Crime On My Hands
When I got my first job as mystery reviewer, for the original Book World edited by Byron Dobell in the 1960s, my mother said, “Mystery reviewer? Why can’t you use your real name?” And my friend Richard Condon was frightened that if I included one of his books in my column, it would suffer financially and socially from being seen in the company of unworthy books.
Mysteries have never really gotten the respect they deserve— either as examples of good writing or as social documents. (Condon would be pleased to know, however, that they are selling very well, bursting out onto bestseller lists everywhere.) But in the last twenty years, they have begun to be taken more seriously—mostly because of the writers: excellent novelists who prefer to work in the genre form. Partly to honor their dedication and partly to justify the thousands of hours I have spent reading and reviewing them, I’ve decided to put together and annotate this collection.
The line between mystery and thriller is a vague one: to my mind, mysteries most often have continuing casts of central characters who reach some solution to crimes through a mixture of rational deduction and inspiration. Thrillers more often deal with larger, single events, occasionally political, and often end in scenes of violence. Both are worthy forms, and both provide plenty of reading pleasure. But I have decided to stay on the mystery side of that vague line—although a few books included here might well be called thrillers.
Not many of the bestsellers I mentioned above make it into my column, due mostly to space limitations. I’m lucky enough to be able to call attention to ten to twelve new mysteries and thrillers of my own choosing each month, out of the hundreds published in various formats. And if choosing a first novel by an unknown writer means leaving out the fifth or fifteenth book in an already successful franchise, I can live with the guilt—especially since it is usually these books upon which publishers spend their advertising budgets.
All the reviews here are favorable, or at least informational— even if some contain quibbles. Again, I’m fortunate enough to get to choose what I review—and one of the pleasures of doing this collection was being able to pick the best of the best. Several writers get more than one review; in some instances, I was happy to discover that their second book was up to the standards of their first (Olen Steinhauer. Jim Kelly, Barbara Nadel). And in other cases (Sara Paretsky, John Shannon, Walter Mosley, Scott Phillips, George Pelecanos. Donna Leon, Laurie R. King), my intention was to note their continuing excellence.
At a Mystery Writers of America symposium in 1979. an attendee asked the members of the panel, “What prompts writers to want to make death so entertaining?”
Robert L. Fish, noted novelist and short story writer, answered that “Death is the last joke.” Frederick Dannay, with Manfred B. Lee one half of the Ellery Queen franchise, suggested that murder mysteries were “safety valves” for readers, “taking care of their frustrations and aggressions.” Another expert agreed, saying crime novels “link the past with the present, forbidden desires are acted out, the world of the id predominates.” And a literature professor summed it up by saying, “Crime is the greatest story in the world, starting with Cain and Abel. It appears in all the fairy tales; I counted fifteen crimes committed in Little Red Riding Hood.”
All of those reasons still hold true, and make reading and writing about mysteries such a continuing pleasure.
Anthony Boucher— The Man Who Invented Mystery Reviewing
Whenever I’m faced with a mystery of a type that I’d normally shun (“fun mysteries” about wedding planners, caterers, gardeners and the like are current villains), I drag out Anthony Boucher’s famous quote, “The important distinction is not between the schools of the whodunit but between the good and bad books whatever the school.”
Boucher can without the slightest stretch be called the man who made mystery reviewing a serious occupation—first for the San Francisco Chronicle, later for the Chicago Sun-Times and New York Herald Tribune, and from 1951 until his death from lung cancer at the age of 56 in 1968 as the author of the weekly “Criminals At Large” column in the New York Times, for whom he wrote 852 columns, each reviewing about six books.
The fact that his name is now mostly known, even to more serious readers, because of the annual Bouchercon mystery convention, is an irony that would have delighted him.
Boucher wasn’t even his birth name: it was William Anthony Parker White. But when he found 75 writers named William White in the Library of Congress, he decided to adopt the maiden name of his maternal grandmother, pronouncing it as she did to rhyme with “voucher.”
Boucher’s life in his home on Dana Street in Berkeley was an awesome mixture of reviewing, editing and writing (both mysteries and science fiction), and other activities from poker to opera to acting as a scout for local sports teams. Like other major figures in the mystery field (G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis come immediately to mind), Boucher was a figure of strong Christian faith.
He struggled daily with the severe asthma he’d suffered from since childhood, and his son Lawrence White gives a sad and vivid description of his father’s battle every morning to start the breathing process.
Francis M. Nevins, who edited collections of Boucher’s earlier reviews, wrote, “Although he compared himself to the sundial with the motto, ‘I count only the sunny hours,’ in his ability to blot out weakness and pain, he and [Ellery Queen co-creator] Fred Dannay often said to each other only half in jest ‘that if both of us had been blessed with good health, how much more we could have accomplished!’ Bouts of illness often forced Boucher to scrap or postpone projects to which he’d made commitments.”
Boucher’s mystery reviews were eclectic: he wrote about hard-covers, paperbacks and mystery magazines. During his career as a critic, he won Edgar Awards (named for Edgar Allen Poe) in 1946, 1950, and 1953 from the Mystery Writers of America, whose national president he was in 1951.
He enjoyed established writers such as Erle Stanley Gardner (“Among his many other virtues, Gardner is surely the finest constructor of hyper-intricate puzzles in evidence”), Agatha Christie (“the most satisfactory novel in some years from one of the most satisfying of novelists,” he wrote about They Came to Baghdad), Frank Gruber, Dorothy B. Hughes, Ian Fleming, Georges Simenon (“Grade A Simenon, which means studies in murder at its most chilling and convincing”) and Donald Hamilton.
Of Raymond Chandler, he wrote “Chandler, generally acknowledged as the foremost creator of hard-boiled detective stories after Dashiell Hammett, has written regrettably little of late. After a large number of first-rate novelettes in the Nineteen Thirties and four distinguished novels, 1939-43, he has produced only two novels in the past eleven years. The first of these, The Little Sister (1949), I found badly disappointing though some critics rated it high among Chandler items: but the newest, The Long Goodbye, more than assuages the disappointment and makes one wish that Chandlers were as frequent as Gardners.
“This one is rather off the hard-beaten path of Chandler-iana. It’s about private detective Philip Marlowe, of course, as are all Chandler novels, but both Marlowe and his creator seem to have mellowed somewhat in fifteen years. The plot deals relatively little with the professional criminal classes, but rather with the tensions—emotional, psychological and fundamental—of the upper middle class.
“On the whole, despite occasional outbursts of violence, it’s a moody, brooding book, in which Marlowe is less a detective than a disturbed man of 42 on a quest for some evidence of truth and humanity. The dialogue is as vividly overheated as ever, the plot is clearly constructed and surprisingly resolved, and the book is rich in many sharp glimpses of minor characters and scenes. Perhaps the longest private-eye novel ever written (over 125,000 words!) it is also one of the best—and may well attract readers who normally shun even the leaders in the field.”
And this is what he had to say about John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold:
“‘The best spy story I have ever read,’ says Graham Greene, and I am not too far from agreeing with him. Whether The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is better than Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy or Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden or Mr. Greene’s own The Confidential Agent is inconsequential. What matters is that it belongs on the same shelf. Here is a book a light year removed from the sometimes entertaining trivia which have (in the guise of spy novels) cluttered the publishers’ lists for the past year.
“John Le Carré, a pseudonym for a British civil servant employed in one of the Whitehall ministries, is telling here the story of Alec Leamas, a 50-year-old professional who has grown stale in espionage, who longs to ‘come in from the cold’—and how he undertakes one last assignment before that hoped-for retirement. Over the years Leamas has grown unsure where his workday carapace ends and his real self begins: ‘A man who lives a part,’ the author notes, ‘not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defense. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses: though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor; though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.
“Aware of the overwhelming temptations which assail a man permanently isolated in his deceit, Leamas resorted to the course which armed him best. Even when he was alone, he compelled himself to live with the personality he had assumed. It is said that Balzac on his deathbed inquired anxiously after the health and prosperity of characters he had created. Similarly Leamas, without relinquishing the power of invention, identified himself with what he had invented.”
“Recalled from Berlin after the death of his last East German contact at the Wall, Leamas lets himself be seduced into a pretended defection—thereby providing the East Germans with data from which they can deduce that the head of their own spy apparatus is a double agent. It is a fiendishly intricate yet wholly plausible plan, rooted in the very nature of espionage and security thinking—and the author develops his story superbly, both as a compelling and dazzlingly plotted thriller and as a substantial and penetrating novel of our times.
“Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead (also a spy story, and a good one), took second place in the Crime Writers Association’s awards for best novel of 1961. His second, A Matter of Quality (which used the detective story of private murder to examine the self-conscious class structure of England), was a finalist in the C.W.A.’s 1962 awards. (Both were published in this country.) Despite these well-deserved honors, he has so far received little recognition.
“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold should establish him firmly beside Ambler and Greene in the small rank of writers who can create a novel of significance, while losing none of the excitement of the tale of sheer adventure.”
But Boucher also made a point of promoting lesser-known writers, often British (“The macabre intellectuality of the fantasy, the almost outrageous skill of the writing, the brilliance of the concept and treatment make this one of the finds of the season,” he wrote about The Daffodil Affair by Michael Innes. “The true mystery fan may frown more than a little, but the readers of Norman Douglas, Evelyn Waugh, John Collier or the early Huxley will acclaim a new treasure”).
Other courageous genre-crossers like Sally Benson were also praised for their work. “It is not a nice world that Miss Benson presents here,” he said about a short story collection called Women and Children First. “It is a world of possessiveness and pretension and petty cruelty, a cat-eat-cat existence. It is a world that you will recognize and remember.”
Newcomers to the mystery field such as Ed McBain, Arthur W. Upfield, Jim Thompson, Vin Packer and David Goodis were also recognized. Reviewing 23-year-old Ira Levin’s first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, in the New York Times, Boucher commented on its “superlatively enviable sheer professionalism. Levin combines great talent for pure novel writing—full-bodied characterization, subtle psychological exploration, vivid evocation of locale—with strict technical whodunit tricks as dazzling as anything ever brought off by Carr, Rawson, Queen or Christie.”
“He used to say,” his wife Phyllis White remarked, “that the heresy of our age is the perceived dichotomy between art and entertainment: if something is one, it cannot be the other. Things that are now being studied in school were in their own time great popular successes. The public avidly awaited the next installment of a current Dickens novel. There was a popular following of the Elizabethan theater and of the Greek theater. He said that you could get a better idea of just what it was like to be alive in that time from reading the fiction of an earlier period than you could from reading a factual history.”
“It is not true, as some suggest, that Boucher was a gentle critic who did not give negative reviews,” writes Francis Nevins. “According to Phyllis White, he felt that his first responsibility was to the reader who paid for the books he reviewed, and that if he just spoke kindly of everything it would be of no value. Nevertheless, Boucher took pains to help writers and often wrote letters of suggestion and encouragement.
“If the book was a weak effort with some saving grace,” Nevins adds, “he’d pinpoint the flaws precisely and take pains to note the good side: ‘…a slow-moving routine plot, weakly detected, but partially redeemed by a convincing first-hand picture of northernmost Alaska.’ To the hopelessly shoddy or inept work he’d give short shrift but usually with a dash of wit, as when he called a particularly boring John Rhode novel ‘the dreariest Rhode I have yet traversed.’
“‘Surprisingly, George Bagby is something of a bore in Another Day—Another Death,” he said about a popular writer. “The telling is crisp and amusing, as always. But this time, Inspector Schmidt faces a weak plot, resolved largely by happenstance. Bagby keeps acting as foolishly as any Idiot Heroine of a bad crime romance; and pivotal characters are kept almost entirely offstage. (We are given less than 3,000 words to become acquainted with the murderer.) Unexpected performance from one of the (I had thought) most reliable Old Pros.”
“On the occasions when he encountered a book so atrocious it should never have been published at all,” Nevins writes, “he didn’t hesitate to say so bluntly. And during the early 1950s, the evil days of McCarthyism and HUAC, his single bete noire was Mickey Spillane, whose best-selling thrillers Boucher despised for their neo-fascist political slant, joy in sadism, sniggering approach to sex and slapdash prose and plots, all the antitheses to Boucher’s own values which were rooted in Christian intellectualism and the liberal humanist tradition. In the 1960s when Spillane’s influence had faded, Boucher mellowed toward the creator of Mike Hammer and began to see in him the last of the old pulp storytellers.”
Lenore Glen Offord described Boucher’s career as a reviewer in these words in The Armchair Detective in 1969: “There is a difference, significant but not always recognized, between reviewing and criticism… Anthony Boucher was a critic. He brought to his work an encyclopedic knowledge of the mystery, in both long and short forms, and could relate the subject at hand to the genre as a whole. Through his own experience as a writer he understood the difficulties of mystery technique; also, he could be strict with those who didn’t understand them…above all, he respected the craft.”
Phyllis White said to Nevins: “There is a word I hear a lot now that I didn’t hear in those days that describes what he was. He was a mentor. So many authors wrote to me after he had died saying that they had always written attempting to please him or feeling that he was looking over their shoulder, and not knowing how they would get along when he wasn’t there.”
Reviewing The Annotated Sherlock Holmes for The New York Times in 1968 in one of his last columns, Boucher wrote: “Good detective stories are as I have often quoted Hamlet’s phrase about the players, ‘the abstracts and brief chronicle of the times,’ ever-valuable in retrospect as indirect but vivid pictures of the society from which we spring.”