Skip to main content



March 2023
2min read

A hot August night a decade ago found me in my stepson’s room grappling with a tough First Amendment issue. He was away for the evening, and I had entered his domain of early-adolescent squalor to retrieve a shirt he’d borrowed from me. Sloping fields of dirty laundry yielded up a carton of ossified lo mein, four hundred Grateful Dead albums—and then a cache of “adult” magazines. He knew very well he wasn’t to bring these into the house etc. etc., and I fretted about whether to confiscate them.

I started to leaf through a Playboy and immediately found a short story by Lawrence Block called “By the Dawn’s Early Light.” It featured a detective named Matthew Scudder and it seemed uncommonly well written. The plot was absorbing, but there was more to it than that. “All this happened a long time ago,” Block began, although it was set in 1975. “Abe Beame was living in Gracie Mansion, though even he seemed to have trouble believing he was really the mayor of the City of New York …”

And as I stood there in the dank bower of teen-agery, reading about another hot summer night in my city, Block took the present away from me and put it into the past. I was, I realized, reading an exercise in history: he was artfully reconstructing a time that I’d not quite understood had slipped away. So I let Geoff keep his magazines (and am happy to report they did him no lasting harm) and went looking for Lawrence Block’s books, and that in time led to the article that opens this issue.

He talks here about the history of detective fiction, but as his short story showed me quite piercingly, there is a great deal of history in detective fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, for instance, is observed and described with such sardonic precision that his Philip Marlowe novels have actually helped form the way we perceive that city. And what more immediate way to visit a lost time than the scene from James M. Cain’s 1936 Double Indemnity in which his frenzied insurance salesman Walter Huff establishes an alibi for a murder he plans to commit? “I parked near the theatre, loafed around, and around eleven o’clock I went in. I bought a downstairs seat this time. I took a program and put it in my pocket. I checked, it had the date on it. I still had to talk with an usher, fix it on her mind what day it was, and pull something so she would remember me. . . .” What he pulls is to quickly button the top button on her uniform, undone against the heat of the night. So we have a movie theater with daily programs and ushers in uniforms, but no air conditioning. . . . Mysteries tend to be especially eloquent about the small details that make up the texture of a given era.

Certainly Lawrence Block’s are. His fond and authoritative essay has dozens of recommendations of detective stories that offer wider pleasures than the mere solution of a puzzle, but I would like to add one more to his list, and that is When the Sacred Ginmill Closes , the novel that grew from the story that saved my son’s soft-core porn collection. The book has a terrific plot, and, like all the best detective fiction, it is a moral tale; Matt Scudder never preaches, but he always watches for the gleam of old bearings through the storms of his life. And it is also a historical novel. The time is not far past, but when Block puts us in a city that is at once almost within reach and yet as remote as Knickerbocker days, he reminds us that what he calls “so many changes, eating away at the world like water dripping on a rock” are the saddest and most poetic news the historian has to share with the world.

Richard F. Snow

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "July/August 1993"

Authored by: Nathan Ward

Schermerhorn, the Rain King

Authored by: Nathan Ward

Unclean Gene

Authored by: Nathan Ward

Keeping It On

Authored by: The Editors

A Journey Down the Atlantic Shore

Authored by: The Editors

Songs of Stephen Foster

Authored by: Lawrence Block

A personal overview of American mystery fiction

Authored by: John Steele Gordon

Foreign trade—import and export alike—has been indispensable in building America from the very start, and many of our worst economic troubles have arisen when that trade wasn’t free enough. A historic overview.

Authored by: Alexander O. Boulton

The generation that fought World War II also won a housing revolution that promised and delivered a home for $7,990

Authored by: Donald L. Miller


Authored by: Wilfred M. Mcclay

First heard just a century ago at the Chicago fair, Frederick Jackson Turner’s epochal essay on the Western frontier expressed a conflict in the American psyche that tears at us still

Featured Articles

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.