Thursday, June 6, 2013

Critics Are Mysterious Creatures

I like to read, but I don’t like what might commonly be referred to as ‘serious literature’. When I’m serious about my reading, I read nonfiction – mostly history.

I read fiction for fun, so I want to be entertained by a book. My fiction tastes fall into two categories – humor (mostly P. G. Wodehouse) and mysteries. I prefer books from what mystery aficionados call the Golden Age – generally defined as between the wars, but I stretch it through the forties and into the fifties. My favorite mystery writers are John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, but there were many, many other greats at that time; which is why it’s called the Golden Age.

Critics and reviewers hate the books of that period, and current works that follow the same style, condemning them for being ‘mere puzzles’. Modern mysteries of which they approve are mostly about a detective following around a psychopathic serial killer while exploring the angst caused by the detective’s unsatisfactory sex life and the difficulties he or she faces in reconciling the detective trade with the social ills that justify the serial killer’s actions. Boooring!

The critics’ disdain for mysteries, though, is nothing new. I recently came across this review of a book by Anna Katherine Green, an early practitioner of mystery writing, in Literary Digest in 1903:
". . . it is not a story of any psychological value. The 'clews' are everything and the character development is nothing."
I enjoy mysteries in which at least the principle characters are sufficiently developed that they become people I care about, but I’m not sure why the reviewer would think that a mystery novel should have ‘psychological value’ (whatever that phrase might mean). Nor do I understand why the presence of clews (however spelled) in a mystery novel would be offensive.

If I were to read a romance novel, I would expect it to be rather romantic in tone. Most sci-fi I've encountered has a lot of scientific stuff in it.  So what should a reviewer or critic expect to find in a mystery novel?

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