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My Life In Crime
A personal overview of American mystery fiction
July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
Besides such domestic organizations as Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America, I belong to a fairly new outfit called the International Association of Crime Writers, with members on both sides of what we used to call the Iron Curtain. In the summer of 1988 I attended an IACW convocation at Gij#8217;n, on Spain’s northern coast. There were around sixty writers present from all over the world, and the majority of us were unfamiliar with one another’s work. Most of our contingent spoke only English, and the group as a whole was a testament to the far-reaching effects of the Tower of Babel. There was one woman from Japan who came accompanied by an interpreter, and even he could barely understand her, as her first language was some outer-island dialect more exotic than Basque.
No matter. We all were crime writers. Everybody had a wonderful time.
Oh, all right. Enough stalling. A piece like this has to have a ten-best list, doesn’t it? People do keep coming up with lists. An English mystery writer published a book not long ago with two-page discourses on each of his hundred favorites. (I’d mention his name, but he didn’t mention mine, so to hell with him.) My list has a couple of special characteristics that ought to be pointed out. First of all, it consists solely of American writers. I am writing, after all, for a magazine devoted to matters American, so I trust 1 am not being excessively parochial in keeping foreign writers off this particular list.
It is perhaps largely for this reason that most of the writers I’ve listed are of the hard-boiled school. Born in the detective pulps after the turn of the present century, hard- boiled crime fiction was very much an American invention.
After Poe, pre-eminence in the mystery field passed to the British. Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone , Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, R. Austin Freeman wrote about Dr. Thorndyke, and any number of British writers went on to develop the detective story as a suspenseful adventure, an intellectual exercise, and a look into the darker corners of the human psyche.
Some American writers followed in these British footsteps, with greater or lesser success. But in the pulp magazines another tradition was born. Crude, violent, rough-edged, cynical, often antiauthoritarian, pulp crime fiction spoke in a new voice that caught much of the spirit of post-World War I America.
A group of writers centered on Black Mask magazine forged hard-boiled fiction into something honest and vigorous; of their number, Hammett and Chandler emerged to produce something that will pass for Art. Years after their passing we still write this sort of book better than anyone else. The French have an insatiable appetite for the roman noir and accord the work considerable critical respect—rather more, I sometimes think, than it truly deserves. But very few of the hard-boiled crime novels published in France are homegrown.
The British can write hard-boiled books, but some of their best tough writers set their books in America, as if to say that a hard-boiled crime story demands an American setting. James Hadley Chase and Peter Chambers, the latter a devoted admirer of Raymond Chandler, are quite popular at home but have never traveled well, and few of their books are published here. Their American settings and dialogue may strike a British reader as perfectly authentic, but they clang horribly on an American ear. (This sort of thing works both ways. An American woman writes British cozies set in England, to the rich delight of an enormous American following. Most of her fans assume she’s English, a mistake no English reader would be likely to make. “She gets everything all wrong,” an English fan told me. “I can’t believe your lot takes her seriously.”)
At the same time, I have to admit that the preponderance of the hard-boiled on my list reflects a prejudice of the author. I tend to prefer hard-boiled (or, if you will, realistic) crime fiction and to see it as of more fundamental importance than softer, gentler books.
The reader will further note that my list has no women on it. This would certainly appear evidence of blatant sexism, and perhaps it is. In rebuttal I would argue that Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers would certainly be on my list but for the fact that they are British. And several American mystery writers would be on the list, too, but for the happy fact that they are alive.
If Stanley Ellin crept through his stories at a snail’s pace, Erie Stanley Gardner wrote as if his hair was on fire.
Because, you see, I have listed only writers who have gone to that great Bouchercon in the sky. I have mentioned how generous and amiable mystery writers are, how much I enjoy their company, how well we all get along. If you think I am going to change all that by assembling a list of favorites and leaving some of them off it, you’re out of your mind.
One last note. This is a list not of best books but of favorite writers, although I have occasionally mentioned a book or two that I remember with special fondness.
Here’s the good news: Instead of ten favorites, I seem to have come up with sixteen. And it was easy to put them in order. I just used the alphabet.