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My Life In Crime
A personal overview of American mystery fiction
July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
It was in the eleventh grade that I knew I would be a writer. The conviction grew out of two awarenesses that dawned at about the same time. I became aware of the world of realistic adult fiction, with all its power to inform and enchant and absorb one utterly. I became aware, too, of my own talent with words. I seemed to be capable of doing with them what I had been unable to do with a baseball bat or a hammer or a monkey wrench or a slide rule.
And so I wrote—poems, sketches, stories, the usual juvenilia. Artistically, my childhood had been one of deprivation, in that I was not the product of a dysfunctional family. Accordingly, the things I wrote derived less from experience and inner turmoil than from other writings that I admired.
During my freshman year at Antioch 1 sent what I wrote to various magazines, and they sent it back. I was not greatly dismayed. I mounted the rejection slips on the wall, displaying them like campaign ribbons. I suppose I was proud of them, and perhaps I was right to be. I was, after all, actively engaged in the process of becoming a writer, and they were evidence of that engagement.
I read all the time, and one of the many things I read, the summer after my first year at college, was The Jungle Kids , a paperback collection of short stories by Evan Hunter. A couple of years previously Hunter had hit the best-seller list with The Blackboard Jungle , and the stories were all about what were then called juvenile delinquents. (I don’t know what you’d call them now. Kids, I guess.)
There were some fine stories in The Jungle Kids , including a positively Chekhovian tour de force called “The Last Spin,” in which two rival gang leaders become friends in the course of a game of Russian roulette. There were other stories that were less remarkable, just good workmanlike efforts. But the book had a profound effect upon me because I found what Hunter had done at once estimable and attainable. I sensed that I could do what he had done here, and that it was worth the doing. I couldn’t write these stories, but I could write stories that were good in the way in which these stories were good.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first detective story; it ends with an orangutan unmasked as the murderer.
I sat down at once and tried writing a story about juvenile delinquents, and it was awful, and I left it unfinished. And then some months later I was living in New York and working in a publisher’s mail room, and one Sunday afternoon I wrote a short story about a young man in New York who lived by his wits, making ends meet through petty theft and mail fraud. I didn’t send it anywhere because I couldn’t think where to send it, but eventually I recalled that Evan Hunter had published in a magazine called Manhunt , so I mailed my story off to it. The editor asked for a rewrite, complaining that my ending was inconclusive. I rewrote it and it came right back again, and the following summer, the summer of ’57,1 actually bought a copy of Manhunt and read everything in it and saw how to fix my story. I sent it off again, and damned if the magazine didn’t buy it. Paid me a hundred bucks for it too.
And so my fate was sealed. For the past thirty-some years I’ve been writing crime fiction.
Imagine if my first sale had been to “Heloise’s Household Hints”...
Poe started it. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the first detective story, C. Auguste Dupin fiction’s first detective. (He is a series detective too, reappearing in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter.”) The story is a curious one, beginning with a couple of pages arguing the natural superiority of checkers to chess as a game of pure ratiocination and ending with an oranutan unmasked as the murderer. In its course its author set several remarkable precedents. He employed a mere mortal as narrator, a counterwheel to the brilliant detective; Conan Doyle took this device and made it his own, and ever since we have called such narrators Watsons. At the same time, Poe pitted his hero against the bumbling and unimaginative police, and this pattern of antagonism has characterized much of mystery fiction down through the years.
Both Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe are descendants of Dupin, so it is only fitting that American mystery fiction’s highest accolade should be named for his creator. The Edgar Allan Poe awards are presented annually by the Mystery Writers of America in the form of a rather woebegone porcelain bust of the great man.
But did it really start with Poe? Men have been writing about crime ever since Cain invented fratricide, and I don’t know that there is any level of literary excellence that some sort of crime fiction has not attained. Hamlet is many things, but if it is not a detective story, what on earth is? It is, to be sure, a story as vague and uncertain as its hero. Hamlet’s father may or may not have been murdered, and Hamlet’s mother and stepfather may or may not have done it. The plot of Hamlet has turned up, by coincidence or by design, in a number of mystery novels, not the least of them Fredric Brown’s Edgar-winning first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint .