"The golden rule is that there are no golden rules."- George Bernard Shaw
Let the reader beware: extremely vague ramblings are ahead of you!
Recently, Xavier Lechard added an addendum to a response he compiled earlier this month to
the projectile vomiting an article signed by Philip Hensher, in which the savant took a fresh and much needed stance by opposing the unchallenged conventions of the rule bound mammoth that is the crime genre – and labeled its perfervid followers as the un-evolved troglodytes they really are. But as Xavier already spewed his cerebral guts all over the article, there's not much left for me to add except to seize this opportunity to make one or two general observations of my own.
In the opening of his addendum, Xavier restated one of his previous observations that the genre being "rule-bound" doesn't mean it is necessarily adverse to originality and innovation, but I think that is putting it weakly – since the genre would've never prospered as it once did had any of the practitioners in the field taken serious notice of the scribbles produced by S.S van Dine and Ronald Knox.
Mysteries were virtually unique as a genre fiction during their golden period in the fact that they were hard to define and had a scattered fan base. For decades, a discussion raged on what constituted as a mystery as the wings of the genre seemed to encompass the entire literary globe. Within the scope of the crime-ridden genre itself there were many different denominations: the fair-play whodunit, action packed thrillers, inverted crime stories, gothic novels of suspense and maidens in distress, police procedurals, rogue adventures, spy thrillers etc.
This is not a problem found with gritty westerns, science-fiction yarns, blood curdling horror stories or sweet, diabetic inducing, romance novels. They are, for the most part, what they are and still easily identified if they crossed-over in unfamiliar territory – where as the detective story blends in almost naturally with every surrounding it is put in. The prime example of this genre bending is, of course, Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel (1954), which places a traditionally plotted mystery in a futuristic setting peppered with social commentary, but you could just as well write a legitimate detective set in Transylvania featuring a protagonist who has to exonerate Count Dracula from a murder committed in a locked and nearly impenetrable castle tower – whose only point of entrance is a tiny, top-floor window large enough for a bird or bat to pass through. A creative writer can pull it off.
As far as rules go, I have pretty much given up on them. Until recently, I clung to the necessity of a plot and strict fair play, however, that proved to be incompatible with a lot of writers and books I absolutely love and adore (e.g. Conan Doyle, Maurice Leblanc, Rex Stout and H.R.F. Keating). I still consider cleverly plotted detective stories that play fair with their readers as a personal favorite, but that's just a preference for one of the many forms the genre can be molded into by a talented pair of hands guided by an intelligent and imaginative brain. That's how I see the genre these days... as a mass that can be molded in any shape you want and should provide a gifted writer with unlimited freedom.
Lamentably, that's a potential that is rarely tapped into these days and there's not much left of that once majestic, free-roaming bird who soared over the printed pages of nearly every genre after it was captured, clipped and put in a cage too small to even stretch it wings properly.
Enter any bookstore, and it's the same old, same old. So called literary thrillers saturated with character angst and lengthy, pointless descriptions of absolute nonsense. No imagination. No experimentation. No longevity. And there's where you find the true tragedy of this problem. The people who threw themselves up as innovators with the purpose of "transcending" the genre are effectively bleeding it to death and hopefully their publishers will take notice, before it's too late, that the new generation of readers aren't all that interested in these self-proclaimed, literary masterpieces – that make pungent comments on society and whatnot. I realize that it's very vulgar of me, Ho-Ling and Patrick to admit, openly and unapologetically, that we read mysteries mainly for our enjoyment, but perhaps our generation simply isn't literate enough to appreciate lengthy descriptions of angst-ridden childhood recollections, bladder problems and CD/DVD collections.
As my fellow aficionado concluded, we should (or rather they) make the tent bigger and be more inclusive as well as stopping with that childish, unfounded phobia for the "I" word, but then again, maybe we're better off if the genre, as it stands now, withers away so we can begin anew.
And on a side note: I'm midway through another impossible crime novel (it's not an addiction, I can stop whenever I want!) and the review will be up within the next two days or so.