It is the nature of progress that what is now cutting-edge will, with the passing of time, become traditional. And it is the nature of human beings to remake and refine what has worked in the past, and call it new.
And so the term “traditional mystery” is from the outset somewhat difficult to define absolutely. It has an almost organic structure, with successive authors and generations adding their own extensions and renovations to the house built by the likes of Poe, Christie, James, Sayers and Conan Doyle.
That original house had a foundation built on the reassurance of the middle classes, and four recognizable walls: the amateur detective or private investigator with superior powers of deduction, violence and sex occurring largely off-stage and referenced rather than shown, an incompetent or indifferent police force and, above all, the restoration of social order.
Over the years, Hardboiled, Noir, Forensic and Suspense have moved into the street and Traditional crime has been influenced by the architecture of its neighbors. Its walls have been repainted, moved and even knocked down to improve both the view and street appeal for contemporary tenants.
The protagonist of a traditional novel no longer needs to have the savant abilities of Holmes or Poirot. Indeed, modern audiences have become skeptical of cases made on a finely balanced tower of minute observation and inference. Today’s reader has too sophisticated an idea of legal burdens of proof to be satisfied with an arrest predicated on opportunity established by inventive conjecture. Protagonists have become less to-be-admired for their infallibility, than relatable for the opposite.
Similarly, while today’s traditional mystery is still less graphic than its hardboiled, forensic and noir counterparts, it is no longer a drawing room puzzle in which the protagonist is rarely in peril. The modern protagonist is required to have skin in the game, to be at risk of more than the humiliation of not solving the crime.
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Perhaps however the most radical renovation is to the notion of the restoration of social order, the load-bearing wall which is an extension of the traditional mystery’s function as a literature of reassurance. Arguably this restoration is the most important facet of not only traditional mystery, but crime novels in general.
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The modern protagonist, on the other hand, can fail to save the day even if he or she solves the crime. The perpetrator can go unpunished, and lives can remain shattered by loss. The reader knows who did it, but may be denied the simple satisfaction of a “just desserts” ending, without the story failing to meet the standards of a genre which had evolved beyond being a discreet intellectual puzzle.
Link to the rest at CrimeReads