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My Life In Crime
A personal overview of American mystery fiction
July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
All the novels are first-rate, except for Playback , a tired and confused effort published a year before the author’s death. I suppose my own favorite is The Long Good-bye , which shows rather more of Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe than did any of the previous books. In its exploration of Marlowe’s friendship with Terry Lennox, the book is as much a novel of character as of plot. If ultimately flawed, The Long Good-bye thereby fits Randall Jarrell’s definition of a novel—a lengthy prose narrative with something wrong with it.
Stanley Ellin was a perfectionist, working slowly and deliberately, producing a page of typescript on a good day. He admitted to having rewritten the opening paragraph of a short story as many as forty times before going on to the next paragraph and polishing each subsequent page in similar fashion before proceeding further.
It is possible to write short stories in this fashion, and Ellin consistently wrote the best mystery short stories of his time. His very first published story, “The Specialty of the House,” endures as a classic, although it is probably less surprising to today’s reader simply because so much fuss has been made about it. But all of Ellin’s stories are wonderful. He managed only one a year, sent each in turn to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine , and never had one rejected.
He received more financial remuneration, if less critical acclaim, for his novels. (He did not write them as slowly and laboriously as the stories. You can’t.) An early private-eye novel, The Eighth Circle , impressed me when I read it years ago. His later novels never worked terribly well for me, but the short stories are timeless, and a national treasure.
Eighty-two novels about Perry Mason. Nine about D.A. Doug Selby. Twenty-nine (under the name A. A. Fair) about the private-eye team of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. If Stanley Ellin crept through his stories at a snail’s pace, Erie Stanley Gardner wrote as if his hair was on fire.
I discovered Perry Mason when I was twelve, and I don’t know how many of the books I read over the next three or four years. They were relentlessly formulaic, and in a sense, if you’d read one, you’d read them all. On the other hand, if you enjoyed one, you would enjoy them all.
The prose narration was sloppy, the descriptions clichéd. Gardner hurried through those parts, and so does the reader. But the dialogue, effortless for the author, was absolutely masterly, and the courtroom scenes, however unrealistic they may have been, worked magically upon the page.
Mason himself changed over the years. In the earlier books he himself was a shady character, willing to bend and even break the law in the service of a client. He grew respectable in his middle years, when most of his cases were serialized in The Saturday Evening Post , and he turned staid and dull later on.
After a period of neglect Perry Mason seems to be coming back into favor with readers. Try one of the pre-war Masons— The Case of the Sulky Girl is a good one—or any of the A. A. Fair books. The latter are very different, breezily narrated by Donald Lam, and characterized by much better writing than the Masons.
Hammett’s colossal reputation rests upon a very small body of work. After several years laboring for the pulps, he published five novels in as many years, then wrote virtually nothing for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life. And the last of the novels, The Thin Man , is really not much good.
No matter. The others are superb, as impressive now as when they were written more than a half-century ago.
Hammett was a Pinkerton detective before he started writing, and his experience informs his work. But his greatness is far more than a matter of being able to write knowledgeably of crime and criminals. Both his literary style and his artistic vision cast an unsparing light on Prohibitionera America. In sentences that were flat and uninflected and remarkably nonjudgmental, he did much the same thing Hemingway did. I would argue that he did it better.
The Maltese Falcon is my own favorite, and the Bogart film won’t spoil it for you; the book quite literally is the John Huston screenplay.
If Hammett brought the special perceptions of a detective to crime fiction, Chester Himes came at it from the other side. He began writing toward the end of a seven-year stretch in an Ohio state penitentiary. His first books were novels of the black experience, critically successful but not widely read. In 1957 he wrote his first crime novel and introduced his pair of Harlem detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, who were to appear in eight more books.
Savage, violent, and wildly funny, Himes was never as successful in America as he was in France, where he lived from 1953 until his death. I don’t know how well the books hold up, but I know they were terrific when I read them, especially Cotton Comes to Harlem .