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My Life In Crime
A personal overview of American mystery fiction
July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
Some fictional detectives age. Some stay young (or middle-aged or old) forever. Some die. Agatha Christie left two manuscripts to be published posthumously; in them she killed off her two most enduring detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Nicholas Freeling did not wait for his own death to kill his Inspector Van der Valk. He bumped him off in midcareer in remarkably cavalier fashion, and alienated most of his readers in the process. Conan Doyle tried that, sending Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, but wound up bringing him back in response to popular demand.
At the other extreme some fictional detectives outlive their creators. A number of writers have kept Sherlock Holmes going, often matching him up with historical personages; in one of the more successful books, Holmes and Sigmund Freud wind up doing coke together. Robert Goldsborough wrote a Nero Wolfe novel after Rex Stout’s death with the aim of amusing his mother. He has since written and published several more. A couple of years ago a dozen writers produced an anthology of new stories about Philip Marlowe, ostensibly to honor Raymond Chandler on his hundredth birthday. I suppose it’s all right, so long as they only do it once every hundred years.
There are, as everyone knows, two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. The world of crime fiction gets similarly cleft in twain. Mysteries are divided into two categories: the tough, gritty, mean-streets, in-your-face kind, which is labeled hardboiled, and the gentle, effete, British country-house body-in-the-library sort, which is called cozy.
Stereotypically, the hard-boiled mystery is American. It features, and is very likely narrated by, a private detective, a hard-drinking softhearted cynic who looks a little like Humphrey Bogart when he’s not looking like Robert Mitchum. The hard-boiled novel is written by a man and read by men. It is sour and downbeat and violent, and it means business.
In contrast, the cozy is English, written by women and for women. Its detective is apt to be an inspired amateur, male or female, and all its characters, except for the odd charming rustic, tend to be well spoken and courteous, decorous even in death. Its violence is offstage and unthreatening, leaning toward esoteric poisons and ingenious murder methods. The sleuth sets things right by working out an elaborate puzzle, and order is restored to a universe that is orderly at heart.
These stereotypes are undoubtedly useful, but they have their downside. Their rules are broken in book after book. British writers drag the reader through London’s mean streets while Americans employ country-house settings. Women write hard-boiled private-eye novels about tough female detectives, and other women read them, while men turn out intricately plotted cozies.
More to the point, the stereotypes tend to trivialize books of either persuasion. The cozy would seem to be frivolous, a bit of fluff that diminishes murder, and some of its specimens may have that effect. Yet no one epitomizes the cozy writer more than Agatha Christie, with her brilliantly worked plots and her comforting village settings. Her finest creation, Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary’s Mead, is the ultimate amateur sleuth, a little old lady in plimsolls with a steel-trap mind. The books are entertainments, surely. And yet they are dead serious. Christie’s concern in all her fiction, and especially in the Marple books, is the nature and origin of human evil. It is possible to read the novels attentively without becoming aware of it, but make no mistake about it, that is what they are about.
One of the abiding virtues of crime fiction, it seems to me, and one of the chief factors in its survival over the generations as a literary genre, is the seemingly infinite variety of work that falls within its scope. The house of mystery has many mansions, and it is a rare reader who can’t find something he or she likes in one chamber or another. Now and then I run into someone who professes never to read mysteries, and I find such specimens at least as curious as those who read nothing else. The majority seem to be people who never got the knack of reading for diversion; a few are of the sort who read one mystery once, didn’t much like it, and assumed all others to be the same.
As a reader I have always been able to find crime novels to read even as my own taste has changed and evolved. As a writer I have found that the genre’s wide-spaced boundaries have allowed me to write whatever it has occurred to me to write without placing myself beyond the pale. Over the years I have written novels about four different series characters. Evan Tanner, who has appeared in seven books, is a sort of freelance adventurer whose sleep center was destroyed by a stray shard of shrapnel. He speaks innumerable languages, supports no end of lost causes (among them the restoration of the House of Stuart to the British throne), and slips himself and others across international borders, all in the interest of peace and freedom.
Bernie Rhodenbarr is a bookseller by day, a burglar by night. Typically he has to solve an intricate murder puzzle in order to extricate himself from suspicion incurred in the commission of a burglary. He is an urbane and literate chap, a nice guy who lives on the West Side and steals on the East Side. Whoopi Goldberg played him in the movie. (Don’t ask.) His best friend is a lesbian poodle groomer.