As the Golden Age came to its end and the rules were being less and less strictly enforced, crime writers found themselves enjoying an unprecedented level of freedom – and not quite sure what to do with it. While some (most?) stuck or mostly stuck to the old ways, updating them just enough to satisfy a new readership, others chose to openly challenge the conventions of the genre and in some cases its very foundations. It was a time of pushing the envelope, sometimes so hard that there was no envelope left.
I’m currently reading Matthew Head’s The Accomplice, which seems to me a case in point. The book concerns itself with a « bizarre love triangle » though there actually are four people involved and is a very penetrating and at times disturbing portrayal of toxic relationships. The problem is, the book was published as a mystery, and as I near the end of it there has yet something mysterious, or even merely criminal, to occur. I don’t doubt Head is keeping the « best » for last, but even then the qualification of « mystery novel » or « crime novel » may be a stretch. Psychological novel with a criminal element would do better – perhaps.
It is not the first novel I read this year that saddles the porous border between crime and mainstream fiction. Patrick Quentin’s Puzzle for Pilgrims was similarly ambiguous about its true nature until the end, and as a matter of fact The Accomplice reminds me a lot of it. Both tell about complicated beings and their complicated relationships, with the mystery plot almost an afterthought – as a matter of fact, the characters in the Quentin book don’t even realize there is a mystery until nearly the end. Even if we embrace the most liberal definition of crime fiction – any book that deals with a crime – those books are clearly something else. Critics in such cases resort to the « psychological suspense » label but suspense requires the presence of danger, preferably of a criminal nature – and there is none, at least in the classical sense, in either book. You read Pilgrims or Accomplice out of curiosity either about the fate of the characters or what the writers are up to, but nail-biting reads they are most definitely not.
These are not isolated cases. Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law, though less radical, still reads as a mainstream novel about the British judiciary system for its first three quarters, with the whodunit element introduced almost in the last minute. As a result, some purists or traditional-minded readers understandably feel cheated. Things further accelerated in those halcyon days of experimental crime fiction, the Fifties. Some of the decade’s most acclaimed « mysteries » including some award-winning ones, gleefully disregarded reader and sometimes critical expectations as to what a mystery is or should be. There was much debate at the time for instance about whether Stanley Ellin’s superb The Eighth Circle was a P.I. novel or a novel about a private eye. Ellin’s book admittedly included a mystery plot but as with Hare’s didn’t genuinely address it until the last quarter. Another « problematic » even though much less famous is Hilda Van Siller’s The Widower, which appears to be more concerned with its study of suburban malevolence than with a plot that Martin Edwards called « rather thin ». This point I don’t deny, but what if it was the whole point?
Such books nowadays would be called « literary mysteries » – an oxymoron if there ever was one – but the interesting thing is that no one at the time questioned their membership in the family of crime fiction even though some of those books were much more radical in their own way than even the « edgier » stuff of today. We know that most of the period’s experimentations led to nowhere due to changing tastes or had only much belated effects, but one wonders where crime fiction would be and what it would look like now had this « progressive » brand had its way. One can also wonder once more at which point a crime novel ceases to be one.
Curtis Evans’s review of The Accomplice.
Martin Edwards’ review of The Widower.
John Kingston Pierce’s review of The Eighth Circle.