IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marvin Lachman

LEROY LAD PANEK – An Introduction to the Detective Story. Popular Press, Bowling Green University, hardcover/trade paperback, 1987.

Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring 1988.

LEROY LAD PANEK Detective Story

   If LeRoy Lad Panek’s An Introduction to the Detective Story seems like a textbook for a college course on the mystery, veteran readers should not be put off. Panek, a former Edgar winner, is more knowledgeable than anyone has a right to be, especially regarding the mystery before Poe.

   Yet, the book is equally strong for its frequent wit, proving that writing about the mystery can be fun. Insights and historical perspective leap off every page.

   Panek devotes considerable space to the usually neglected turn-of-the-twentieth-century writers, after pointing out that “Doyle’s first 24 Sherlock Holmes stories created such a demand they turned people into detective-story writers overnight.”

   Though giving full credit to Doyle and his creation in as good a one-chapter summary as I can recall, he points out Doyle’s weaknesses as a novelist — but also his strengths as a short-story writer.

   Both the Golden Age and the rise of the hardboiled mystery are well handled. Regarding the former, Panek is persuasive how the classic puzzles were a double reaction on the part of writers and readers to the mindless thriller as well as avant garde mainstream fiction, with its de-emphasis on story.

   Private eyes like Race Williams and the Continental Op are correctly pointed out as contemporaries of Doyle, thus reminding us that hardboiled fiction, after more than sixty years, is just as traditional a form of the genre as the classic puzzles.

   Considering the amount of information Panek dispenses, he makes relatively few factual errors. The Detective Book Club is misnamed the “Detective Story Club.” Mary Roberts Rinehart is said to have died in 1926, though she lived on for more than thirty years longer.

   Christie’s And Then There Were None is dated 1930, not 1939. Dennis Wheatley’s “File” books did contain narratives, though through letters, telegrams, and police reports, rather than the usual story-telling devices.

   I also would quarrel with Panek’s loose use of psychological terminology. He refers to “psychotic” heroines of Gothic novels when they were only nervous, usually due to their mysterious employers and those single lights which kept shining in windows.

   Vidocq is called a “paranoiac” when even Panek’s description shows him to be merely self-promoting. A reference to “pathological insanity” is surely redundant, since I doubt if any doctors have seen cases of insanity without mental pathology.

   Panek’s book may be the best history of the entire field written to date. If ever a book deserved a second printing, It is An Introduction to the Detective Story. That would afford an opportunity to clear up some of the errors and would mean it had reached the substantial audience it deserves.

Editorial Comment:   This is the third in a series of reviews in which Marv covered reference works published in 1987, books about the field of mystery and crime fiction. Preceding this one was Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books, by H. R. F. Keating. You can find it here.