Crime fiction has always gotten the short shrift from high-brow critics, like Edmund Wilson, who label all genre work as “lesser forms of writing.” Many of my college professors lauded Wilson’s ultra-negative reviews and thought he personified sophistication and wit. In reality, he was a bitter, petty man who refused to pay his income tax to “protest” the Cold War policies of the American government. He took particular joy in bashing crime fiction, which he described as “a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmlessness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” I wonder how Wilson would fair these days proclaiming smoking as “a minor harmlessness.”
When I was in grad school I remember a conversation with an instructor who said the faculty was working hard to emphasize writing fiction with “a more literary emphasis” in the fiction writing department. Now I should make it clear that this particular instructor, who quoted Edmund Wilson religiously, knew my thesis project was a crime fiction thriller. Another professor, also a Wilson fan, denigrated my Dashiell Hammett project as “unscholarly.” From the onset, I’d made no bones about my interests in reading and writing crime fiction when I entered the program. Having spent most of my life as a cop, I was hardly intimidated by truculent professors my second time around in college. I didn’t hold back when I pointed out that, in my opinion, many academics unfairly looked down their noses at crime fiction. I’d been bullied far too many times in my youth to back down then, even if it was intellectual bullying. I’d spent my life building myself up both physically and mentally and at this stage I wasn’t afraid to hit back.
But what’s college for but to explore and discuss varying opinions and points of view, eh? Some of my instructors were initially a little hard to convince. Since I always tried to show the proper respect for the professors, I was diplomatic in my rebuttals. With a quick jab I’d ask, “What’s Crime and Punishment if not a crime story?” Then I’d follow up with another jab with a quote that I kept on top of my computer from Philip Guedalla: “The detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds.” Finally, I’d drive the straight right over the top by pointing out that Edgar Allen Poe, one of the great masters who is studied in virtually every English literature program in America, wrote mysteries and invented the detective story. If I didn’t win the round, I won the fight. I graduated with a straight A average.
Many of the writers who were held in high esteem by those same academics, such as William Faulkner, James Jones, and Norman Mailer all tried their hands at writing crime fiction. Some of them had less than stellar results, too. Faulkner wrote a series of short stories about a district attorney which were collected in a book called Knight’s Gambit. (I’ll let you dig up a copy, if you can find one, and draw your own conclusion about the quality of the writing.) James Jones was more of a genre-friendly writer, but suddenly became more acceptable to the academic community when his novel, The Thin Red Line was made into a movie by Terrence Malik in 1998. He tried his hand at writing a mystery with A Touch of Danger. Jones wrote pot-boilers and tended to say with fifty pages what a laconic Dashiell Hammett could say in twelve. Yet his verbosity is often overlooked by those in academia. And who could forget Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Having made three unsuccessful attempts to get through The Naked and the Dead back when I was an undergrad, I actually bought Tough Guys with the intention of reading it. I made a few valiant attempts once again, but found myself agreeing with movie critic Gene Shalit’s opinion when the film version came out that “an unreadable book has become an unwatchable movie.”
Now I’m not trying to be tough on the aforementioned writers, nor am I trying to be overly critical of academics. I had a lot of really great instructors in college who taught me the finer points of writing and appreciating good literature. Some crime fiction is, in fact badly written, and I’d be the first to acknowledge that. But many of our finest writers have written in the mystery genre. The pulp magazines were known for the cheap, pulpy paper, the magnificent cover paintings, and the fact that they paid writers by the word. So is it any wonder that some of these writers, thinking about putting a little extra food on their tables, would tend to over modify and use rather lengthy descriptions? Yeah, a lot of it was crude and poorly written. Who can forget Carroll John Daly’s tough PI, Race Williams boldly proclaiming, “I never shot a guy what didn’t need it.”?
But sprinkled among the pulps were some really great writers.
Let’s name a few who came out of the pulps: Ray Bradbury, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Evan Hunter (aka, Ed McBain), John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard …
I could go on, but all of the above had another thing in common besides writing for the pulps --- They all wrote crime fiction and they did it really well.
As a college freshman I remember being impressed with John Updike after reading his short story, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and So Forth.” The story, which depicts a high school English teacher who gets his comeuppance, is a neat little gem. I liked it so much I bought the paperback collection of Updike’s other short stories, The Same Door, and read them all. The first few stories, like “Tomorrow …” had neat little slice of life themes, but by the book’s end the stories moved into the more effusive, literary category. Years later I read another of Updike’s short story collections and was dismayed to find that his work had become virtually incomprehensible. Did I really care if Mrs. Maple was practicing yoga while discussing her husband explored his fantasies about her possible infidelity? Still, I always kept a soft spot in my heart for Updike due to that first short story I liked. I was sad to hear that at the end of his life his work had fallen so far out of demand that he had a hard time finding a publisher. He tried to move toward a more interesting topic with his last novel, The Terrorist, which could almost be called a kissing cousin to crime fiction.
So in the final analysis, crime fiction shouldn’t be considered the red-headed step child of literature. The Maltese Falcon, the book that was placed on the list of the 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century, was described by Edmund Wilson as “not much above the newspaper picture strips.” I wonder how many people have read, and are still reading, Hammett’s master work as opposed to Wilson’s critical little diatribes? People read for entertainment and enlightenment, and what better way to be entertained and enlightened than to read something that will give you a thrill? Crime, or mystery fiction, is perhaps the most difficult to write because not only do you have to have interesting characters, but you also have to pay attention to the plot and make sure it moves in a compelling and credible manner.
So, in answer to this week’s topic question, why write crime fiction? The reply is simple --- Because a writer should always strive to be and write the very best.