Sunday, 28 October 2012

Jacques Barzun R.I.P.

There's an excellent tribute on Curt Evans' blog to Jacques Barzun, who has died at the ripe old age of 104. Curt says most of the things I'd like to mention about Barzun,a crtic of whom I first became aware through reading Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. Symons disagreed with Barzun about many aspects of crime fiction, but I'm certain both men had a great deal of respect for each other.

A Catalogue of Crime is a fascinating reference work, and long ago I invested in both editions. Barzun and his collaborator Taylor comment on many books that were otherwise ignored in reference works about detective fiction, and I suspect they would be delighted to know that "forgotten books" of the type they enjoyed are finally emerging from obscurity thanks to digital publishing and internet commentaries. It is, mind you, an idiosyncratic text, and like all reference books it contains the occasional howler (such as locating Knutsford in Ireland). But it's a terrific book to dip into, and one I strongly recommend.

One does not have to agree with all (or even most) of what Barzun wrote about the genre to recognise the value and importance of his contribution to crime fiction criticism. His love of classic detective fiction became unfashionable, but - even though I'm more in the Symons camp in many ways - I think that the best of the books that he lauded will endure for as long as crime fiction is read, and his acute assessments of many of those books will remain indispensable not only for confirmed Golden Age fans but also for others who come to recognise the merits of the classic mystery, as well as its potential limitations - a group that is, I sense, growing quite rapidly, something of which Barzun would surely have approved.


Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Well said indeed. Barzun will be missed.

seana graham said...

I first really became acquainted with Jacques Barzun through Adrian McKinty's excellent blog, where he set his fans on to reading From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present. I am only a few hundred pages into it--but I'll recommend it all the same. It sounds very weighty, but it is one of those treasure troves that makes one's own life richer, like Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. As you say, it hardly matters whether you agree with everything these vast minds say--it is enough to toddle along in their footsteps.

I think I'll go back and finish From D to D in honor of the great man's passing.

Dr. Evangelicus said...

Can you please explain the benefits of having both editions of Catalogue of Crime? Thank you.

John said...

To Dr. Evangelicius -

The first edition of COC contained (to me inexplicably) a section on supernatural novels and short stories. I think just as Sayer's first Omnibus of Crime had a section on supernatural fiction Barzun felt he also had to touch on this topic, though he is generally dismissive of any supernatural content when found in a detective novel. It's not a truly critical (or fair) section as he tends to have no tolerance for the fantastic and outre in genre fiction. He does on occasion give in (THE DAFFODIL AFFAIR by Michaal Innes, one of the best supernatural crime novels in the genre, gets high marks astonishingly) but for the most part he has no real love of supernatural fiction which is why I cannot understand why he ever added that section.

In the second edition he dropped that section and added several detective and crime fiction books not found in the original COC. The second edition also has a section on True Crime books. I'm not sure there was one in the first COC.

I have the second edition and have never felt any reason to buy a copy the first to keep my second edition company. You can decide for yourself.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, thanks. Seana, you've made me want to read it now!
John, I agree. In fact, I bought the first edition shortly before the second one was published - doh! The second is, I think, better, and covers more books.