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My Life In Crime
A personal overview of American mystery fiction
July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
Boucher’s reputation rests largely upon his influence as a reviewer, which was monumental. From 1951 until his death he wrote the weekly “Criminals at Large” column for The New York Times Book Review , covering virtually everything of note published in the mystery field. He reviewed paperback originals at a time when no one else took much notice of them, discovered and encouraged promising new writers, and widened the tastes of his readers while sharpening their perceptions. During many of the same years he also reviewed plays and opera and science fiction, appeared on radio and television, edited a science-fiction magazine and a number of anthologies, and died young after many years of intermittent ill health.
In addition, he wrote eight novels and a couple of dozen short stories. I think it is safe to say that he would have been more prominent as a writer of fiction if less of his energy had gone into other pursuits. His books are slight, but their charm and the skill with which they were written keep them sprightly and engaging. My own favorite, though but dimly recalled, is Nine Times Nine , a locked-room mystery investigated by Sister Ursula of the Order of Martha of Bethany. (As a reviewer and editor Anthony Boucher was always an easy mark for a story with a nun or a cat in it.)
It was published under the name H. H. Holmes, an alias previously employed by a mass murderer of the nineteenth century. “Anthony Boucher” was itself a pen name; the author’s actual name was William Anthony Parker White.
I discovered Fredric Brown around the time I began selling stories to the crime pulps, and I read everything of his I could get my hands on. One time, after a hard week at a literary agency where I was gainlessly employed as a reader of unsolicited submissions, I read Murder Can Be Fun , in which a murder is committed early on in full view of dozens of bystanders—by a killer dressed up as Santa Claus. I had a bottle of bourbon on the table, and every time Brown’s hero took a drink, I had a snort myself. This is a hazardous undertaking when in the company of Brown’s characters and, I’ve been given to understand, would have been just as dangerous around the author himself. By the time the book was finished, so was I.
Brown was a playful, inventive, prolific writer who never wrote the same book twice. The Fabulous Clipjoint , his Edgar-winning first novel, is perhaps his best book. In it young Ed Hunter joins forces with his uncle Ambrose, a former carnival performer, to investigate the murder of Ed’s father. The Chicago background is perfect, the carny lore a big plus. The Screaming Mimi and Night of the Jabberwock are also vintage Brown. My own favorite is The Wench Is Dead , about a sociology professor immersing himself in L.A.'s Skid Row in the name of research.
While he is generally regarded as one of the seminal figures of hard-boiled crime fiction, Cain would have no part of it. “I belong to no school, hardboiled or otherwise,” he insisted.
Oh, well. The writer is always the last to know. On the basis of two books, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity , Cain’s place in the field is assured. He wrote sparely and convincingly of ordinary and fundamentally decent human beings moved by sexual passion to commit murder for gain. A whole generation of strong American fiction, the archetypal gold-medal novels of Charles Williams and Gil Brewer and others, springs directly from these two books.
Not everyone admired him. “Everything he touches smells like a billy goat,” Raymond Chandler complained. “He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf , a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking.”
I always think of Cain when the subject of film adaptation comes up. Several of his novels were filmed, and he was often asked how he felt about what Hollywood had done to his books. “But they have done nothing to my books,” he would reply. “They are right over there on the shelf, exactly as I wrote them.”
Chandler has long been the intellectual’s darling, a mystery writer for people who don’t like mysteries. On the one hand, he talked of taking murder out of the English drawing room and putting it in the streets where it belonged. At the same time, his characters spent a surprising amount of time in the homes and haunts of the California rich, a West Coast equivalent of the country house on the moors. His achievement, it seems to me, is less that he brought the traditional mystery into the alleys and gutters than that he put a novelist’s spin on the pulp tradition of Dime Detective and Black Mask .