Exhibit A: Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe.
....But time went on and books piled up, Wolfe had sometimes to be taken away from home, and the problems involved in all series characters who appear in many stories became evident. These are, of course, greater when the characters are built up from a few superficial attributes, like love of beer and orchids and a gourmet's appreciation of food. The decline became very steep after the end of the forties, which produced some books very near to Stout's best work....There are good things to be found in the later novels...but most convey a sense of effort, of a man going through the motions of creating one more story about characters who have ceased to mean much to him.
--Julian Symons, Bloody Murder
And here's what Symons, as a Sunday Times book reviewer, wrote contemporaneously with Stout, in a review of Stout's Nero Wolfe novella collection Three for the Chair back in the 1957:
|Might as well be dead?|
Consider, for example, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe....Three for the Chair...is...a sad comment on past glories....Could not Mr. Stout arrange for [Nero Wolfe] to pass away after an excess of salmon mousse and blueberry pie?
But, no, Nero did not die; he not only lived on to appear in yet more Rex Stout novels and novella collections--some of them quite good--he has appeared in books written by Robert Goldsborough, after Rex Stout's death in 1975. Wolfe remains quite popular (as an advocate of "forgotten authors" would it be out of place for me to add that today many more people read Stout's books than do those of Julian Symons, just as people did in the 1950s?).
Symons' objection to the Great Detective in crime fiction seems as much political as aesthetic. Is the Great Detective inherently a product of conservative social conditions, as Symons thinks?
With the modern Sherlock Holmes film and television revival, the continued popularity of Papa Poirot and Miss Marple, the appearance on the last decade or so of successful television series like Monk and The Mentalist, it would seem that people still very much like the idea of a Great Detective who can solve seemingly unsolvable conundrums, even in a very different time. We aren't just relying on gloomy Scandinavian cops to save the day for us (though arguably even a lot of cops in crime novels have Great Detective attributes, and they are very much series characters).
The fondness for more "traditional" mystery even Julian Symons has to ruefully acknowledge in the final edition (1992) of Bloody Murder:
Why is it, the Spanish-Mexican crime writer Paco Taibo asked me a year or two ago...that the British...produce books that are firmly embedded in the cosy world of the past, hopelessly out of date? At the time I simply denied the suggestion, but reflection showed substance in the comment. In Britain the cosy crime story still flourishes, as it does nowhere else in the world. We are a long way from the fairy-tale crime world of Agatha Christie, but a large percentage of the mystery stories published in Britain are deliberately flippant about crimes and their outcome in a way not paralleled in American crime writing or, if one can judge by translation, that in other countries....
....This is a product for which there is still a steady demand, as the recent foundation in the United States of a club for the preservation of the Cosy Crime Story shows [Could Symons be referring to Malice Domestic here? TPT]
|Paco Taibo wondered back in the early 1990s why|
British mysteries were so hopelessly out of date
Symons comments critically on the "refusal" of some British crime writers (he lists Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Patricia Wentworth, Margery Allingham and Christianna Brand) "to be serious about anything except the detective and the puzzle."
Setting aside the unfairness, as I see it, of so broadly referring to Agatha Christie's fictional world as "fairy-tale" and categorizing Allingham and Brand as authors who invariably refused seriousness (I have written about Allingham numerous times here and, as for Brand, I think some of her characters and situations in books like Green for Danger and Tour de Force are moving), it would seem that Symons near the end of his life was having to reassess his confidence about the inevitability of the shift from what he saw as the conservative, puzzle-oriented, superficial, "cosy" detective story to the liberal, psychologically and socially realistic, gritty crime novel. He would have had to reassess even more had he picked up on the American "cozy crime" phenomenon!
A lot of these modern cozy mysteries are, I should add, conventionally liberal, not conservative (to be sure, we are not likely to get probing explorations of myriad social ills in a book entitled Peach Pies and Alibis, but there are more serious books that are categorized as "cozy," like those by Louise Penny and Margaret Maron). Stout, despite being saddled with a Great Detective, himself certainly gave expression to liberal sympathies in his books, even if he remained first and foremost a tale spinner.
And some, perhaps most, of these modern cozy mysteries, despite investing a lot of effort in series detectives, do not actually take the matter of the puzzles all that seriously, while some of the tougher, more socially probing books have very good puzzles. I'm guessing Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake (1943) has a better puzzle than, say, Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Said Cheese (1996). As Doug Greene has argued, puzzles do not foreclose social commentary in mystery novels, authors do. If an author has the inclination, she can produce mysteries with both social commentary and puzzles.
All in all, I think change in the mystery genre over the decades has been not quite as linear as Symons' original formulation makes it out to be. The Great Detective, the puzzle, to "cozy" milieu have proven more durable than he and others thought they would be, and have now outlasted Agatha Christie herself by nearly forty years.
By the way, despite my great admiration for Stout's Some Buried Caesar (1939), I think the greatest period for the Wolfe books was 1946 to 1965. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe saga in these years may well have been as popular as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series and to me is, in terms of sheer quality, one of the very greatest achievements in American mid-century mystery. It should be getting more attention from academic scholars interested in American cultural history, even if it is considered "cozy."
|don't underestimate the durability of the Great Detective|