The Crime of Our LivesLawrence Block
The Crime of Our Lives
Fredric Brown: “When I read Murder Can Be Fun, I had a bottle of bourbon on the table and every time Brown’s hero took a drink, I had a snort myself. This is a hazardous undertaking when in the company of Brown’s characters, and, I’ve been given to understand, would have been just as dangerous around the author himself. By the time the book was finished, so was I.”
Dashiell Hammett: “Both his literary style and his artistic vision cast an unsparing light on Prohibition-era America. In sentences that were flat and uninflected and remarkably nonjudgmental, he did much the same thing Hemingway did. I would argue that he did it better.”
John D. MacDonald: “His sensibilities were always Middle American, and his characters approached difficult situations with the problem-solver attitude of an engineer. But there is a darkness to MacDonald, evident in his unparalleled ability to limn a sociopath, present too in that neglected late work One More Sunday. It is not the knee-jerk darkness of the noir world view but the somehow bleaker darkness of a light that has failed.”
Ross Macdonald: “It is one of the singular properties of his fiction that ten minutes after you have turned the last page, every detail of the plot vanishes forever from your mind.”
Jim Thompson: “He is surely an important writer and very much worth reading, but it helps to keep it in mind that the stuff ain’t Shakespeare.”
Raymond Chandler: “You have to wonder how he got it so right. He spent a lot of time in the house—working, reading, writing letters. He saw to his wife, who required a lot of attention in her later years. And when he did get out, you wouldn’t find him walking the mean streets. La Jolla, it must be noted, was never much for mean streets.”
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: “Throughout, he alienates powerful people with his trademark wisecracks for no apparent reason, turns down fees whenever they’re offered to him, and goes through abrupt mood swings that make you wonder if he shouldn’t be on lithium.”
Evan Hunter: “In his mid-seventies, after a couple of heart attacks, an aneurysm, and a siege of cancer that had led to the removal of his larynx, Evan wrote Alice in Jeopardy. And went to work right away on Becca in Jeopardy, with every intention of working his way through the alphabet. Don’t you love it? Here’s a man with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and he’s perfectly comfortable launching a twenty-six book series.”
Al Nussbaum: “He got out of Leavenworth, and spent the rest of his life as a free-lance writer, consorting not with fellow criminals but with writers and editors. I don’t suppose everyone would consider this a step up, but it worked for him.”
Dan Marlowe: “Dan never did write more about Earl Drake after his memory loss, and I can see how that would have been daunting; it’d be like taking over a series written by somebody else. Which happens often enough, but it’s never quite the same, is it?”
Ross Thomas: “Ross said he wanted a triple vodka martini, straight up and extra dry. The waiter asked if he’d prefer an olive or an onion with that. ‘We’ll eat later,’ Ross announced.”
Donald E. Westlake’s Memory: “Here’s the point: Don’s manuscript arrived, and we had dinner and put the kid to bed, and I started reading. And my wife went to bed, and I stayed up reading, and after a while I forgot I was having a heart attack, and just kept reading until I finished the book around dawn. And somewhere along the way I became aware that my friend Don, who’d written a couple of mysteries and some science fiction and his fair share of soft-core erotica, had just produced a great novel.”
Charles Willeford: “Can a self-diagnosed sociopath be at the same time an intensely moral person? Can one be a sociopath, virtually unaware of socially prescribed morality, and yet be consumed with the desire to do the right thing? That strikes me as a spot-on description of just about every character Willeford ever wrote. How could he come up with characters like that? My God, how could he help it?”
Table of Contents
Before We Begin . . .
My Life in Crime
Anthony Boucher (1911-68)
Fredric Brown (1906-72)
James M. Cain (1892-1977)
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Stanley Ellin (1916-86)
Erie Stanley Gardner (1889-1970)
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)
Chester Himes (1909-84)
John D. MacDonald (1916-1986)
Ross Macdonald (1915-83)
Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay, 1905-82, and Manfred B. Lee, 1905-71)
Jack Ritchie (1922-83)
Rex Stout (1886-1975)
Jim Thompson (1906-76)
Charles Willeford (1919-88)
Cornell Woolrich (1903-68)
Mary Higgins Clark
Introducing Ed Gorman
Evan Hunter Was My Hero
Those Scott Meredith Days
Remembering Al Nussbaum
Robert B. Parker
“They Like the Way It Sounds”
Edgar Allan Poe
“It All Started With Poe”
The Curse of Amontillado
The Edgar and I
Remembering Ross Thomas
Donald E. Westlake
And in Conclusion . . .
The Crime of Our Lives
* * *
Copyright © 2015, Lawrence Block
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the express written permission of the author.
Ebook Production: QA Productions
A Lawrence Block Production
For BARRY MALZBERG
Before We Begin . . .
* * *
For over half a century—and, indeed, it’s closer to sixty years than fifty—I’ve been spending much of my time and earning most of my sustenance writing crime fiction. Over the years I’ve had occasion to write some nonfiction as well, and a fair amount of it has been about the genre—about my experiences in it, and, rather more interestingly, about some of my fellow crime writers.
For the most part, I’ve avoided writing book reviews. In the early 1980s I did occasional reviewing for Washington Post Book World, and that was congenial enough (if spectacularly unremunerative) as long as the books sent to me were ones I liked. Two books that came my way, Thomas Perry’s Metzger’s Dog and William Murray’s Tip on a Dead Crab, were just wonderful, and it was a pleasure to share my enthusiasm with the world, or at least that part of it exposed to the Washington Post.
But I found it agonizing when presented with something that didn’t work for me. I knew very well what it takes to write a book, and didn’t see it as a proper calling for me to fling mud at someone else’s work. I remember trying to read one book, hating it, and realizing that that fault was not necessarily the author’s. The right reader would very likely love the book, but I was not that reader, and it seemed only fair to return the book and let someone else review it.
Shortly thereafter I made it a policy to turn down reviewing assignments. I don’t want to be in a position that compels me to either hide my feelings or say something uncomplimentary a
bout a living writer.
When they’re dead it’s different. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum? No, screw that. The dead can stand a little criticism. One has to assume they’re past caring. And if there is an afterlife, and some sensitive souls spend it paying attention to what’s said about them back on earth? Well, you know what? They can go to hell.
In 1992, Richard Snow of American Heritage commissioned me to write an overview of American crime fiction. The result was “My Life in Crime,” which the magazine published the following year. In it I discussed the field and my own experiences in it, leading up to a Top Ten list, which in fact ran to sixteen favorite writers.
I made sure all of them were safely dead. Not so that I could say bad things about them—I had only very nice things to say about them all—but because to include living writers was to invite the wrath of any friend I left off the list.
And, in fact, I generally try to avoid saying anything about a fellow writer so long as he has a pulse, and turn aside questions at public appearances.
The one exception I make is when I’m invited to write an introduction to another writer’s work, or an appreciation for a magazine. I’ve done quite a few of those over the years, and here they are, collected for your perusal. For a while I contributed a column to Mystery Scene Magazine, which I called “The Murders in Memory Lane.” It constituted personal recollections of a number of writers—all gone, alas, at the time of writing, and I miss them.
When I stopped writing the column, a few people asked me why. I told them I’d run out of dead friends.
Of course one never runs out of dead friends, because people keep on dying. Ed Hoch, Stuart Kaminsky, Joe Gores, Jerry Healy—I miss them, and regret their loss, but I don’t seem to have a couple thousand words worth of reminiscence to share about them.
It’s odd, this task at hand. An introduction to a book full of introductions, a reminiscence as prelude to a book of recollections. Sometimes over the years I’ve begun an introduction to someone’s book of stories by advising the reader to skip my remarks and get on with the more rewarding business of reading the work itself. It’s too late to do that now, isn’t it? You’ve already suffered through them—unless you’ve somehow been prescient enough to skip these pages on your own.
Either way, we’re through here, which is to say that it’s time for us to get started. I’ve had the great good fortune to spend a lifetime in a richly engaging world, and I invite you to join me therein.
My Life in Crime
* * *
It was in the eleventh grade that I knew I would be a writer. The conviction grew out of two awarenesses that dawned at about the same time. I became aware of the world of realistic adult fiction, with all its power to inform and enchant and absorb one utterly. I became aware, too, of my own talent with words. I seemed to be capable of doing with them what I had been unable to do with a baseball bat or a hammer or a monkey wrench or a slide rule.
And so I wrote—poems, sketches, stories, the usual juvenilia. Artistically, my childhood had been one of deprivation, in that I was not the product of a dysfunctional family. Accordingly, the things I wrote derived less from experience and inner turmoil than from other writings that I admired.
During my freshman year at Antioch I sent what I wrote to various magazines, and they sent it back. I was not greatly dismayed. I mounted the rejection slips on the wall, displaying them like campaign ribbons. I suppose I was proud of them, and perhaps I was right to be. I was, after all, actively engaged in the process of becoming a writer, and they were evidence of that engagement.
I read all the time, and one of the many things I read, the summer after my first year at college, was The Jungle Kids, a paperback collection of short stories by Evan Hunter. A couple of years previously Hunter had hit the best-seller list with The Blackboard Jungle, and the stories were all about what were then called juvenile delinquents. (I don’t know what you’d call them now. Kids, I guess.)
There were some fine stories in The Jungle Kids, including a positively Chekhovian tour de force called “The Last Spin,” in which two rival gang leaders become friends in the course of a game of Russian roulette. There were other stories that were less remarkable, just good workmanlike efforts. But the book had a profound effect upon me because I found what Hunter had done at once estimable and attainable. I sensed that I could do what he had done here, and that it was worth the doing. I couldn’t write these stories, but I could write stories that were good in the way in which these stories were good.
I sat down at once and tried writing a story about juvenile delinquents, and it was awful, and I left it unfinished. And then some months later I was living in New York and working in a publisher’s mail room, and one Sunday afternoon I wrote a short story about a young man in New York who lived by his wits, making ends meet through petty theft and mail fraud. I didn’t send it anywhere because I couldn’t think where to send it, but eventually I recalled that Evan Hunter had published in a magazine called Manhunt, so I mailed my story off to it. The editor asked for a rewrite, complaining that my ending was inconclusive. I rewrote it and it came right back again, and the following summer, the summer of ’57, I actually bought a copy of Manhunt and read everything in it and saw how to fix my story. I sent it off again, and damned if the magazine didn’t buy it. Paid me a hundred bucks for it too.
And so my fate was sealed. For the past thirty-some years I’ve been writing crime fiction.
Imagine if my first sale had been to “Heloise’s Household Hints” . . .
Poe started it. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the first detective story, C. Auguste Dupin fiction’s first detective. (He is a series detective too, reappearing in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter.”) The story is a curious one, beginning with a couple of pages arguing the natural superiority of checkers to chess as a game of pure ratiocination and ending with an orangutan unmasked as the murderer. In its course its author set several remarkable precedents. He employed a mere mortal as narrator, a counterwheel to the brilliant detective; Conan Doyle took this device and made it his own, and ever since we have called such narrators Watsons. At the same time, Poe pitted his hero against the bumbling and unimaginative police, and this pattern of antagonism has characterized much of mystery fiction down through the years.
Both Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe are descendants of Dupin, so it is only fitting that American mystery fiction’s highest accolade should be named for his creator. The Edgar Allan Poe awards are presented annually by the Mystery Writers of America in the form of a rather woebegone porcelain bust of the great man.
But did it really start with Poe? Men have been writing about crime ever since Cain invented fratricide, and I don’t know that there is any level of literary excellence that some sort of crime fiction has not attained. Hamlet is many things, but if it is not a detective story, what on earth is? It is, to be sure, a story as vague and uncertain as its hero. Hamlet’s father may or may not have been murdered, and Hamlet’s mother and stepfather may or may not have done it. The plot of Hamlet has turned up, by coincidence or by design, in a number of mystery novels, not the least of them Fredric Brown’s Edgar-winning first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint.
Murder is a plot element in most Shakespearean tragedy, and many of the plays have their echoes in what we recognize as crime and mystery fiction, even as they have their antecedents in the playwright’s own resource material. Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar—crime stories, every one of them, their pages fairly dripping blood.
What is Les Misérables but a crime story? What is Crime and Punishment but a story of, well, crime and punishment? Or Dreiser’s An American Tragedy? Or Hemingway’s “The Killers”?
Still, it would seem that crime fiction does constitute a category, and that not every book with a crime central to its plot perforce belongs in that category. Certain novels are automatically shelved by booksellers and librarians as mysteries. Others are not. The distinction is
easier to make than to define; as Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, one can’t define it, but knows it when one sees it.
A few years ago the publishing industry had a very useful definition of a mystery. A mystery, everyone agreed, was any novel about a crime that was sure to sell between three and six thousand hardcover copies. As a result of this perception, publishers with something they thought might sell respectably did what they could to hide the fact that the book was what most people would label a mystery.
All of this changed utterly, and a glance at the New York Times best-seller list makes the reason clear. Week after week, books that are undeniably mysteries occupy a dominant position. Writers like Dick Francis and Tony Hillerman and Elmore Leonard and Sue Grafton and Martin Cruz Smith and Robert B. Parker hit the list with every book they write. Books about the detection of crime are selling as well as anything can without promising weight loss and personal growth.
The explanation that seems to me to make the most sense holds that readers have a hunger for more substance than much contemporary mainstream fiction provides. Minimalist novels, academic novels, novels that aren’t about anything, tend to garner M.F.A. degrees and National Endowment for the Arts grants without winning over the reading public. I read recently of a woman who has been secretly getting her reading matter from the Young Adult section because the books are about something. Much of crime fiction, too, is about something. There’s a crime, and there’s an attempt to do something about it. There are characters, and some of them live and some of them die, and the whole thing works out in the end. Or it doesn’t, and that’s how it works out. Either way there’s a story, and you want to know what happens next.
What happened next in my own career is that I kept at it. I wrote more crime stories and sold some of them, to Manhunt and other magazines. I wrote other stuff too. Articles for the male adventure magazines. A couple of true confession stories. A slew of erotic paperback novels. The fabricated case histories of a nonexistent psychiatrist.