July/august 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 4
A personal overview of American mystery fiction
It was in the eleventh grade that I knew I would be a writer. The conviction grew out of two awarenesses that dawned at about the same time. I became aware of the world of realistic adult fiction, with all its power to inform and enchant and absorb one utterly. I became aware, too, of my own talent with words. I seemed to be capable of doing with them what I had been unable to do with a baseball bat or a hammer or a monkey wrench or a slide rule.
And so I wrote—poems, sketches, stories, the usual juvenilia. Artistically, my childhood had been one of deprivation, in that I was not the product of a dysfunctional family. Accordingly, the things I wrote derived less from experience and inner turmoil than from other writings that I admired.
During my freshman year at Antioch 1 sent what I wrote to various magazines, and they sent it back. I was not greatly dismayed. I mounted the rejection slips on the wall, displaying them like campaign ribbons. I suppose I was proud of them, and perhaps I was right to be. I was, after all, actively engaged in the process of becoming a writer, and they were evidence of that engagement.
I read all the time, and one of the many things I read, the summer after my first year at college, was The Jungle Kids , a paperback collection of short stories by Evan Hunter. A couple of years previously Hunter had hit the best-seller list with The Blackboard Jungle , and the stories were all about what were then called juvenile delinquents. (I don’t know what you’d call them now. Kids, I guess.)
There were some fine stories in The Jungle Kids , including a positively Chekhovian tour de force called “The Last Spin,” in which two rival gang leaders become friends in the course of a game of Russian roulette. There were other stories that were less remarkable, just good workmanlike efforts. But the book had a profound effect upon me because I found what Hunter had done at once estimable and attainable. I sensed that I could do what he had done here, and that it was worth the doing. I couldn’t write these stories, but I could write stories that were good in the way in which these stories were good.
I sat down at once and tried writing a story about juvenile delinquents, and it was awful, and I left it unfinished. And then some months later I was living in New York and working in a publisher’s mail room, and one Sunday afternoon I wrote a short story about a young man in New York who lived by his wits, making ends meet through petty theft and mail fraud. I didn’t send it anywhere because I couldn’t think where to send it, but eventually I recalled that Evan Hunter had published in a magazine called Manhunt , so I mailed my story off to it. The editor asked for a rewrite, complaining that my ending was inconclusive. I rewrote it and it came right back again, and the following summer, the summer of ’57,1 actually bought a copy of Manhunt and read everything in it and saw how to fix my story. I sent it off again, and damned if the magazine didn’t buy it. Paid me a hundred bucks for it too.
And so my fate was sealed. For the past thirty-some years I’ve been writing crime fiction.
Imagine if my first sale had been to “Heloise’s Household Hints”...
Poe started it. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the first detective story, C. Auguste Dupin fiction’s first detective. (He is a series detective too, reappearing in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter.”) The story is a curious one, beginning with a couple of pages arguing the natural superiority of checkers to chess as a game of pure ratiocination and ending with an oranutan unmasked as the murderer. In its course its author set several remarkable precedents. He employed a mere mortal as narrator, a counterwheel to the brilliant detective; Conan Doyle took this device and made it his own, and ever since we have called such narrators Watsons. At the same time, Poe pitted his hero against the bumbling and unimaginative police, and this pattern of antagonism has characterized much of mystery fiction down through the years.
Both Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe are descendants of Dupin, so it is only fitting that American mystery fiction’s highest accolade should be named for his creator. The Edgar Allan Poe awards are presented annually by the Mystery Writers of America in the form of a rather woebegone porcelain bust of the great man.
But did it really start with Poe? Men have been writing about crime ever since Cain invented fratricide, and I don’t know that there is any level of literary excellence that some sort of crime fiction has not attained. Hamlet is many things, but if it is not a detective story, what on earth is? It is, to be sure, a story as vague and uncertain as its hero. Hamlet’s father may or may not have been murdered, and Hamlet’s mother and stepfather may or may not have done it. The plot of Hamlet has turned up, by coincidence or by design, in a number of mystery novels, not the least of them Fredric Brown’s Edgar-winning first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint .
Murder is a plot element in most Shakespearean tragedy, and many of the plays have their echoes in what we recognize as crime and mystery fiction, even as they have their antecedents in the playwright’s own resource material. Othello , King Lear , Macbeth , Julius Caesar —crime stories, every one of them, their pages fairly dripping blood.
What is Les Misérables but a crime story? What is Crime and Punishment but a story of, well, crime and punishment? Or Dreiser’s An American Tragedy ? Or Hemingway’s “The Killers”?
Still, it would seem that crime fiction does constitute a category, and that not every book with a crime central to its plot perforce belongs in that category. Certain novels are automatically shelved by booksellers and librarians as mysteries. Others are not. The distinction is easier to make than to define; as someone said of pornography, one can’t define it, but knows it when one sees it.
A few years ago the publishing industry had a very useful definition of a mystery. A mystery, everyone agreed, was any novel about a crime that was sure to sell between three and six thousand hardcover copies. As a result of this perception, a publishers who had something they thought might sell respectably did what they could to hide the fact that the book was what most people would label a mystery.
All of this changed utterly, and a glance at the New York Times best-seller list makes the reason clear. Week after week, books that are undeniably mysteries occupy a dominant position. Writers like Dick Francis and Tony Hillerman and Elmore Leonard and Sue Grafton and Martin Cruz Smith and Robert B. Parker hit the list with every book they write. Books about the detection of crime are selling as well as anything can without promising weight loss and personal growth.
The explanation that seems to me to make the most sense holds that readers have a hunger for more substance than much contemporary mainstream fiction provides. Minimalist novels, academic novels, novels that aren’t about anything tend to garner M.F.A. degrees and National Endowment for the Arts grants without winning over the reading public. I read recently of a woman who has been secretly getting her reading matter from the Young Adult section because the books are about something. Much of crime fiction, too, is about something. There’s a crime, and there’s an attempt to do something about it. There are characters, and some of them live and some of them die, and the whole thing works out in the end. Or it doesn’t, and that’s how it works out. Either way there’s a story, and you want to know what happens next.
What happened next in my own career is that I kept at it. I wrote more crime stories and sold some of them, to Manhunt and other magazines. I wrote other stuff too. Articles for the male adventure magazines. A couple of true confession stories. A slew of erotic paperback novels. The fabricated case histories of a nonexistent psychiatrist.
This and that.
The ideas that came to me and the stories that worked best for me tended to fit somewhere in the broad category of mystery and suspense. Even when they didn’t start out that way, they tended to wind up there.
For example, in the late sixties I wrote a lighthearted little novel, a sort of Lecher in the Rye about a seventeen-year-old boy and his efforts to lose his virginity. Gold Medal published it as No Score , with the by-line Chip Harrison, that being the name of the narrator. It sold particularly well, probably because it had a terrific cover, and I was moved to write a sequel, which the publisher imaginatively titled Chip Harrison Scores Again .
Well, I wanted to write more about Chip, but I sensed a problem. In the first book he’d been seventeen years old and innocent. In the second he was a year older and a good deal more experienced. At this rate he’d be a jaded roué in no time at all, and his charm was by no means the sort that age cannot wither, nor custom stale.
Inspiration struck. In the third book I put him to work for a private detective, a road-company Nero Wolfe, and knew he’d last like an insect in amber. “You were wise to take this job,” his employer told him. “Now you’ll never grow old. You’ll be the same age forever, like all the private eyes in fiction.” He never did grow old, but not because of the mystery’s fountain-of-youth properties. Alas, after he’d appeared in two Nero Wolfe pastiches I ran out of things for him to do and let him retire.
Some fictional detectives age. Some stay young (or middle-aged or old) forever. Some die. Agatha Christie left two manuscripts to be published posthumously; in them she killed off her two most enduring detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Nicholas Freeling did not wait for his own death to kill his Inspector Van der Valk. He bumped him off in midcareer in remarkably cavalier fashion, and alienated most of his readers in the process. Conan Doyle tried that, sending Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, but wound up bringing him back in response to popular demand.
At the other extreme some fictional detectives outlive their creators. A number of writers have kept Sherlock Holmes going, often matching him up with historical personages; in one of the more successful books, Holmes and Sigmund Freud wind up doing coke together. Robert Goldsborough wrote a Nero Wolfe novel after Rex Stout’s death with the aim of amusing his mother. He has since written and published several more. A couple of years ago a dozen writers produced an anthology of new stories about Philip Marlowe, ostensibly to honor Raymond Chandler on his hundredth birthday. I suppose it’s all right, so long as they only do it once every hundred years.
There are, as everyone knows, two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. The world of crime fiction gets similarly cleft in twain. Mysteries are divided into two categories: the tough, gritty, mean-streets, in-your-face kind, which is labeled hardboiled, and the gentle, effete, British country-house body-in-the-library sort, which is called cozy.
Stereotypically, the hard-boiled mystery is American. It features, and is very likely narrated by, a private detective, a hard-drinking softhearted cynic who looks a little like Humphrey Bogart when he’s not looking like Robert Mitchum. The hard-boiled novel is written by a man and read by men. It is sour and downbeat and violent, and it means business.
In contrast, the cozy is English, written by women and for women. Its detective is apt to be an inspired amateur, male or female, and all its characters, except for the odd charming rustic, tend to be well spoken and courteous, decorous even in death. Its violence is offstage and unthreatening, leaning toward esoteric poisons and ingenious murder methods. The sleuth sets things right by working out an elaborate puzzle, and order is restored to a universe that is orderly at heart.
These stereotypes are undoubtedly useful, but they have their downside. Their rules are broken in book after book. British writers drag the reader through London’s mean streets while Americans employ country-house settings. Women write hard-boiled private-eye novels about tough female detectives, and other women read them, while men turn out intricately plotted cozies.
More to the point, the stereotypes tend to trivialize books of either persuasion. The cozy would seem to be frivolous, a bit of fluff that diminishes murder, and some of its specimens may have that effect. Yet no one epitomizes the cozy writer more than Agatha Christie, with her brilliantly worked plots and her comforting village settings. Her finest creation, Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary’s Mead, is the ultimate amateur sleuth, a little old lady in plimsolls with a steel-trap mind. The books are entertainments, surely. And yet they are dead serious. Christie’s concern in all her fiction, and especially in the Marple books, is the nature and origin of human evil. It is possible to read the novels attentively without becoming aware of it, but make no mistake about it, that is what they are about.
One of the abiding virtues of crime fiction, it seems to me, and one of the chief factors in its survival over the generations as a literary genre, is the seemingly infinite variety of work that falls within its scope. The house of mystery has many mansions, and it is a rare reader who can’t find something he or she likes in one chamber or another. Now and then I run into someone who professes never to read mysteries, and I find such specimens at least as curious as those who read nothing else. The majority seem to be people who never got the knack of reading for diversion; a few are of the sort who read one mystery once, didn’t much like it, and assumed all others to be the same.
As a reader I have always been able to find crime novels to read even as my own taste has changed and evolved. As a writer I have found that the genre’s wide-spaced boundaries have allowed me to write whatever it has occurred to me to write without placing myself beyond the pale. Over the years I have written novels about four different series characters. Evan Tanner, who has appeared in seven books, is a sort of freelance adventurer whose sleep center was destroyed by a stray shard of shrapnel. He speaks innumerable languages, supports no end of lost causes (among them the restoration of the House of Stuart to the British throne), and slips himself and others across international borders, all in the interest of peace and freedom.
Bernie Rhodenbarr is a bookseller by day, a burglar by night. Typically he has to solve an intricate murder puzzle in order to extricate himself from suspicion incurred in the commission of a burglary. He is an urbane and literate chap, a nice guy who lives on the West Side and steals on the East Side. Whoopi Goldberg played him in the movie. (Don’t ask.) His best friend is a lesbian poodle groomer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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 .
The creator of Travis McGee, boat bum and self-styled salvage expert, had an M.B.A. degree from Harvard Business School. I don’t suppose that’s anywhere near as weird as Wallace Stevens working for an insurance company and writing Peter Quince at the Clavier in his spare time, but it’s a far cry from the way Hammett and Himes prepped for their writing careers.
It seems likely that McGee, hero of twenty-two fast-paced novels, will stand as MacDonald’s greatest creation. By the time McGee made his initial appearance in The Deep Blue Goodby in 1964, MacDonald had already published some forty books, all but a handful of them paperback originals. They’re almost all crime novels, and they’re almost all excellent.
The French, connoisseurs of our literary dark side, don’t know from MacDonald, and on reflection I can understand why. For all the ecological foreboding of the McGee books, MacDonald’s vision is not on the surface noir at all. His sensibilities were always Middle American, and his characters approached difficult situations with the problem-solver attitude of an engineer. But there is a darkness to MacDonald, evident in his unparalleled ability to limn a sociopath, present too in that neglected late work One More Sunday . But it is not the knee-jerk darkness of the noir world view but the somehow bleaker darkness of a light that has failed.
Some of the late McGees are weak books, but so what? Start with The Deep Blue Goodby and read them all in order. Of the non-McGees, I have especially fond recollections of The End of the Night and One Monday We Killed Them All . Each in its own quiet way is dark enough to make noir look like a light show.
Ross Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar and wrote his first mystery novels under that name. Then he wrote one book as John Macdonald and five as John Ross Macdonald, finally dropping the “John” to avoid confusion with John D. MacDonald.
He began writing in frank imitation of Hammett and Chandler, and the early books in the Lew Archer series are markedly Chandleresque, with Archer wisecracking briskly in the Philip Marlowe mode.
With The Doomsters in 1958 and The Galton Case a year later, Macdonald came into his own and went on to write a series of books unlike anything before him. Against the background of the Southern California ecosystem in metastasis, Archer bears witness as the mills of God relentlessly exact retribution for long-past sins.
A few years ago my wife and I were in West Africa for three weeks. We had plenty of luxuries, like food and water, but nothing to read, and the only books and magazines available were in French. Then, in our hotel in Lomé, the capital of Togo, I discovered five Lew Archers, second-hand paperbacks that had been badly printed in India. The newsdealer wanted an extortionary ten dollars apiece for them, and I paid it willingly. They sustained us all the way back to JFK.
Of course we had read them all before, some of them two or three times. It didn’t matter. It is one of the singular properties of Ross Macdonald’s fiction that ten minutes after you have turned the last page, every detail of the plot vanishes forever from your mind. I’m sure I could reread those five books right now without much more than the faintest sense of déjà vu.
In a sense the plot of every book is much the same. A character did something reprehensible twenty or thirty or forty years ago—in the war, perhaps, or in Canada. Now things begin to fall apart, and, even as Archer rushes around trying to forestall disaster, the guilty and innocent alike are sucked down into the primordial Freudian ooze.
Wonderful books. Read any of the post-1958 Archers for a start. And don’t throw it away when you’re done. In a few years you’ll be able to read it again for the first time.
Prohibition must have been a time of great self-discovery. Even as Americans were discovering themselves as hard and tough and cynical, and confirming this discovery in the works of Hammett and Chandler, so were many of us waking up to find ourselves clever, and rejoicing in our mental agility by working crossword puzzles, playing contract bridge, and repeating the Round Table talk of the Algonquin crowd. And by reading intricate deductive mystery novels and trying to figure them out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In one of his Hoke Mosely mysteries, Charles Willeford supplied a character who had retired after a lifetime spent painting pinstripes on the sides of automobiles. He now lived in a development in South Florida where he liked to walk through his neighborhood with a kind word and a cheerful smile for everyone he met. He carried a walking stick, its hollow interior stocked with poisoned meat pellets; the affable old boy delighted in poisoning every dog that crossed his path.
I can’t think of anyone else who could have created that little man, let alone made him work. Willeford kept coming up with quirky characters and put them in wonderfully quirky books. A career soldier in the horse cavalry and a highly decorated tank commander in World War II, he wrote a variety of books over the years, all of them providing a skewed vision of the universe.
It was in the Hoke Mosely novels, starting with Miami Blues , that Willeford came into his full powers as a writer. He wrote four of them, each better than the last, and was just beginning to win the wide readership and critical recognition he deserved when he went and died. It was the sort of joke he would have appreciated.
I am told he left the rough first draft of a fifth Mosely novel, darker than dark, unpublishably dark, with Hoke rounding things out by murdering his own teen-age daughters. If that manuscript’s out there somewhere, I want to read it. Meanwhile, read the other four in order. Willeford wrote two volumes of autobiography, I Was Looking for a Street and Something About a Soldier . Both are a treat.
A couple of years ago I read a Woolrich short story in which a pulp writer locks himself in a hotel room and works all night to meet a deadline. When he’s done, he falls asleep, exhausted; when he wakes up, he’s horrified to discover that the pages are blank. There was no ribbon in the typewriter. Presumably the hero took each page in turn from the typewriter without noting the absence of words on it.
Cornell Woolrich was capable of this sort of plotting. Loose ends and illogical twists and turns abound in his books, but they don’t really matter. His great strength, it seems to me, lay in his unrivaled ability to make novels of the stuff of nightmares. Woolrich’s characters prowl tacky dance halls and alleyways. They smoke dope in strange apartments, swallow spiked cocktails, and run hallucinating through unfamiliar streets. The suspense is relentless, the sense of impending doom ever present.
Woolrich wrote his best books early on, starting with The Bride Wore Black in 1940.
The most noteworthy aspect of my list, it seems to me, is the number of significant writers I’ve had to leave out. I could easily have included a dozen more. If I were fool enough to include living writers, I’d have had to write a book. Because, for all the talk one hears of the mystery’s vintage years, I think it is abundantly clear that the very best crime fiction ever is being written today. These are the good old days, and a very real reason for the huge popularity of mysteries is that the genre is in its Golden Age. Many of the very best writers alive are writing crime novels, and they are doing extraordinary things within the genre, things no one has previously attempted.
If there’s a lot of wheat, surely there’s no end of chaff. I suppose 90 percent of what’s being published today is nothing special, but when was it ever otherwise? The good stuff, I assure you, is very good indeed.
You’ll excuse me, I hope, if 1 decline to point it out to you. But think of the fun you’ll have digging it out for yourself!