Skip to main content

Detective Novelist

June 2024
1min read

Overrated I’ve always had a soft spot for Robert B. Parker if only because of an essay he once wrote demolishing the glib academic theory that the hard-boiled detective is a Marxist hero. The sleuth as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler depicted him belongs “not to the Marxist but to the chivalric tradition,” Parker observed. “He is not of the people; he is alone. His adventures are solitary statements.” It seems unchivalrous to have to say that ™ this astute observer talks a better game than he plays. He names his detective after a Renaissance poet (Spenser), just as Chandler did (Marlowe), and the homage is sincere but gives a taste of the derivative nature of Parker’s effort. Reading his lackluster prose, one feels sadly that the old hard-boiled genre has lost something of its verve and inspiration.

Underrated The 1940s was a great period for the indigenous American crime novel, and Kenneth Fearing was a notably sophisticated master of suspense. A distinguished feature of his Dagger of the Mind (1941) is that it is set at a venerable artists’ colony like Yaddo or MacDowell, where intrigue and amorous affairs are usual but homicide is not. The Big Clock (1946), one of the greatest murder mysteries, has inspired two movies (the one from 1948 with Ray Milland and Charles Laughton has it all over the 1987 remake with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman, No Way Out ). Fearing offers a clever variant on the law of the purloined letter, which stipulates that the elusive object of a search may be most effectively concealed if it is left out in the open. The Big Clock —the title is an allusion to Time Inc.—also features a manhunt organized and led by the hunted man, an editor at a magazine empire whose publications include Newsways, Crimeways, Homeways, Personalities , and The Sexes . How can I, a poet who has written for a newsmagazine and has a passion for detective novels, fail to embrace Kenneth Fearing, a hugely undervalued poet with a splendid last name who wrote for a newsmagazine and produced several masterpieces of detective fiction?

—David Lehman edits the annual Best American Poetry series and wrote The Perfect Murder : A Study in Detection.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.