Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I’ve Been Gormanized!

Over the last couple of days, several people have sent their compliments on an interview author-editor Ed Gorman did with me for the Summer 2009 issue of Mystery Scene magazine. The public mails must be slow way out here in Seattle (blame it on all our recent sunshine--the local postal carriers just aren’t used to it), because my copy of that issue arrived only this afternoon.

As usual with Mystery Scene, there’s plenty of great reading to be found here. I want to draw your attention especially to Oline H. Cogdill’s interview with Tom Rob Smith, author of the much-praised historical thriller Child 44 and its new sequel, The Secret Speech; Cheryl Solimini’s profile of George Dawes Green, who wrote the Edgar Award-winning The Caveman’s Valentine (1994) as well as the forthcoming thriller, Ravens; Michael Mallory’s look back at the too-oft-forgotten work of Stuart Palmer, the creator of Hildegarde Withers, a “fictional schoolteacher turned sleuth who had a talent for tripping over bodies”; and Kevin Burton Smith’s wrap-up of five worthy American women private eyes who have sprung unto the scene since the “female P.I. boom of the ’80s and ’90s”--a selection that includes Diane Wei Liang’s Mei Wang, Mary Wilbon’s Cassandra Slick, and Libby Fischer Hellman’s Georgia Davis.

Then, of course, there’s that interview with yours truly.

I’m usually reluctant to blow my own horn. But Ed Gorman is a nice guy, a persistent promoter of this genre, and an unabashed admirer of The Rap Sheet. So when he requested an interview with me for Mystery Scene ... well, how could I say no? There was some editing done to the 3,000 words worth of responses I sent to Gorman, though not as much as I expected; and all of the best stuff made it to the printed page. I don’t want to inhibit Mystery Scene’s single-issue sales by posting the entirety of our exchange here. However, I think my response to one query might be interesting (with links added).
This would seem to be the true Golden Age of detective and crime fiction; so many fine writers. Would you agree?

Yes and no. While there are indeed many fine writers, bottom line oriented publishers aren’t always willing to pay those authors enough to keep them working. And not everyone can write a book a year. So publishers concentrate their resources on big-name wordsmiths who keep producing, even though they may be churning out the same sort of yarns over and over again. (Sadly, readers don’t always notice this betrayal.)

And while I’m thrilled to have so many reading options in crime fiction, I am disappointed with many of the myriad books hitting the shelves. Too many try to copy previously successful works, or they run a good theme to death. How many more books, for instance, can I be expected to read about serial killers? You would think that such murderers were running rife in the United States, when in fact they’re fairly unusual. And does every mystery story have to be about murder? There are other crimes of sufficiently absorbing magnitude, other ways to build up tension than having somebody new die every two or three chapters.

But then, editors and publishers would have to encourage such innovation. And I don’t think they do, at least not strongly enough.

I’ve found myself lately looking back at older works in this field, books by mid-20th-century writers who were searching for new veins of writing gold, trying to do something unlike what their fellows were up to at the time. Admittedly, there was a lot of trash, but I think no more trash being turned out then than what is being published now. And occasionally, I come across real gems, such as Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle (1958) or Harold Q. Masur’s Bury Me Deep (1947) or Erle Stanley Gardner’s series about mismatched gumshoes Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. All of those--as well as the works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Thomas B. Dewey, Ed McBain, and of course [Ross] Macdonald--provide the source material mined by today’s crime fictionists. But some of that older stuff still boasts an air of novelty, rather than the reek of repetition.

So, while I am happy to see crime fiction be so popular today, I fear that we’re not getting everything we could from this genre. The willingness of publishers and authors to emphasize profits and productivity over creativity may ultimately be the genre’s undoing. And maybe that’s a good thing, to let the genre burn itself out now and then lie fallow and recoup its innovation in preparation for some future renaissance.
Read the full piece in the Summer 2009 issue of Mystery Scene.

UPDATE: Scans of the pages containing my interview appear below. Click on the images to bring up enlargements in new windows.


LB said...

Congratulations on the interview. I'm afraid I have to agree with you on the state of mystery publishing today; I keep seeing the same "blockbuster" authors who seem to keep rewriting the same book.

One note on Stuart Palmer and the Hildegarde Withers stories: the "meddlesome old battleaxe," as Palmer used to call her, is back in print (via the Rue Morgue Press) - the books are good fun and also pretty fair, classic puzzles. Recommended.

Kristopher said...

Gorman's interview with you about The Rap Sheet was fascinating. Thanks for reposting that.

As for this interview, excellent work as always.