Monday, September 10, 2012

A Fresh Take on Crime Fiction’s Stars

(Editor’s note: As I’ve reported before, I am among the contributors to an encyclopedic work titled 100 American Crime Writers, which appeared last month in the UK and this month in the States, courtesy of publisher Palgrave Macmillan. My editor on that project was British scholar Steven Powell, who also wrote Conversations with James Ellroy, released earlier this year. In the following essay, Powell recalls the process of assembling 100 American Crime Writers and several of the difficulties he faced in completing that 392-page volume.)

I began working on 100 American Crime Writers as a contributor. Chris Routledge, the editor of the book at the time, asked me to write three biographical entries: James Ellroy, James M. Cain, and Mickey Spillane. I considered this to be an exciting and daunting task in itself, between uncovering new biographical details through researching and re-reading each man’s considerable collection. Despite this, when Chris asked me to take over as editor so that he could focus on other projects, I didn’t hesitate to say “yes.” As although it required researching and writing many more entries, communicating with 14 contributors, and dealing with the details of proofreading, bibliographies, editing proofs, and what-not, I was enthusiastic about the great wealth of interesting and engaging material and the opportunity to ensure it reached a broad audience.

100 American Crime Writers is published as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Crime Files Series, which features some of the best contemporary scholarship on crime fiction. Previous volumes in the series include Lee Horsley’s The Noir Thriller and Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, by Barry Forshaw. The purpose of 100 American Crime Writers was to provide short critical biographies of (you guessed it) 100 of the greatest and most influential crime writers in American literary history.

The project was full of challenges. I had long been an admirer of anthologies such as William L. DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994) and the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976), by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler. These books were mammoth reads, and it was difficult to imagine what they would be like to write and edit. Fortunately, I was blessed with a great set of contributors, some of whom I inherited off Chris and others I recruited myself. A few of the names will be familiar from the blogosphere: there is J. Kingston Pierce from The Rap Sheet, for instance, plus Juri Nummelin of Pulpetti and Chris himself, who wrote more entries than any other contributor.

One of the first tasks was to revise the list of authors to be included. Deciding which names would stay in 100 American and who to take off was always going to be a difficult task. There are some authors which no anthology of this kind can do without: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard, etc. But I decided to add some relatively new names in the field, such as Megan Abbott, and take off John Grisham and Scott Turow, who--good as they are--just did not fit as neatly into any crime genre. However, some authors such as William Faulkner and Truman Capote, who would not traditionally be considered crime writers, are included for their influence on the genre through such works as Sanctuary (1931) and In Cold Blood (1966).

The entries themselves are a combination of a writer’s biography and an analysis of his or her key works. I was struck by the writers whose lives seemed as remarkable as their novels. Authors such as Harlan Coben and Janet Evanovich seem as emotionally fulfilled as they are professionally successful, while others carry an air of tragedy about them. It’s hard not to be moved when reading about the hardships Edward Bunker or Iceberg Slim endured in prison, or about Ross Macdonald’s slow mental decline. These guys wrote their legend, and a few of them lived it too, but they paid a high price.

100 American Crime Writers should fit comfortably onto the bookshelf of any student, scholar, or fan of crime fiction. My aim was to produce a book which could be either read in sequence or dipped into at will, with many pleasing return visits. Covering writers from Edgar Allan Poe to James Ellroy, the volume of material we were dealing with was immense, and Palgrave gave me a wide berth to explore the subject. At 130,000 words the book is almost twice the length of an average scholarly text, and we had to make sure that every word mattered. The volume also contains two essays, “‘Out of the Venetian Vase’: From Golden Age to Hard-boiled’” and “After These Mean Streets: Crime Fiction and the Chandler Inheritance,” which I wrote to contextualize the entries in terms of developments in the genre and literary themes. One recurring theme of the genre is the dynamic between fantasy and realism. In his entry on Ed McBain, Martin Lightening wrote of McBain’s contribution to this debate:
Unlike Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and other charismatic private eyes, the policemen McBain created are just people coming into work every day to earn a living. They are people trying to do their job well despite the attendant frustrations, such as lack of monetary rewards, physical dangers and the psychological effect of continually dealing with the darker side of human nature. The detectives, who alternate as the main characters, are a microcosm of the ethnic mix of New York, here renamed Isola which translates as ‘island’ in Italian. The most regular character, Steve Carella, is Italian, Meyer Meyer is Jewish, Bert Kling and Cotton Hawes are all American WASPs, Arthur Brown is black, Peter Byrnes is Irish, Frankie Hernandez is Puerto Rican and there is even a Japanese detective named Takashi Fujiwara. McBain deftly trod the path between mystery fiction and social realism. ‘A mystery should be exciting, believable and entertaining,’ McBain said. The problem was that crime is not this way in real life.
It was a problem that McBain would successfully overcome. Indeed, in their distinct styles, whether they strived for realism or not, the most memorable crime writers--Patricia Highsmith, James Crumley, Joseph Wambaugh, Walter Mosley, etc.--never failed to entertain. With any project this size there are usually snags along the way which can lead to anxious moments, but my overwhelming feeling now that the book, as finished, is one of gratitude and pride. More than anything else, I hope anyone who reads 100 American Crime Writers will feel compelled to find the time to pick up a good crime novel.

Speaking of which ...

READ MORE:Extract from 100 American Crime Writers,” by Steven Powell (The Venetian Vase); “100 American Crime Writers, Steven Powell, Editor,” by Barry Forshaw (Crime Time).


Elizabeth Foxwell said...

The editor of the Crime Files series is Clive Bloom, who serves on the _Clues_ editorial board.

Steve said...

Yes, Clive gave many helpful comments when reading the manuscript.