Posts Tagged ‘crime fiction’
October 19, 2015 | by Cullen Gallagher
Sarah Weinman’s two-volume Women Crime Writers challenges and redefines our notions of American crime fiction. Broken into two decades, the 1940s and the 1950s, her collection comprises eight novels—with Vera Caspary’s Laura, Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall in the first volume, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer, Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, and Dolores Hitchens’s Fools’ Gold in the second. Together, these books reveal an unjustly forgotten feminist tradition by writers who were, in their day, respected as the best in their field.
Diverging from the pulp action tradition embodied by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler—and from the cozier school of British whodunits by Agatha Christie—these authors pioneered a new trend in mystery fiction: psychological suspense. The stereotypical mysteries of the day featured hard-boiled masculine heroes battling femme fatales. These works, by contrast, presented a variety of innovative plots and perceptive commentary on the gender and class issues of their time. The women in these novels—the titular, savvy careerist in Laura; the psychotic babysitter in Mischief; the struggling mother who covers up the murder of a blackmailer in The Blank Wall—consistently defy what were then conventional notions of womanhood. As the mother in The Blank Wall acknowledges, “[Her husband and children] would give her love, protection, even a sort of homage, but in return for that she must be what they wanted and needed her to be”; ultimately, hers is a quest not only to protect the family name but also to exercise personal agency.
Sometimes the hero (In a Lonely Place), the villain (The Blunderer and Beast in View), or a more ambiguous but still integral role (The Horizontal Man and Fools’ Gold), they’re all refreshingly realistic, relatable, and archetype-breaking female characters. Read More »
September 22, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- If you’re like me, you spend most of your free time imagining what Hamlet might look like: the pallid cheeks, the heavy eyelids, the ruminating brow, the svelte silhouette, the dejected posture … But what if he was fat? What if the hero of the greatest tragedy of all time was a portly slob? His own mother believes he is—“He’s fat and scant of breath,” she says to Claudius—and an inspection of Shakespeare’s fat usage provides some troubling evidence.
- Women read more crime fiction than men, supposedly because they “savor the victim role.” But Vera Caspary, a midcentury crime novelist, did just the opposite: “On the page, Caspary had almost supernatural powers of bemusement; she turned her sorrows into triumphs. She liked to joke about her attractiveness to ‘macaroni salesmen.’ Her husband, whom she met when she was forty, was a movie producer, but she earned more than he did, and he resented it. She tried to ignore his resentment, and corrected people at parties who called her Mrs. Goldsmith.”
- My grandfather’s favorite place to walk was the mall, and in this he was not alone—shopping centers are apparently “the second most popular venue for walking in the country, just behind neighborhoods.” Mall walkers, or Mall Stars, tend to be older, and they’re admirably immune to the commercial aspects of the space, especially when they walk early in the morning: “Since nothing’s open you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to buy,” one mall walker said. “Plus, all the stores sell clothes for young people.” The Mall of America boasts some 250 Mall Stars. There is something to live for.
- Fiction in England “flourished for centuries before that of any of its neighbors”; even so, one of its earliest practitioners, Geoffrey of Monmouth, couldn’t bring himself to admit he was making shit up. His History of the Kings of England was full of invented royalty, but “Geoffrey considered himself a historian, and presented himself as such … Even at the time there were people who thought he was taking the mickey; one commentator, Gerald of Wales, remarked that demons would flee when the gospels were read, but flock round to listen to Geoffrey’s fibs (there was, for instance, no ‘Emperor Leo’). Nevertheless, his work was hugely popular, and more than two hundred manuscripts survive.”
- Now that the scandal surrounding Michael Derrick Hudson and Sherman Alexie has died down, let’s revisit another ruse, from 2012: that time when a guy said he was John Ashbery just because his e-mail address was firstname.lastname@example.org, and a prominent lit mag believed him.
May 14, 2015 | by Rhys Griffiths
Raymond Chandler the environmentalist.
The wise man, as Biblical lore has it, built his house on the rock, his foolish compatriot on the sand—guidance that mankind has ignored for millennia. In the late nineteenth century, the pioneers, or developers, or “boosters” who founded and promoted Los Angeles as a new “instant city” were among those to lay substantial foundations in what was essentially sand. Not on a desert, exactly—that myth’s been debunked—but perilously close to one, and on the shore of an undrinkable ocean.
Today, it’s not an excess of water—as in the scriptures and children’s song—that threatens Southern California, but a scarcity of it. The state is considering implementing desalination centers. As has been remarked in Europe, the city defines itself against its medieval origins; American metropolises define themselves against the wilderness. In John Fante’s 1939 LA novel, Ask the Dust, his alter ego, Arturo Bandini, revels in his adopted home’s mastery of nature: “This great city, these mighty pavements and proud buildings, they were the voice of my America. From sand and cactus we Americans had carved an empire.” Read More »
May 27, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Dashiell Hammett, born today in 1894, found a home for a lot of his fiction in Black Mask, one of America’s great bygone pulp magazines. Raymond Chandler, Carroll John Daly, and other masters of detective fiction all placed their work in Black Mask, which first published Hammett in 1922, and which serialized The Maltese Falcon in 1929. The magazine had high-minded origins—H. L. Mencken cofounded it in 1920 as a lucrative companion to his more literary (read: less profitable) journal, The Smart Set, which also published Hammett, though later he decided to slum it and began to appear solely in Black Mask. Mencken and his partner sold the pulpier magazine only eight issues into its run; I guess they thought they’d made enough money on it by then. Tant pis—The Smart Set (“A Magazine of Cleverness”) met its demise in 1930, when Black Mask had a circulation of 130,000.
Alack, the forties saw a decline in fortune, as a fan’s history of Black Mask explains:
By 1940 circulation had dropped ... and the owners decided to sell Black Mask to their competition, Dime Detective. A new editor tried to make the magazine tough again and brought in new writers, but the problem was no longer the magazine. The technology of entertainment was changing. Readers had taken up comic books and mass-market paperbacks during the Depression, and by 1940 radio was also taking away audience. These media were, variously, either cheaper or more durable or resalable or more immediate. Its days numbered, Black Mask staggered on, using lurid covers of sex and violence, featuring espionage stories during World War II and finally cutting back to fortnightly publication. The magazine’s size was reduced, the price raised—nothing helped. The last issue appeared in July 1951. After thirty-one years of publication, Black Mask folded: it had printed over 2,500 stories by some 640 authors and been the dominant magazine in hard-boiled fiction.
It was Black Mask, particularly the aforementioned grotesqueries of its later years, that inspired Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the covers here offer images out of a Tarantino wet-dream: unabashedly titillating, chock full of lantern-jawed private dicks and glinting gunmetal and doe-eyed doll-faced dames who like to leave messages in lipstick (or blood). Serialized novels were called novelettes, not novellas (“The Flying Hearse: A Cellini Smith Novelette”); headlines ran to all shades of yellow and purple. “Leaving Killings to the Cops.” “Let’s All Swing Together.” “The ‘Phantom Crook’ Returns in ‘Tommy Talks.’” “And a Little Child Shall Bleed Them.” “Alcoholics Calamitous.”
Of course, Hammett’s frequent appearances in these pages might imply that he was just part of the hard-boiled schlock-peddling machine, and I suppose he was. But all you do have to do is read a few lines of dialogue from The Maltese Falcon to see why he outlasted his contemporaries—there was no tough-as-nails before Sam Spade was tough-as-nails.