Some Blasphemous Thoughts

It will be fifteen years this November that I started this blog, which makes it one of the oldest crime fiction blogs in activity, assuming so irregular an outlet can be unironically called « active ». While I intended it to be a receptacle for my « random thoughts » on all kinds of subjects it ultimately turned out to be mostly about my very personal views on my favourite genre, crime fiction, with a focus on history, criticism and theory. Hardly the road to fame, and my contrarianism on some key issues didn’t help either. The Villa was from the start and remains today a critical rather than popular success. I’m not happy with that state of things but I’ve learned to live with it.

I learned many other things along the way, both about the genre and myself. My understanding of crime fiction, what it is and what isn’t, the good and the bad and the inbetween, has changed a lot since November 2007 – sometimes dramatically. It is still changing and hopefully will keep doing in the future. As goes the French dictum, only fools never change their minds. Still, I remain committed to a few non-negotiable core principles such as the prevalence of imagination over realism, the importance of plotting and the avowed preference for mysteries that « push the envelope » and try new things.

As I said however I have spent the last fifteen years questioning the genre and I’ve been led in the process to revise some of my cherished opinions and toy with some radical (by this blog’s standards) ideas. No, don’t worry, I’m not about to disown John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen or the other writers I’ve defended over the years – nor will I suddenly become a Raymond Chandler fan or Jim Thompson zealot. I haven’t changed that much. Still, it’s fair to say that I now entertain views that would probably shock my most traditional-minded readers. I plan to discuss them separately in future posts but will deal here with what is probably the most « blasphemous » of all.

I’m increasingly convinced that the two most important elements of a mystery are the problem and its solution but that the way one gets from the former to the latter is of secondary importance. Some mysteries need a detective, amateur or professional, some don’t; what matters in the end is not how the problem is solved but that it is in a cohesive fashion: everything must make sense.

This is not to say that the Detective is useless, or is a thing of the past to be discarded – I actually think it is a major figure of the genre, though not always used creatively or wisely – but that it is not a structural requirement. The only reason why detectives are so many is that they are popular with the readers and it is especially true now. There is a strong argument to be made for our time to be another Golden Age of the detective story, as the genre has never sold so well or been so celebrated and ubiquitous. This development would have surprised and probably disappointed the « enlightened » critics of the post-war years that merrily buried the detective novel – prematurely as it turned out.

I’m disappointed too but not for the same reasons. That the Detective is optional doesn’t mean that it is a commodity; even if it plays a deus ex machina role it must be given considerable thought before use. Agatha Christie for instance always regreted to have « forced » Hercule Poirot upon that very « special » book The Hollow; she thought he ruined it and while it was way too harsh a judgement it is nevertheless true that he doesn’t quite belong there. John Dickson Carr was wiser when he chose not to have Dr. Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale in the vicinity of The Emperor’s Snuff-Box; Dr. Dermot Kinross (unfortunately) never appeared again but he was the right person for the job.

Which any fictional detective should be – but not always are, sadly.

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Un commentaire sur “Some Blasphemous Thoughts

  1. “I’m increasingly convinced that the two most important elements of a mystery are the problem and its solution but that the way one gets from the former to the latter is of secondary importance.”

    I’ve long said that the core of the genre (however we title it) is the dynamic between the puzzle and the solution. This is a more inclusive definition in some respects, less so in others. It allow us to see Green for Danger (featuring a central detective) and And Then There Were None (which literally features three professional detectives, but none of them dominating the story and none of them solving the mystery) as of the same genre— they both feature a puzzle and solution which stand in a relationship that is both surprising and non-arbitrary. But then, of course, we really shouldn’t require crime, either. Citizen Kane is certainly a puzzle story which provides my desired “sudden retrospective illumination,” but it just as certainly features no detectives (certainly none who solve the case) and no crime. Conversely, Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story, which is all about detectives, is definitely NOT of that genre. Which is why I feel there’s a strong argument for new terminology. Detective and crime have no place in the name, since works of the genre require neither. And ratiocination is not required either— there are many works that don’t contain it, but still offer a solution that is surprising and yet retrospectively inevitable (at least seeming so). I won’t go into the term “fair play,” but even if there were a satisfying definition for it, it wouldn’t include nearly any of the works we’re thinking of, let alone works such as And Then There Were None (with no apparent ratiocination) or Five Little Pigs (with no conclusive ratiocination, merely satisfying abductive speculations). I should think “puzzle” definitely belongs in the name, though of course, even “puzzle plot” doesn’t guarantee that the puzzle has a solution, or that such a solution stand in relation to it in a manner both surprising and retrospectively inevitable. But it’s a helluva lot closer. Because, let’s face it, there are people just interested in the lives and problems of detectives. And they certainly strike me as more deserving to claim the title detective stories than those of us who don’t consider that element as essential.

    J’aime

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