- Historic Sites
My Life In Crime
A personal overview of American mystery fiction
July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
Murder is a plot element in most Shakespearean tragedy, and many of the plays have their echoes in what we recognize as crime and mystery fiction, even as they have their antecedents in the playwright’s own resource material. Othello , King Lear , Macbeth , Julius Caesar —crime stories, every one of them, their pages fairly dripping blood.
What is Les Misérables but a crime story? What is Crime and Punishment but a story of, well, crime and punishment? Or Dreiser’s An American Tragedy ? Or Hemingway’s “The Killers”?
Still, it would seem that crime fiction does constitute a category, and that not every book with a crime central to its plot perforce belongs in that category. Certain novels are automatically shelved by booksellers and librarians as mysteries. Others are not. The distinction is easier to make than to define; as someone said of pornography, one can’t define it, but knows it when one sees it.
A few years ago the publishing industry had a very useful definition of a mystery. A mystery, everyone agreed, was any novel about a crime that was sure to sell between three and six thousand hardcover copies. As a result of this perception, a publishers who had something they thought might sell respectably did what they could to hide the fact that the book was what most people would label a mystery.
All of this changed utterly, and a glance at the New York Times best-seller list makes the reason clear. Week after week, books that are undeniably mysteries occupy a dominant position. Writers like Dick Francis and Tony Hillerman and Elmore Leonard and Sue Grafton and Martin Cruz Smith and Robert B. Parker hit the list with every book they write. Books about the detection of crime are selling as well as anything can without promising weight loss and personal growth.
The explanation that seems to me to make the most sense holds that readers have a hunger for more substance than much contemporary mainstream fiction provides. Minimalist novels, academic novels, novels that aren’t about anything tend to garner M.F.A. degrees and National Endowment for the Arts grants without winning over the reading public. I read recently of a woman who has been secretly getting her reading matter from the Young Adult section because the books are about something. Much of crime fiction, too, is about something. There’s a crime, and there’s an attempt to do something about it. There are characters, and some of them live and some of them die, and the whole thing works out in the end. Or it doesn’t, and that’s how it works out. Either way there’s a story, and you want to know what happens next.
Mysteries come in two types: cozy and hard-boiled. The former is English, the latter American.
What happened next in my own career is that I kept at it. I wrote more crime stories and sold some of them, to Manhunt and other magazines. I wrote other stuff too. Articles for the male adventure magazines. A couple of true confession stories. A slew of erotic paperback novels. The fabricated case histories of a nonexistent psychiatrist.
This and that.
The ideas that came to me and the stories that worked best for me tended to fit somewhere in the broad category of mystery and suspense. Even when they didn’t start out that way, they tended to wind up there.
For example, in the late sixties I wrote a lighthearted little novel, a sort of Lecher in the Rye about a seventeen-year-old boy and his efforts to lose his virginity. Gold Medal published it as No Score , with the by-line Chip Harrison, that being the name of the narrator. It sold particularly well, probably because it had a terrific cover, and I was moved to write a sequel, which the publisher imaginatively titled Chip Harrison Scores Again .
Well, I wanted to write more about Chip, but I sensed a problem. In the first book he’d been seventeen years old and innocent. In the second he was a year older and a good deal more experienced. At this rate he’d be a jaded roué in no time at all, and his charm was by no means the sort that age cannot wither, nor custom stale.
Inspiration struck. In the third book I put him to work for a private detective, a road-company Nero Wolfe, and knew he’d last like an insect in amber. “You were wise to take this job,” his employer told him. “Now you’ll never grow old. You’ll be the same age forever, like all the private eyes in fiction.” He never did grow old, but not because of the mystery’s fountain-of-youth properties. Alas, after he’d appeared in two Nero Wolfe pastiches I ran out of things for him to do and let him retire.