Longt-time readers of this blog (bless their long-suffering souls) know well of my pet theories and peeves. I am what one might call a « progressive » mystery reader in that while I place great emphasis on puzzle and plot I like mysteries that push the envelope so to speak, and my Books of the Year over the decades reflect that. Yet I am also an open critic of most contemporary crime fiction on the grounds that it is anything but and panders to the Literati rather than fans and lay readers. This may sound self-contradictory and for a good reason: it is self-contradictory.
As you my readers know well too, my favourite era in crime fiction history, my own Golden Age, is the Fifties – I have written repeatedly about how this period in my view gave us some of the best the genre may offer, precisely because the boundaries were so loose. I still think so. Mystery writers arguably had never been freer and no less arguably never have been ever since. Some modern crime novels hailed as « daring », « challenging » and « groundbreaking » would have seemed pretty commonplace back then. Time seemed to be on the side of the « progressives » and the leading critics of the time (Boucher and Symons of course, but also D.B. Hughes, James Sandoe, even Howard Haycraft) were all of that persuasion. None except Symons repudiated the glories of the canonical Golden Age but as far as they were concerned the downfall of the rules and of the whodunit as paramount was a great thing, ushering in another Golden Age in which novel of mystery and novel of character would finally be reconciled. This is what happened, but not in the way they thought it would. That was the « progressive mistake » of the title of this article.
The « progressives » thought they could have the best of both worlds: the thrills and twists of the traditional detective novel and the psychological and social depth of « literary » fiction. They yearned for a perfect balance that for a while seemed to have been achieved – but only for a while. From the Sixties onwards, both continents began to drift apart again, with plot-driven fiction becoming increasingly less « literary » and « serious » stuff being increasingly less concerned with plot. The latter began to be what it is now, the province of writers less interested in the genre itself than what it allowed them to say. The « progressives » first welcomed the trend but became more and more disenchanted with it as years passed. Boucher in his final years openly lamented the dearth of the puzzle mysteries he craved most and Symons, the only one of them to live to see the ultimate consequences of the phenomenon, devoted a whole chapter of the final edition of Bloody Murder to bemoan emerging trends like « anti-establishment crime fiction » which he correctly predicted would soon become the norm.
What they didn’t see is that what happened was entirely predictable and the price to pay for the greater freedom brought upon by the collapse of the Golden Age model. Much as Boucher and Co. liked to mock Jacques Barzun (and let’s face it, he deserved some of it) he was right about the evolution of the genre and they were wrong. Psychology is wonderful and a marvelous tool for crime fiction but it was foolish to expect it to remain just a tool. Conversely, social comment was fine and dandy but once it crept into the genre there was nothing stopping it to become its whole raison d’être. Finally, you couldn’t seriously want your mysteries to be « realistic »and « frank » while expecting them to forever dance around violence, bad language and sex. Patricia Highsmith or Mickey Spillane, as different as they were, were not isolated cases, eccentrics or bugs in the system – they were the system. Once there were no rules any longer and everybody was free to do as they wished, well, everybody did as they wished and took the genre in directions where it had never been before, for better or for worse.
I still identify as a « progressive » mystery fan and I broadly side with Boucher against Barzun but ideas have consequences. Had the former not prevailed over the latter, many of the writers I most admire would never have emerged – or if they did, in a much different shape – but the same can be said of many I loathe. Yes, ideas have consequences and our job is to balance, if not reconcile, them. It ain’t easy.