Mr. White became kind of a code word among traditionalists for books that « transcended the genre » so much that they ended outside it and for the snobs that liked them.
Now fast forward twenty years. The landscape has changed a lot in the meantime. « Crime fiction » – only the old guard still calls it « mystery » – now encompasses every literary work dealing with crime, now matter the author’s intent or how crucial it is to the plot, and as a result many more books with tenuous links to the genre as traditionally understood have been nominated for crime fiction awards, and sometimes won. It is not surprising then that a retrospective review of the once-contentious Mr. White’s finds it to be « immaculate noir » and praises the 1999 Edgar committee for their good taste. Robert Clark – who by the way never wrote anything else that can be construed as « crime fiction » – was not an aberration but a pionneer it appears.
The « immaculate noir » bit is important as it holds the key to what happened. « Noir » is not so much a genre as a mood that can be found all across the literary spectrum and as such it served as a convenient Trojan Horse in what has to be called a coup. The equation is a simple one indeed: If « Noir » is a crime fiction form that deals with crime in a gloomy, uncompromising way, then any kind of book that does so is « Noir » and thus « crime fiction ». Not only does it allow to bring into the fold writers and books that don’t belong there, but it also allows pushing the genre further away from its escapist, plot-driven roots since most « Noir » is not concerned with either entertaining the reader or devising complex puzzles. The long-time wet dream of the genre’s Literati faction, to draw back the genre into the realm of literary « respectability », is finally fulfilled.
The lay reader or hardcore fan will of course have none of it, but such books are not written for them anyway and who needs actual readers when the critics and the awards committees are on your side? The coming years may thus see a widening, growing divide between the « Masses » and the « Elites », between those who read « mysteries » and those who prefer « crime fiction » and between those who love apples and those who like oranges better. I don’t need to remind you of what happens to houses divided, someone else warned about it two millenia ago.
A paradoxical if welcome result of it however may be the otherwise inexplicable resurgence of Golden Age and other vintage mysteries – if modern writers are reluctant to give apples to the public then the public will look for them elsewhere, and the past may be the better place for that.