My Life In Crime

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The books of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, two cousins from Brooklyn, were by-lined Ellery Queen and featured a detective of the same name. (They were not first-person narratives, however; Ellery Queen wrote about himself in the third person.) They took the intellectual puzzle of S. S. Van Dine’s insufferable Philo Vance and elevated it to its highest level. Vintage Ellery Queen mysteries ( The Greek Coffin Mystery , The Chinese Orange Mystery ) feature a formal challenge to the reader at the point where all the clues needed to solve the puzzle have been furnished. The books were always fair, and diabolically clever.

During the forties Ellery Queen matured artistically, and the books became more than brainteasers, with a richness of character and setting and mood. Calamity Town , Ten Days’ Wonder , and Cat of Many Tails are especially successful.

The books alone make up a towering body of work. Add in a slew of first-rate short stories, innumerable radio plays, and four decades at the editorship of the field’s pre-eminent magazine, and the extent of Lee and Dannay’s achievement begins to become clear.

Jack Ritchie (1922-83).

For years I did the same thing whenever I got hold of a copy of Ellery Queen‘s or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine . I looked to see if there was a story by Jack Ritchie. If there was, I read it right away.

Ritchie was a miniaturist in an age when writers are judged by the number of trees cut down to print their work. He wrote only short stories, and he tried to do so without wasting a word. His work was sprightly and surprising and always engaging, and he never wrote an awkward sentence or a lifeless line of dialogue.

Then one day he died, and his stories went on appearing for several months and then trickled out, and ever since I have picked up those magazines with diminishing anticipation. Nowadays I look to see if they’ve reprinted one of his stories. If they have, I read it right away.

Rex Stout (1886-1975).

I know several men and women who are forever rereading the Nero Wolfe books. They read other things as well, of course, but every month or two they have another go at one of Stout’s novels. Since there are forty books, it takes them four or five years to get through the cycle, at which time they can start in again at the beginning. They do this not for the plots, which are serviceable, or for the suspense, which is minimal even on first reading. Nor are they hoping for fresh insight into the human condition. No, they reread the books for the same reason so many of us do, for the joy of spending a few hours in the most congenial household in American letters, the brownstone on West Thirtyfifth Street that is home to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

The relationship of these two, Wolfe the genius and Archie the man of action, is endlessly fascinating. Ultimately it is less Wolfe’s eccentricities—the orchids, the agoraphobia, the food and drink, the yellow pajamas—than the nuances of character that keep us transfixed. Stout wrote these books almost effortlessly, in a matter of weeks, and his first drafts went to the printer with no need to change so much as a comma. They seem as flawless today, and utterly timeless.

Jim Thompson (1906-76).

Thompson published twenty-nine books during his lifetime, all but one of them paperback originals. More than half of his output appeared in the fifties, with five books each published in 1953 and 1954. Most of them were published by Lion Books, a third-rate house. They were rarely reviewed and never commanded a wide readership. In the late sixties Thompson did a few novelizations of films and television shows to make ends meet. By the time he died, all his books were long out of print.

Now, seventeen years after his death, Jim Thompson is the hottest writer around. His novels of doomed losers and flippant sociopaths are all back in print, and there are several films in production or recently released, among them the highly successful The Grifters , the screenplay of which earned the mystery writer Donald E. Westlake an Oscar nomination.

For years Thompson was unjustly neglected. Now I suspect he’s getting rather more attention than he deserves. His books are intermittently wonderful, casting a cold eye indeed on life and death and providing an utterly unsparing view of the human condition. They are also intermittently awful, flawed by chapters of slapdash writing, adolescent character development, and mechanical plotting.

The Killer Inside Me , Pop. 1280 , and The Getaway show Thompson at his best. He is surely an important writer and very much worth reading, but it helps to keep it in mind that the stuff ain’t Shakespeare.