Chandler

Taking Detective Stories Seriously

Sayers

 

Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The collected crime reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by Martin Edwards, Tippermuir Books Ltd, 19/02/2017.

                        A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast

 

Taking Detective Stories Seriously is a collection of the reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), covering mainly the period in which she was a professional reviewer for the Sunday Times from 1933 to 1935. Sayers is not only famous for her successful crime fiction novels, but was also respected and revered for her work as a translator of Dante, her writing on various religious subjects, but was also, as this volume shows, an excellent critic and anthologist of the detective genre at the height of the Golden Age.

The volume is edited by Martin Edwards, who also provides a lengthy commentary on Sayers’ reviews. He details Sayers critique of several well-known crime fiction authors like John Dickson Carr, H.C. Bailey and other notables of the Golden Age. Edwards also casts light on Sayers’ view of the crime fiction genre in general, and her ideas of what a good detective story should be like. Overall, he paints a vivid picture of a thoughtful as well as passionate woman whose intelligence and articulacy command respect, even when her strong opinions provoke disagreement.

Indeed, Sayers was very articulate about the kind of writing she was expecting from her peers, and one point that she mentions quite frequently is the necessity for what she sees as “good English” in writing. She points out flaws in style or grammar relentlessly in her reviews and even issued a resolution in 1935 in her own inimitable style: “I will not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till I have detected and avenged all mayhems and murders done upon the English language”. Through her reviews, she also regularly reveals a particular dislike for unimaginative titles (like “The Murder at …” or the “The Mystery of …”). There, she anticipates Chandler’s satire of them in the introduction to The Simple Art of Murder („… nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly and hurries away; while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue“).  When a title displeases her one can be sure to find a witty retort or pun that casts shame on the perpetrator for their banal or uninspired story titles, e.g.: “What in the name of Chaos and Old Night possessed Mr Vivian to call his humorous, well-written, well-characterised and altogether delightful and sensible story by such a slip-slop, sob stuff, rotten-ripe, rat-riddled title as Girl in the Dark?”

Sayers had her own idea about “good writing” in crime fiction stories, and from many reviews one can read that she was frequently disappointed in lax characterisations, plot holes or “unfair” solutions for detective stories, which were impossible for the reader to figure out for themselves. Not only was the “fair play” imperative a critical part of crime writing for Sayers, but also the combination of style and good characters, which were necessary for crime fiction to be something that she would have consider good literature: “Plot is not everything; style is not everything; only by combining them can we get a detective story that is also good literature.”
She expresses her distaste for rushed writing and overproduction, which many writers of the genre fell victim to. Although she herself was often under pressure to earn money through her literary works, she always criticised over-productivity as dulling the originality of the works in question.  She reviews, among others, the third Anthony Gilbert book within a year, An Old Lady Dies, where she stated that, although the text was up to his usual standards, “… I do not feel that there was any strong and compelling reason for writing it.” She criticised not only the writers but also the audience which was, in her eyes, too accepting of lacklustre writing:

“There are many reasons which may prompt an author to produce books at this rate, ranging from hyper-activity of the thyroid to the grim menace of rates and taxes. The greatest genius is usually attended by a considerable fertility, but, as a rule, it is too much to expect a fresh masterpiece every four months. With the detective story the temptation to over-production is especially dangerous: first, because it is only too easy to shake up the old pieces of the kaleidoscope into what looks something like a new plot, and, secondly, because the public (and this means You!) is still to indulgent in hasty and mechanical writings where mysteries are concerned”

With the growing interest in classic crime stories today, Sayers´ reviews offer the reader a detailed inside look not only into the various titles of the Golden Age, but also into the crime fiction genre as a whole. Sayers part witty, part cynical and part serious appreciative reviews are a well-written and entertaining way to get a new perspective on classics of the genre as well as an inside view into the personality of one of the key figures of crime fiction writing in the 1930s. Her inimitable style and quick wit as well as her evident expertise and care make this collection a good addition for fans of the Golden Age of Crime and anyone who enjoys the art of the well-written review, of which this one is such a shining example.

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Hardback Noir

 

Spanish

Raymond Chandler, Spanish Blood, The World Publishing Company Tower Mystery, 1946

It is well known that hardboiled stories, which we would now describe as noir, first appeared in 1920s pulps magazines. And that, from the early 1940s, noir novels were circulated as paperback reprints or, in many cases, paperback originals. This belies the fact that the influential, early hardboiled novels were published as hardbacks, complete with polished dust jackets. This benefited especially hardboiled writers of the 1930s, before the triumph of paperbacks. But even after that, noir authors whose books had been published as hardbacks tended to find an easier way into the modern canon of noir literature. While paperback warranted circulation (as the case of Spillane made clear), hardback still anchored conservation, and hence institutionalisation.

Burnette

W. R. Burnett, Little Caesar, Lincoln MacVeagh, The Dial Press, 1929 Continue reading

“Death Wears Yellow Garters” : Chandler on good and bad Detective stories

Trouble

(Raymond Chandler, Trouble Is My Business, Pocket Books 823, 1951 : Cover Art by Herman Geisen)

Compiling a list of chandlerisms is possibly not the most reverent way to assess how the golden age of Crime Fiction was perceived outside from the self-selected happy few of members in the famous “Detection club”. But it is certainly a fun way to start.  Here are a few excerpts from Chandler’s seminal essay (1950) : “The Simple art of murder”.

Every detective story writer makes mistakes, and none will ever know as much as he should. Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer, and Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.

Continue reading

Pulps Authors in Paperbacks

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Both Hammett and Chandler had their novels originally published as hardbacks. But both of them, like so many original hardboiled writers from the first generation  reached a mass readership through two other forms created by the publishing industry: The pulp magazines in which their short stories were first published, and the paperback. The latter’s rise, starting in the early 1940s, ensured the continued  circulation of their work. In 1933 Chandler published his first fiction (“Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”) in Black Mask (which had been launched in 1920) and continued publishing there and in other detection magazines until 1941. Continue reading

A Crime classic a day (10)

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Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, Pocket Books, 212,  New York, 1943

Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely was published by A. Knopf in 1940. It opens, memorably, with Philip Marlowe following released convict Moose Malloy into  Florian’s nightclub and searching for for  showgirl Velma Valento. Chandler without doubt the most gifted author in the noir genre and Farewell, My Lovely is one of his very best novels.

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First edition (New York, Knopf, 1940)

“Weapons in the war of ideas” ? Armed Service Paperbacks & Crime Fiction

 

Simenon ASE

Georges Simenon, On the Danger Line, NY, Armed Services Editions,  No 21, 1943

American soldiers serving overseas during WWII were offered a rich selection of  compact paperbacks.   Destined to help them dodge the tedium of war, they were designed to fit in their pockets.   The Armed Services Editions  books were printed at a cost of 6 cents a volume and distributed for free from 1943 to 1947.  This is a landmark in the history of mass market reading. The mention on all but a handful of  the covers that “This is the Complete Book—Not a Digest” is a reminder that  paperbacks were at the time still new, and that readers had to be reassured that these were not abridged or condensed books. 123 million books were printed as part of this programme,  representing 1,227 different titles.  Only a minority of these titles were Crime Fiction. The purpose of the programme was educational as much as recreational. Continue reading

The Vampiro Series (Livros do Brasil)

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The “Colecção Vampiro”, published  from 1947 by Editora Livros do Brasil, in Lisbon, was one of the very fist series of Crime Fiction paperbacks in Portuguese. It  was certainly the most popular. The “Masters of detective fiction” it published  had  a large emphasis on English and American authors.  The size of he books and the notoriety of the authors rather than a clear cut definition of the subgenre of crime Fiction the books pertained to : Agatha Christie  and Dorothy Sayers alongside Hammett and Chandler; Wallace and Simenon; Van Dine and Ellery Queen.  The latter, and the likes of Erle Stanley Gardner were the most represented.  While a close contemporary of Gallimard’s Série Noire (created in 1945) Vampiro was editorially much closer to Le Masque (1927). Vampiro’s favoured novels of deduction and investigation over hardboiled noir. Continue reading

Club Del Misterio, Barcelona

Bruguera

The Club del Misterio Series (early to mid-1980’s) predates the Etiqueta Negra Series (mid- 1980’s to mid-1990)Both Series are devoted to Crime Fiction. Both  have appeared post-Franco, and in a cultural context profoundly changed by the Movida. Both have published around 150 books of international Crime Fiction, the majority of them considered classics of the genre. While  Etiqueta Negra is a series launched by a Madrid publisher, Jucar, Club del Misterio belongs to a Barcelona-based publisher,  Bruguera.

Chandler

But the most striking difference is their respective scope. The Madrid publisher puts the emphasis on selection and distinction. There are fewer authors, representing fewer countries, and a distinctive branch within the crime genre, the noir novel. On the contrary, the Barcelona series favours diversity : different subgenres, different authors, different countries.  It is remarkable that the author most published in this series is Italian (Scerbanenco). Rather than American (or Spanish as is at the time the pattern elsewhere, when only local authors seem capable of resisting the American -and to an extent English- dominance). Continue reading

Crime Fiction in Ullstein Pocket Books

Servais Lorac Kane

Created in the early 1950’s, the series of mass market paperback books Ullstein-Büchern,  started  in the mid 1950’s to offer a  subdivision devoted to Crime Fiction, the Ullstein-Bücher Kriminalromane. This series had  different numbers than the rest of the Ullstein- books, to differentiate them from the general series (Allgemeine Reihe). It started at number  701.  Further differentiation, the big K on the title banner stands for Krimi. This is the mid and late 1950’s, and American authors are now predominant, in stark contrast to the original Ullstein Gelbe Reihe in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.  A canonisation of the noir genre has happened elsewhere, and Ullstein books reflect this.  The two first books published  as Ullstein-Bücher Kriminalromane are  Hammett (Der Malteser Falke) and Chandler (Einer weisst mehr). Hammett’s Bluternte is the sixth volume in the series. Continue reading

3 x Phil Marlowe

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Raymond Chandler, Třikrát Phil Marlowe, Praha: Odeon, 1967 (Translated by František Jungwirth, Heda Kovályová and Josef Schwarz).

Judging the book by the state of its cover, this copy of a Czech translation of Chandler has definitely found a readership, in over four decades since it was published. The book consists of three Chandler’s masterpieces  : The Big Sleep ; Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Good-Bye (Hluboký spánek –; Sbohem buď, lásko má –; Loučení s Lennoxem) ; It contains an afterword  by Josef Škvorecký.  (With thanks to Marcela Bucova) Continue reading