« Never write the same book twice » was the motto of the late Mark McShane, and he mostly lived by it for all his writing career. Sure not everything he wrote was the stuff of immortal masterpieces (though a lot of it is) but he always or nearly always kept his promise to not repeating himself and constantly eschew conventions and clichés. Say what you will about a book like Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street but no one else could have written it, or come up with such a title for that matter. So yes, Mark McShane was an irreducibly original writer, much like Fredric Brown was in America – but what good did it do to them? McShane never won any award, was never a household name and most histories of the genre ignore him. His passing in 2008 went almost unnoticed. The only survey of his work as far as I know was written by a French, impossible crime expert Roland Lacourbe. Originality doesn’t seem to pay, at least if easy fame and money are what you’re after.
No, I’m not about to engage in another jeremiad about the conformism of the genre and its readers. The purpose of this post is rather to ask whether absolute, radical originality in crime fiction is possible and compatible with the conventions, rules and ethos of the genre. It may sound like a weird question to ask at first sight, for the history of the genre is filled with superb anomalies, books that can’t easily be categorized and are nothing else coming before or after. Most often however their originality is a matter of approach, subject or gently tampering with the rules, not breaking them. Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand is a weird kind of a detective story, but it is still a detective story complete with a puzzle, clues and a surprise solution. Same goes for Brown’s The Night of the Jabberwock, John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron or even Carr’s The Burning Court which is fairly traditional if you choose to ignore the ending. Genuine UFOs do exist such as the aforementioned Ill Met or Bardin’s Devil Takes the Blue-Tail Fly but they break the rules so completely and irremediably as to end in another place, where only the most adventurous readers will follow them. More importantly, they are emphatically not detective stories. As I’ve said before, the mystery genre is the only one in which the only way to make something radically new is to get out.
This is why I’ve now realized that complaining about modern crime fiction’s lack of adventureness, while not entirely unfair, is also somewhat short-sighted. While some of the genre’s limitations are indeed due to the writers and also mundane commercial realities, most of them are inbuilt so to speak. Hard as you try to follow McShane’s commandment of never writing the same book twice, you’ll end doing precisely that if you decide to write books with even a nominal puzzle element. All detective stories tell the same basic story, only the treatment and the writer’s talent make one forget it – most of the time. Those writers who choose to dispense with any kind of mystery are much freer but even they can’t escape some clichés linked to the material they have to deal it – there are not that many reasons or ways to kill your neighbour. Also they expose themselves to be considered by some purists as being outside the genre, for the very good reason that they are, and this is precisely the reason why they find greater support with the literary crowd. Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson or James Ellroy may not be to the crime fiction purist’s taste (they’re not to mine either) but they not writing « plain whodunits » (as Dennis Lehane put it) make them very literary-friendly. The Literati loves genre fiction, especially when it is not.
EQMM editor Janet Hutchings said in a recent interview that she receives less and less whodunit stories and increasingly « noir » fiction, which the recent issues of the magazine have sadly confirmed. This is not a surprise. The new and next generations of crime writers don’t want to be bothered with rules and formulas or at least not certain formulas. Noir with its spineless nature is more welcoming to them. I expect more and more « original » stuff to come in years and decades to come, but they won’t be detective stories, they won’t be mysteries as we know them. You always have in the end to choose between tradition and originality and in this genre more than anywhere else.