- Historic Sites
My Life In Crime
A personal overview of American mystery fiction
July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
Matthew Scudder is an alcoholic ex-cop, divorced, living alone in a cheap hotel in the West Fifties, eking out a living as an unlicensed private eye. He hangs out in churches (and, recently, at AA meetings in church basements), leads an angst-ridden life, and walks down some very mean streets indeed.
And I’ve already mentioned Chip Harrison, playing a horny adolescent Archie Goodwin to Leo Haig’s version of Nero Wolfe.
Here’s the point. These series differ considerably one from another—in type, in tone, in purpose. And I’ve also written a dozen or so nonseries novels, and they don’t run to type either. Yet all these books manage to be at home in the field of crime fiction. Not all my readers care for me in all my guises. One working private detective is a big Scudder fan but won’t read my Bernie Rhodenbarr books, because he disapproves of my glorifying a character who is, when all is said and done, a miscreant and a lawbreaker. Some of Bernie’s fans find Scudder’s world too relentlessly downbeat for them. Quite a few readers have found Tanner’s exploits too far-fetched to be taken seriously, yet others keep turning up to ask me when I’m going to write another book about him.
I should say something about fans. Compared with science fiction, mysteries barely have a true fandom. Science-fiction fans hold dozens of conventions annually, read everything written in their chosen field and nothing outside it, publish innumerable amateur magazines and newsletters (”fanzines”), and, according to one of the field’s leading editors, are all fifteen-year-old boys who aren’t very well socialized.
Mystery fans assemble at a single annual convention, the Bouchercon, named for the late Anthony Boucher, a mystery writer himself who was even more renowned as the field’s foremost critic. Held every year in a different city, Bouchercon brings together upward of five hundred crime-fiction devotees. One writer is chosen as the annual guest of honor, his expenses paid by the host committee, but fifty or more other writers pay full price for the chance to natter away on celebrity panels, inscribe books for fans, hang out with booksellers and editors, and play poker until daybreak.
Bouchercon is always a great success, and a big factor here, I’m convinced, is the estimable nature of the people involved. Mystery readers are an uncommonly literate lot, inclined to choose substance over pretense every time. (It is interesting to note what they read outside the genre. Several mystery bookstores carry the odd nonmystery now and then because the proprietor just knows it will appeal to the store’s customers. Most but by no means all of these books are about cats. W. R. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe sold well in mystery bookshops, as did Walter Tevis’s wonderful novel of a girl chess prodigy, The Queen ‘s Gambit .)
The mystery bookstore is largely a phenomenon of the last decade. Booksellers in general are a dedicated bunch, and the proprietors of stores dealing exclusively in mysteries would not be in the field if they did not love it. Their shops often have the ambience of clubhouses, and many of their customers drop in as much to chat as to buy books. Murder Ink, Grounds for Murder, Sherlock’s Home, Rue Morgue, Footprints of a Gigantic Hound, Booked for Murder, Foul Play, The Butler Did it, Murder Undercover, Once Upon a Crime, Murder for Pleasure, Scene of the Crime—the ingenuity displayed in the stores’ names suggests the resourcefulness of the people who operate them.
I tend to prefer hardboiled crime fiction and to see it as of more fundamental importance than gentler books.
Finally, mystery writers themselves tend to be an amiable sort. At a recent Bouchercon in Philadelphia, several of us were sitting around while one talked about his difficulties with an author. “What’s remarkable about the guy,” someone said, “is he’s the only thoroughgoing S.O.B. in the field. I can think of a few guys I’m not crazy about, but he’s the only real bastard around.”
I could, if pressed, name another, but given the traditional nature of auctorial ego and artistic temperament, it seems extraordinary that such a large barrel should have so few sour apples in it.
While I’ll leave it to psychiatry to explain why men and women who spend their lives writing about bloody murder should be so affable on their own time, I can guess why we’re so apt to relish one another’s company. The great majority of us are enthusiastic readers of crime fiction. Most of us were fans before we were writers, and continue to read one another’s work avidly.