May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
James Michener famously said that a writer can make a fortune in America but can’t make a living. It strikes me that it’s the same story with all success, d’estime as well as d’argent . Nobody gets the right amount of recognition.
Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the putative founding fathers of hard-boiled fiction, have reached that pinnacle of literary sueccess where they are routinely praised by people who have not actually read their work. I’m far too fond of their books to call them overrated, but how can any book live up to all that shouting?
Jim Thompson would have been an easy pick for the most underrated American crime writer up until a few years ago. Then, virtually overnight, the pendulum swung, and now he bids fair for the title of most overrated. Early on, one picked up his out-of-print paperbacks for two bits apiece in thrift shops and noted that the least of them had moments of powerful raw noir writing that deserved to be noticed. Now one selects from a shelf of handsome trade paperbacks and cannot help seeing that the best of the books are slapdash, uneven, and seriously flawed. Don’t blame the books; they’re the same as they’ve always been. Blame the pendulum.
Two writers come to mind as having been unjustly forgotten. Both wrote detective fiction set in New York City. David Alexander, a columnist for a racing paper, wrote about Broadway characters. His hero, Bart Hardin, wore flowered vests and roomed upstairs of a Times Square flea circus. Henry Kane wrote about Peter Chambers, who took shape on television as Peter Gunn. The attitude, a unique sort of hard-boiled urbanity, came straight from the books.
I knew and liked Henry Kane. I never met David Alexander, but I suspect I’d have liked him. They’re both gone, and they’re both long out of print. I haven’t read either of them in years and can’t say how they’d hold up. But next time you’re in a thrift shop . . .