American Mystery Fiction Analysis

Poe’s Disciples

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The canonical popular version of this classical tradition of the mystery as a puzzle to be solved is the British writer Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which began with A Study in Scarlet in 1887. Some purists have objected that essential information available to Holmes is often withheld from readers and that is cheating on the part of the author. Nevertheless, the immense success of the Sherlock Holmes stories paved the way for similar work by later British writers, such as Agatha Christie. Although the predominance of this type of mystery among British writers has led to its being thought of as the “English school,” in opposition to the more realistic types of mysteries written by Americans around the 1920’s, it should be remembered that this classic model was invented by the American Poe and practiced by other major American mystery writers. The thirty-three Nero Wolfe novels that Rex Stout published between 1934 and 1975 constitute some of the best examples of the type; they are complete with an eccentric armchair detective and a narrator sidekick.

It should also be noted that later writers have continued to develop the field that Poe first mapped out. For example, the late twentieth century saw the rise of a new subgenre, the police procedural, which eliminates the brilliant private detective and instead follows the painstaking routines of real police work. A particularly successful contemporary version of the police procedural is found in the enormous popularity of forensic medicine as an alternative to police work for the protagonist’s profession, as exemplified by Patricia Cornwell’s series about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta and the many television series linked by the “crime scene investigation” (CSI) label, as authors have continued to develop every permutation of Poe’s original formula.

Hammett and the Hard-Boiled School

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A new kind of American detective story that arose in reaction to the “English” model during the 1920’s has become known as the “hard-boiled school.” Dashiell Hammett was one of its first masters. Instead of serving as vehicles for intentionally bewildering sets of clues and often implausible solutions, his more realistic stories shifted their emphases to character development, action, and colloquial dialogue. These story traits were a major shift from the flat characters, slow pace, and stilted, often set, speeches of the classic school. Just as the entire classic formula had arisen virtually complete in Poe’s earliest stories, the essentials of the realistic model were nearly complete in Hammett’s very earliest work.

Hammett’s thirty-six mystery stories—all but two of which first appeared in the pulp magazine Black Mask—feature an operative for the Continental Detective Agency who is known to readers only as the Continental Op. Hammett himself had been a detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a background that enabled him to present more realistic views of both crime and criminals and detective work than had been previously attempted. Hammett’s familiarity with the classic detective-story paradigm is shown in the seventy-three reviews of detective novels he wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature and the New York Evening Post between 1927 and 1930. His rejection of that paradigm is thorough.

Hammett’s detective is not an erudite solver of riddles like Sherlock Holmes but a hard and shifty player, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody with whom he comes into contact, whether criminal or client. Hammett humorously underscored the difference in methods between his detective and the classic model in a 1924 short story, “The Tenth Clew,” which parodies the classic detective plot with a set of nine baffling clues, including a victim missing his left shoe and collar buttons, a mysterious list of names, and a bizarre murder weapon (a typewriter). The solution of the mystery, the “tenth clue,” is to ignore all nine confusing and ultimately phony clues and instead use standard methods such as the surveillance of suspects to find the killer.

Hammett’s Continental Op is lower-class, short, overweight, and pushing forty. Thus, the traditionally colorful and aristocratic amateur detective of classic detective stories is replaced by...

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Chandler and the Detective as Knight

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One response to the widespread loss of confidence in American social institutions during the 1920’s and 1930’s was a turn to romantic individualism, represented by the next major author of American mystery fiction, Raymond Chandler . While Hammett had created four different protagonists for his five novels, Chandler marked out the path for most subsequent writers by building almost his entire literary output around a single continuing central character, Philip Marlowe. Chandler originally named his detective Mallory, an allusion to Sir Thomas Malory, who compiled the legends of King Arthur and his knights during the fifteenth century, thereby suggesting that there was something noble about his protagonist. However, even without that suggestive name, Chandler’s conception of the detective as a modern equivalent of the knightly hero of chivalric romance comes through clearly. For example, Marlowe has two clients named Grayle and Quest—clear allusions to the quest for the Holy Grail. Moreover, as scholar David Geherin has noted, Marlowe’s cases often become crusades in his eyes. As Chandler himself explained, he was not interested in posing puzzles, but in telling stories of one worthy man’s adventures in search of hidden truths.

Chandler’s first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep (1939), opens with a scene in which Marlowe views a stained glass panel depicting a knight trying to rescue a damsel in distress; he jokes to himself that he...

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Macdonald and the Psychological Mystery

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ross Macdonald was recognized early in his career to be the successor to Hammett and Chandler in the field of realistic crime fiction, and his detective, Lew Archer, was recognized as the successor to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Although writers such as Mickey Spillane, whose main series character was the hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer, had enjoyed astounding book sales, critics typically viewed Spillane’s brutally violent and misogynistic melodramas as misguided perversions of the mystery formula. Spillane’s works are studied now primarily as illustrations of the worst cultural impulses of their era, rather than as compelling literature.

Macdonald’s major advance over his predecessors was in the greater emphasis he placed on psychology and character, creating a more humane and complex detective and more intricate plotting. In a review of The Goodbye Look (1969) in The New York Times Book Review, novelist William Goldman called the Lew Archer books the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American. The series is notable for both its consistently high quality and its quantity. Whereas Hammett wrote only five novels and Chandler seven, Macdonald wrote twenty-four Archer novels. Taken as a whole, his achievement is unmatched by any other American mystery writer.

The first six Archer books build the society and geography of California into important thematic elements, and feature increasingly complex plots, with multiple murders and plotlines. Nevertheless, Archer shows traces of the influence of the hard-boiled detectives of Hammett and Chandler. For example, he is named after Miles Archer, Spade’s partner in The Maltese Falcon, and is closely patterned on Marlowe. However, his sensitivity, patience, and reliance on understanding and analysis separate him from his predecessors. Even in Macdonald’s early books, Archer is more often a questioner than a doer.

The next twelve Archer novels constitute Macdonald’s major achievement. Crimes in these books are usually committed not by professional criminals but by middle-class people going through emotional crises. These books followed a period of crisis in Macdonald’s personal life, during which he underwent psychotherapy, and all of them deal openly with psychological issues. The Doomsters (1958), although begun before Macdonald’s psychoanalysis, presents his first extended treatment of the theme of intrafamilial relations that dominates all his later books. In this novel, a psychologically disturbed young man appears at Archer’s door after escaping from the state mental hospital, where he has been confined as a murder suspect in the mysterious death of his father. Although he knows himself to be legally innocent, he feels guilty for having quarreled violently with his father on the night of the latter’s death. Such oedipal tension between father and son, following the pattern of Sigmund Freud’s famous theory, drives the plots in many of Macdonald’s later novels.

Although Macdonald’s focus on family psychology constituted a clean break with both the...

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Leonard and the New Crime Novel

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Writers of mystery fiction typically employ first-person narratives, telling their stories from the points of view of continuing characters who are the protagonists for all the novels in a series. Hammett switched characters from book to book and sometimes relied on an objective, “camera-eye” point of view, but Chandler’s Marlowe and Macdonald’s Archer always told their own stories, establishing a formula followed by most later American writers. The field of American mystery fiction continues to be dominated by series detectives, but some modern writers have developed alternative approaches.

Perhaps the most successful modern American mystery writer, in both popular and critical terms, has been Elmore Leonard,...

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Late Twentieth Century Diversity

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although the paradigms and conventions of the mystery genre were developed almost entirely by white middle-class male detectives and writers, the very essence of such formulaic fiction lies in its ability to be used repeatedly, either within a series by a single writer or within books and series by other writers. This remarkable portability of the mystery format has enabled it, somewhat surprisingly, to accommodate an unprecedented diversity in the range of different characters and contexts used to fill in the components of the formula. For example, Chester Himes wrote a series of ten successful detective novels set in the African American community of Harlem, beginning with For the Love of Imabelle (1957)....

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Baker, Robert A., and Michael J. Nietzel. Private Eyes: One Hundred and One Knights—A Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922-1984. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985. Extends the discussion of American private eye fiction beyond Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, and Spillane with an enumerative survey, in roughly chronological order, of many more than the number of detectives promised by the book’s title, in order to rescue important earlier writers from critical neglect and to introduce readers to the vast range of modern mystery novelists of interest.

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and...

(The entire section is 555 words.)