Cordial Disagreement

Long-time readers of this blog know that the differences between the Anglo and French schools of detective fiction is one of my pet subjects. Lockdowns and curfews having left me with lots of time on my hands – more than is healthy for someone my age – I spent a large part of said time thinking over the subject and I may finally have reached a conclusion. The Anglo and French brands of detective fiction are not mere local variants of a same genre, but instead are two separate genres even though sharing on surface the same components.

French mystery readers – not all of them but a significant and alas influential share – often and unfairly see English-speaking detective novels as dry and abstract intellectual games devoid of any literary value, whereas Anglophone readers often and unfairly see French mysteries as sloppy, requiring massive suspension of disbelief and not playing fair with the facts and the clues. 

The truth is, both sides are right by their own standards. Anglophone and French readers have different expectations when it comes to mysteries, leading sometimes to incomprehension and disappointment. This doesn’t mean however that there is truth to the clichés above. As a reader of both English and French-speaking crime fiction, I can tell you that there are Anglophone detective novels that are well written, witty and « realistic » in the same way that one can hardly fault French-speaking writers like Pierre Boileau or S.A. Steeman for sloppy plotting and lack of fair play. 

There’s no denying however that Anglophone and French-speaking detective novels target very different audiences and are rooted in very different cultures and so end being very different literary objects too. Anglophone detective novels emphasize logic and are meant to be a game of wits between author and reader whereas French and French-speaking ones emphasize mystery and imagination and are more akin to conjuring tricks. There is thus a deepset incompatibility between the two but as often happens nurture can beat nature sometimes. Once granted that the French will never be Brits, that English-speaking writers won’t become French overnight and that each genre must be judged on its own terms, then it is possible for a meeting to take place, though so far one side appears to be more willing than the other.

I don’t mean to start a war but it has been my experience that French readers are more open to Anglophone mysteries than the opposite. English-speaking readers often struggle with French crime fiction, as evidenced by their reception of Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room. This book is justifiably seen as an all-time classic by the French and its influence on the development of the detective novel cannot be denied and yet many English-speaking critics and readers are lukewarm at best, mostly for reasons that have to do with Leroux’s « frenchitude » in both plotting and writing which makes him a very different article from contemporaneous Anglophone detective writers. The cultural divide runs both ways however as it is extremely difficult to convince some French critics that Trent’s Last Case is a masterpiece as evidenced by Roland Lacourbe’s savage takedown of it in his recent survey of the famous French mystery imprint L’Empreinte. And yet both books are milestones without which crime fiction – not just in their respective countries, but worldwide – as we know it wouldn’t exist. 

What are we to do then? The obvious answer is to make the classics of both schools more widely available when they are not – and publishers on both sides of the pond have a lot to atone for here – but it won’t make much of a change if we don’t go out there recommending them and giving potential readers the keys needed for their enjoyment. Internet has had a bad rap of late but one of its many indisputable virtues is how it allows different and sometimes discordant voices to be heard. Take this blog, for instance. Back in the old pre-Internet days, my only interlocutor was… myself. I knew no people sharing my tastes and for what I knew I might as well be the only person in the world to hold my views. That’s why I’m so glad to have this platform now, no matter how scarce (but faithful) my readership is. 

But let’s go back to today’s subject. For all the differences I stressed and emphasized, Anglophone and French mysteries also have a lot in common, which I may detail in a future article, and reconciliation is not only possible, but much needed. 

Nous pouvons le faire. 

4 commentaires sur “Cordial Disagreement

  1. Two of my French reads, The Seventh Guest and The Howling Beast, give a telling contrast. The Vindry is filled with just as much imagination and just as many fantastical elements as the Boca; however, it also obeys the rules of Anglophone mysteries. It’s highly satisfying.

    Perhaps, there’s a sweet spot (for mysteries written in any language) when fantasy and imagination are free to roam within a tightly constructed plot.

    And I love The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

    Aimé par 2 personnes

  2. Yes, it has taken me a little while to come to this realisation, but thanks to the likes of Locked Room International I now know not to expect my 1930s French mystery to adhere to the same principles as my 1930s British one. We wouldn8’t necessarily expect a 1930s American mystery to be the same, either, and the cultural differences between the UK and France are — if anything — even broader, so I wonder where the expectation comes from.

    Whatever the cause, I’m delighted to have had the chance to come to enjoy Noel Vindry, Gensoul & Grenier, Gaston Boca, Boileau-Narcejac, and others as much as I have. And, of course, the work M. Paul Halter has helped me bridge the gap 🙂

    Aimé par 2 personnes

  3. I’m ashamed to say that a couple of Leroux’s books and one Boileau-Narcejac (VERTIGO) represents the full extent of my reading of French mysteries. I did enjoy those books though, even if I did think Hitchcock’s film was better than Boileau-Narcejac’s novel.


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