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The American Detective Story

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IN A PURELY HISTORICAL SENSE, the American detective story could be said to begin in the late nineteenth century with the work of Anna Katharine Green, succeeded by the tales of mystery and terror written by Mary Roberts Rinehart. They were succeeded in the twenties by SS Van Dine, the first American> crime writer regarded as intellectually reputable, and Van Dine by the early work of Ellery Queen, from The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) onwards. But these were all Americans who looked towards Europe: specifically American stories, tales that no European could have written, were born in the pulp magazines.
The pulps got their name from the fact that they were printed on wood pulp, which gave the contents an appropriately coarse, grainy appearance. They were seven by ten inches in size, with gaudy covers showing a scene of violent action, and they contained around 120 pages of short stories, with occasional extracts from novels.
 The pulps began to appear in World War I, but became popular early in the twenties, so that by the end of the decade there were two hundred separate pulp magazines on the bookstands. Many had a short life, but a few achieved legendary fame - Black Mask primarily, Dime Detective., Thrilling Detective and Detective Story Magazine in much lesser degrees. Black Mask survived into the fifties, the other magazines died or changed character earlier than that.

The pulps were born out of disillusionment with the increasing corruption of American social life and a feeling of disillusionment enhanced by the unhappy effects of Prohibition in big cities. They were killed by the emergence of TV. Many of the TV cops are true heirs of the pulp magazine detectives.
The first of the private eyes or hard-boiled dicks was Race Williams, the creation of a former movie projectionist named Carroll John Daly. Williams appeared in 1923, and was developed in later stories. He slept always with a loaded gun in his hand, used the gun often, speedily, and with intent to kill (he once shot a gangster five times before the other man could squeeze the trigger of his own revolver), and thought nothing of throwing a corpse down to the ground seventeen stories below. ("It may be brutal and all that, but why beat around a stiff?")

Williams was a caricature of the private eye as he developed in the hands of better writers, among whom Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Frank Gruber, Lester Dent and George Harmon Coxe should be named. Erie Stanley Gardner wrote for the pulps in the early twenties, before his first novel appeared, and in the forties writers including John D. MacDonald and William Campbell Gault came through the pulps to book publication. Of the three most notable practitioners of the American crime story, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, only the last did not come to early prominence through the pulp magazines.

This kind of American crime story made a complete break with the European tradition. The detective was utterly unlike Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey or Mr Campion, and bore no resemblance to their American counterparts, Philo Vance and Ellery Queen. Whether he was named Race
Williams, Steve Midnight, or Big Red Brennan, he was a tough man of action, not always entirely honest, a man who sometimes went to bed with one of the attractive but unreliable women with whom he became involved.
Two of the things that fascinated early readers of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930) were an uncertainty throughout the book about Sam Spade's honesty, and his bedding of Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Spade and O'Shaughnes-sy broke the pattern of totally honest investigator and virtuous heroine for good.

Within a few years the best pulp writers graduated to book publication. Hammett's Red Harvest and The Dain Curse {both 1929) and The Maltese Falcon had all appeared in Black Mask prior to the book publication dates given above. Raymond Chandler wrote a number of stories for the pulps before emerging to fame in 1939 with The Big Sleep. In all, Hammett wrote only five novels, The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1934) being the others, but it is on these books, rather than the many short stories in which the central character is the short, fatish private eye called the Continental Op, that his fame rests.

Red Harvest is the only Continental Op novel, a book so full of violence that it is hard to discover the number of murders. Yet the violence is never indulged in for its own sake, it does not exclude some brilliant characterization, in particular of the chief woman character Dinah Brand, and the atmosphere of Poisonville is convincingly similar to that of many American towns in the period, where the police worked hand in hand with the gangsters. Hammett developed his talent, so that in his masterpiece The Glass Key the violence is well under control, and is not used casually, the plotting is as cunning as in Agatha Christie, and the characterization is handled with the utmost skill and assurance. The book is also a serious novel, one that does not suffer by comparison with anything written in the thirties by dos Passes, Faulkner or Hemingway. After the amusing but relatively trivial The Thin Man, however, Hammett wrote no more novels.

Raymond Chandler wrote seven novels, after cutting his teeth on the pulp stories. His reputation, like Hammett's, rests on the novels, of which The Little Sister (1949) and The Long Goodbye (1953) are the best, in part because
they are the most clearly plotted. Chandler came late in life to the crime story, and brought to it a literary quality unknown to most of the pulp writers. He had a great feeling for the sound and value of words, and the wisecracks that stud his books are remarkable for the smoothness with which they run, as well as for the fact that they make one laugh. In the later books he took care with every paragraph, every phrase, and his pains were rewarded.

At the centre of all the stories is his detective Philip Marlowe, about whom opinions differ. For Chandler himself, Marlowe gave meaning to the stories. Through the landscape of Southern California, with its characteristic fauna of brutal or incompetent policemen, vicious gang bosses, unfeeling millionaires, and the brightly enamelled fast-talking ladies who accompanied them as wives, mistresses or family, moved Marlowe who had to be, as Chandler said, "a complete man and a common man, and ... to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour". In this grubby world the detective "is the hero, he is everything".
For some readers this apotheosis of Marlowe makes him the most admirable, as he is certainly the most amusing, of private eyes. For others it shows a sentimentality which reduces the reality not only of the detective himself, but of the world in which he moves.

As a writer Chandler succeeded Hammett, and acknowledged a debt to him. Ross Macdonald belongs to a later generation, and has both built on, and moved away from, the influence of his elders. His early books, published under his own name of Kenneth Millar, owe a good deal to Hammett, although Blue City (1947) is marked by strikingly individual turns of phrase.
A change to the name of John Ross Macdonald (the "John" was later dropped to avoid confusion with John D MacDonald) marked the introduction of the detective Lew Archer. The Way Some People Die (1951), The Ivory Grin (1952) and The Barbarous Coast (1956) offer portraits of Southern California as vivid as anything m Chandler, but there is too much gun play and at times the wisecracks seem forced. The voice is individual, but sometimes the stories are not. Macdonald was looking for a story "roughly shaped on my own early life, transformed and simplified into a kind of legend", and found it in The Gallon Case (1959).

Since then he has exploited many variations on this theme, so that the solution of the recent crimes which occur early in a book is always found to lie somewhere in the past. In accordance with this changed approach, Archer has become more a catalyst than a character. He is in one aspect a kind of father confessor to whom people talk, in another the figure whose appearance makes things happen.
On the appearance of The Goodbye Look (1969) Macdonald was greeted by the American press, not simply as a mystery writer but as a major American novelist. He himself has said that he goes on writing the same novel. This is much too modest, but it is true that his persistent belief in the importance of the past enters each book, quite often along with such current interests as ecology, which motivates in part The Underground Man (1971) and Sleeping Beauty (1973). Something of the zest in his early books is missing in these very accomplished novels (as he has said, "a writer in his fifties will not recapture the blaze of youth"), but he has worked steadily and successfully to a total achievement which makes a statement of his own beliefs about the nature of personality and the shape of society.

Macdonald has had no direct followers, but there are several recent writers whose work has been generally influenced by the three major figures. Robert B. Parker's entertaining Spenser stories offer a lighter version of the Marlo-vian original, Roger L. Simon's The Big Fix introduced a Jewish detective
named Moses Wine, Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter is a homosexual detective who keeps us up to date with the gay scene.
The American crime story has moved also in another, less desirable direction. The work of Mickey Spillane makes its appeal to the human desire for power and domination. Spillane, whose early work also appeared in the pulps, offers a hero who takes pleasure in shooting a murderess in the stomach, and burns another woman to death. "Heroes" like Don Pendle-ton's Mack Bolan ("His buddies in Vietnam had called him 'The Executioner'") and Frank Scarpetta's Philip Magellan who deliberately rubs shreds of broken glass into the "villain's" face until "it didn't look like a human face at all" are two of several who carry on this unlovely inheritance of the pulp tradition.

There are other, more agreeable, writers who do not belong to the Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald line of descent. Among them are WR Burnett, who wrote a series of very efficient realistic crime stones, including Little Caesar (1929) and The Asphalt Jungle (1949), James M Cain who never repeated as a crime writer the success of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), William P. McGivern, and John D. MacDonald, whose Travis McGee stories have a wide following.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the American crime story's origins in pulp fiction. Many of those original pulp fictioneers were bad writers: yet the urgency of their story-telling, the need for action and for harsh; sharp dialogue - the American language as it is actually spoken -remains in the work of authors like Ed McBain and George V. Higgins, who may have read very few pulp magazines.
Of course there are writers who have not been influenced by the pulps, like Patricia Highsmith, and the two ladies who write orthodox detective stories under the name of Emma Lathen, yet even they perhaps owe an indirect debt to those mostly crude pioneers who broke away so violently from European models. So also does Ross Thomas, whose stones about varieties of American corruption, like The Porkchoppers (1972), If You Can't Be GcW(1973) and Chinaman's Chance (1978) explore political and social evils more directly than Hammett and Chandler ever did. Thomas also often blends adventure with crime, in a way personal to himself.

The rules of the game in the American crime story, the concepts that mark it out from English and European counterparts, are an approach that is generally nearer to realism both in conveying the social scene and in details of police work (although there are exceptions, like the Swedish Martin Beck novels), and a highly demotic use of language.
The language in most English crime stories is that used by the middle class, "BBC English" not only in grammatical usages, but in its vocabulary. A typical American crime story will use much racier speech, belonging far less to a particular class, language that reflects the variety of nationalities and forms of speech in the United States.

Layout © R.D. Collins
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