Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Life of a Literary Genre: Considering The Mystery

Reading Julian Symons' classic study of the detective novel, Mortal Consequences (which has also appeared under the title Bloody Murder), it struck me that the development of the mystery genre offers a striking parallel to the development of the science fiction genre as I have written about it these past several years. (This appeared principally in my article "'The End of Science Fiction': A View of the Debate." With the disappearance of the fiction review The Fix, where I published the article, it is no longer available, but an edited version may be found in my new book, After the New Wave: Science Fiction Since 1980.)

While the mystery can appear as old as literature itself if one applies the looser definitions, the first flickers of the mystery as we know it may be said to have really appeared in the Romantic era straddling the end of the eighteenth and the start of the nineteenth centuries – in the work of authors like William Godwin and Edgar Allan Poe (analogous to the influence of Godwin's daughter Mary Shelley, and Poe himself, in the misty early days of science fiction). Unmistakable practitioners, like Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle (comparable in their influence to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells), appeared with increasing regularity after this, down to the emergence of a recognizable genre - a story type sufficiently well-defined and sufficiently attractive to readers to constitute a recognizable, marketable product (and sufficiently self-aware to have its own presses and publications, its body of classic works and its fandom and its critical literature).

By the early decades of the twentieth century, a "golden age" of mystery writing was underway (the label associated with it identical to that applied to science fiction's own Golden Age). These golden age stories, like the tales of Agatha Christie, focused on concept (in this case, the puzzle the stories present the reader, which might be compared to the scientific gimmickry of early science fiction, with the Great Detective of Golden Age mystery comparable to the hero-scientists of early science fiction) at the expense of other aspects of fiction traditionally associated with literary quality (like characterization and prose style, a charge routinely made against early science fiction), and tended to be politically conservative in outlook (also stereotypically the case with the science fiction published by Hugo Gernsback and John Campbell).

A generation on, however, a new crop of writers rebelled against the old standards, bringing a new emphasis on character and prose style, as well as a sense of grit reflecting, in part, the inclusion of more radical political outlooks – and a diminished emphasis on the genre's old raison d'etre - as seen in the writing of Dashiell Hammett (just as happened in science fiction with the New Wave, less interested in technological gimmickry and techno-scientific problems, and frequently identifiable with the counterculture of the period). The new authors were often pointed critics of earlier works, with Raymond Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder," regarded by many as the most striking attack on the Golden Age murder mystery (just as New Wave giant Michael Moorcock, for example, wrote some of the most memorable criticism of Golden Age science fiction in pieces like "Starship Stormtroopers").

The rebellion proved divisive, an audience certainly existing for the newer sensibility, even as the older style had its defenders, who felt that the "new stuff" dispensed with what most appealed to them in the genre. One might go so far as to say that the detective story gave way to the story with a detective interest, or simply a crime interest, as Julian Symons has suggested (as arguably the old-style science fiction story increasingly gave way to the story with a speculative science interest). Moreover, it might be said that by the end of the twentieth century, much of the most celebrated new writing the genre had to offer was set in earlier periods, and frequently written as homage, as with James Ellroy's "L.A. Quartet," or Dennis Lehane's "Shutter Island" (a tendency comparable to the fashion for retro-science fiction, seen in the popularity of subgenres like steampunk).

Of course, along with these striking parallels in the development of these genres, there are also quite a number of striking differences. For one thing, there is little question that the mystery has much more thoroughly pervaded the pop cultural mainstream. (Legal and police procedurals, for instance, have from the start had a far more prominent place in publishing and on television than science fiction - while science fiction trumps these genres in film principally because of the opportunities it affords for spectacle.) It is interesting, too, that where in science fiction the Golden Age is so often thought of as American, and the New Wave rebellion against it as British, the reverse seems to be the case with the mystery. Whether the crime story is a higher development of the detective genre, or a successor genre, or perhaps both, would also seem to be open to argument, in a way that post-New Wave science fiction does not quite seem to parallel. Paranormal romance, steampunk and the like are what people point to when discussing what's doing well at the moment, and there is arguably a bigger gap between this and science fiction as it is usually defined than between the mysteries of this year and yesteryear. The fact is paralleled in their different conditions. While there is a widespread sense that science fiction may be in trouble - enough so that a recent article in the Wall Street Journal actually addresses the issue - no one seems to be asking such questions about the mystery.

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