Two Tribes

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.



5 commentaires sur “Two Tribes

  1. Oh, imaginative. As I said last year:

    I was rather unkind to some of the writers. The rational brigade wrote some good books; these days, too, as you point out, they’re easier to find in reprint than the imaginative writers. But, yes, I believe detective fiction should be more fantastical and funnier, not hemmed in by dull realism.

    Same thing with fantasy, actually; the whole sword and sorcery / elaborate worldbuilding with fake languages and histories seems rather pointless. I prefer the invention of L. Frank Baum, James Branch Cabell, Michael Ende, Terry Pratchett, or Walter Moers. Or old Doctor Who to Star Trek.

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  2. I lean towards the imaginative. I can get all realism I want from newspapers. I don’t need it in fiction which I read simply for entertainment.
    I recently read the LRI publication Death Out Of Nowhere by Gensoul and Grenier and I was thrilled by its brilliant, imaginative and audacious solution based on coincidences. I have rated it 5 stars. A rational school reader would throw it away in disgust !

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  3. Xavier, I see what you are saying, but I think you are creating a false dichotomy, or rather, an extreme opposition between two schools that actually reside closer together on a much wider spectrum. I don’t agree that “ The « imaginative » reader doesn’t need to believe the book they’re reading might happen in real life” or that that they eschew all verisimilitude.

    The insistence on the rational solution over the supernatural in the works of Carr is one major example of the rejection of wild fancy over a greater reflection of the world in which we live. Similarly, the general criticism of a work such as Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia— by Christie enthusiasts themselves, mind you— is that it’s plot is too far-fetched, calling upon a possibility they thus would not have considered (and thus “unfair”). It is not only critics steeped in “realistic” crime fiction who deride the fanciful excesses of some imaginative crime novels, but the “imaginative” readers who demand many aspects of their stories to be believable, and criticize the works if they are not so. Keep in mind, the rules of Knox, Van Dine, etc… we’re not delivered like The Ten Commandments from on high, but merely reflected the existing expectations and demands of the readership.., and a large percentage of the rules were matters of just such issues as credibility and believability. The reader of “imaginative” crime fiction is actually insisting upon a great deal of reflection of the real world (i.e. realism, verisimilitude)… simply not so compared to what we refer to as “realistic” crime fiction.

    I’m not denying the distinction that you’re making, only pointing out that it is a relative one, and that compared to other types of fiction (mythological fantasy, for instance), “imaginative” crime fiction insists upon a high level of “realism.”

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  4. I normally look at this matter from a different perspective. I don’t believe that a wholly ‘imaginative’ reading of mystery exists. In fact, the detective story is, for me, decidedly, even maybe by definition, invoking pretense reality. This sets it apart from ‘soft’ sci-fi and, curiously, brings it closer to the ‘hard’ versions thereof, as well as the ‘sword-and-sorcery-and-world-building-and-imaginary-languages’ kind of fantasy (which, for me, is the preferred type; maybe, that’s the mathematician in me speaking).
    A detective story tries hard to maintain the feeling that the events in it follow an internal logic; it put effort to pretend that the events are NOT happening by the whim of the author but by this internal logic intsead, despite the fact they, in reality, obviously do follow the author’s plan. And the important thing here is: the logic must only be internal – anything goes, build any world, but make it consistent and make the solution consistent to it! The sci-fi setting, the fantasy setting in a detective story is loved by me: as soon as any kind of rules is set and the solution is not outside those, it’s a detective story.
    Of course, making the setting into a ‘pretense real world’ is the easiest thing to do, as it saves you world-building: the things that might happen are those bound by everyday logic and everyday physics. But the ‘modified reality’ that differs from ours only by the fact that the criminals tend to invent outrageous schemes and the police consults genius amateurs is no less consistent (and, most importantly, established: no world-building is needed when you established the events take place in such a world); though for the sake of the strict realism it’s outrageous, from the internal points of view either will work – and either has a chance to satisfy.
    I don’t believe purely ‘imaginative’ readers really exist; all everyone wants is for our detective stories to make sense; we only differ with how non-everyday we accept the proceedings in the book to be.

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