Thu 26 Apr 2012
by Josef Hoffmann
I love to read essays on literature, but above all I love to read essays on crime fiction. During the last 120 years so many essays on crime fiction were written that I have probably read less than five per cent.
Nevertheless I have put together a list of my favourites. When I talk with booksellers in mystery bookstores in Germany they complain that any kind of reference work does not sell well. The readers of crime fiction just want the pure stuff, the thrill of the stories. They are not interested in information about crime fiction.
This seems to be different with the readers of the Mystery*File blog. There should be some interest in my choice of the twelve best essays on crime fiction. The subjects vary, of course, as crime fiction is a varied genre. For me the ideal literary essay combines the following general features: some useful information, intelligent thought, a good prose style, a little bit of experimentation, and the author’s individual voice must be heard.
Most of these essays may be most easily found in two sources. (*) Reprinted in: Howard Haycraft, editor: The Art of the Mystery Story, and (**) Reprinted in: Ed Gorman, Lee Server, Martin H. Greenberg, editors: The Big Book of Noir.
Here comes the list:
1. “The Simple Art of Murder,” by Raymond Chandler. (*) For me this is one of Chandler’s best texts (texts including novels and short stories), very often quoted.
2. “A Defence of Detective Stories,” by G. K. Chesterton. (*) Chesterton has again and again surprising and brilliant ideas and expresses them in excellent prose.
3. Foreword in Patricia Highsmith’s story collection Eleven, by Graham Greene. A very good understanding of Highsmith’s special art of crime writing, precise language, masterful.
4. “The Locked-Room Lecture,” by John Dickson Carr. (*) The famous chapter from the novel The Three Coffins by the undisputed master of the locked-room mystery.
5. “Warning! Warning! Hitchhikers May Be Escaped Lunatics!,” by Stephen King. (**) Very direct and frank, rather personal, full insight into Jim Thompson’s work from the viewpoint of a famous storyteller.
6. “Chester Himes: America’s Black Heartland“, by James Sallis. (**) A fine, informative essay by a literary expert and great crime writer.
7. “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict,” by W. H. Auden. A very particular view on the subject by the famous poet, in: The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays.
8. “Forgotten Writers: Gil Brewer,” by Bill Pronzini. (**) An impressive portrait of a once very successful writer of paperback originals whose life ended tragically.
9. “The Writer As Detective Hero,” by Ross Macdonald. A typical Ross Macdonald text, with a lot of psychology and personal reflection, in: On Crime Writing.
10. Introduction to The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from Black Mask Magazine 1920-1951, by Herbert Ruhm. A highly informative essay on Black Mask Stories.
11. “Gaudy Night,” by Dorothy L. Sayers. (*) A self-critical and ironic look on the writing process of a detective novelist of the Golden Age.
12. “The Novels of Vin Packer,” by Jon L. Breen, in: Murder Off the Rack: Critical Studies of Ten Paperback Masters, edited by Breen and M. H. Greenberg. A convincing argument for the appreciation of the neglected work of an outstanding writer.
Looking finally at my list I see I have missed many names, for example the names of Anthony Boucher, Patricia Highsmith, Julian Symons, Francis M. Nevins, Marcia Muller, H. R. F. Keating, Fredric Jameson, Ed Gorman, Sara Paretsky, Bill Crider, Mike Ripley and so on. Probably a list with 50 titles would be more adequate.