I have written many and many times before about how the divide between « realistic » and « baroque » crime fiction could be traced back to the Edwardian era and the radically different, if never openly conflicting, works of G.K. Chesterton and R.Austin Freeman. I have also repeatedly written about how the genre for all its attempts and claims to « realism » ultimately belongs in the realm of imaginative fiction and is unable/unwilling to deal with the reality of crime. What I failed or omitted to do however was take into account another dichotomy at the heart of the genre, that of its readership. If crime fiction is quite a house divided, so is its audience.
Crime fiction readers can roughly be divided into two main currents: the « rational » and the « imaginative », with some mavericks falling in between.
The former are the natural readership of « realistic » crime fiction, however you define it. They expect their mysteries to make sense, that is to be grounded into some basic verisimilitude and avoid huge leaps of logic. They’re the ones who send angry letters to the author because he or she « didn’t get their facts straight ». They are also not fond of « artificial » stuff like impossible crimes and vehemently object to the apparent or genuine intrusion of the paranormal.
« Imaginative » readers on the other hand are not only willing but eager to embrace everything that the « rational » dislike. « Outrageous » is not a dirty word to them. The more spectacular the premise, the more baroque the solution the better. Suspension of disbelief comes easy to them and so implausible behaviours, dubiously convenient coincidences and tinkering with the clues are not as problematic to them as they are to the « rational » reader. This doesn’t mean they will accept anything – only that their priorities are different. The « imaginative » reader doesn’t need to believe the book they’re reading might happen in real life.
This divide can be found among critics too – for critics after all are readers first and foremost – and can lead to strange companionships. Jacques Barzun, Raymond Chandler and Julian Symons had little in common and yet all were « rational » readers objecting to the same things though from different angles. Most critics tend to be some kind of « rational » readers, probably because of the necessity for a reviewer to accept and apply some rules, which the « rational » are very good at. Even those critics most welcoming to « imaginative » crime fiction – I’m thinking here of Anthony Boucher, himself a distinguished representative of that school – relied on a « rational » template in their reviewing work. Perhaps the only thoroughly « imaginative » critic and theorician in the history of the genre was John Dickson Carr, whose entire worldview and literary ethos were indeed built upon the preeminence of imagination upon reason.
« Rational » readers began edging out « imaginative » ones in the years following WWII and they are now dominant, especially in the higher spheres of the genre, which is one of the reasons why locked-room mysteries so rarely win awards. Modern crime fiction, especially the one that aims at being taken seriously, may not always be entirely « realistic » but it is almost always « rational » – or appears to be.
This doesn’t mean « imaginative » readers have entirely surrendered and went the way of dinosaurs – they are still here though in smaller numbers and very active online. The current GAD revival is basically their doing even though it has mostly benefited so far the more « rational » wing of the period.
What about me, you’ll ask? Well, I’m one of those mavericks falling in between that I mentioned earlier. I have been blessed, or cursed, with an ability to enjoy almost any kind of crime fiction on its own terms, though I’m slightly partial to the stuff that runs afoul of the conventions.
What about you, though? What kind of reader do you think yourself to be? Let me know in the comments as I wonder whether my readership is more on the « rational » or « imaginative » side.