(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Some of Lawrence Sanders’s early works were collected in a book titled Tales of the Wolf (1986). These stories were originally published in detective and men’s magazines in 1968 and 1969 and concern the adventures of Wolf Lannihan, an investigator for International Insurance Investigators, or Triple-I. Wolf Lannihan is a hard-boiled detective who describes women in terms of their sexual lure (“She was a big bosomy Swede with hips that bulged her white uniform”) and criminals by their odor (“He was a greasy little crumb who wore elevator shoes and smelled of sardines”). Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, he keeps a pint of Jim Beam in the bottom drawer of his desk for emergencies. These stories follow the pattern of the classic hard-boiled, hard-drinking, irreverent loner who punches his way out of tight spots. While weak on originality, they do have their witty moments and can be read today as parodies of the hard-boiled style of writing popular in the 1930’s.

The Anderson Tapes

It was, however, the first novel that Sanders wrote, The Anderson Tapes, that brought him success as a writer of detective fiction. He had blue-penciled other writers for twenty-odd years as an editor for pulp and science magazines and churned out adventure stories at night during that time. In despair over the abominable writing he was editing, he determined to write an innovative detective novel. The Anderson Tapes became an immediate best seller and was made into a film starring Sean Connery.

Sanders talked about his method of composition in several articles, and the outstanding characteristic of his comments and advice is utter simplicity. Having started out in the 1960’s writing gag lines for cheesecake magazines and fast-paced formula fiction for men’s adventure magazines, war magazines, and mystery pulps, he became adept at writing tight, well-plotted stories to hold the reader’s attention:When you’re freelancing at seventy-five dollars a story, you have to turn the stuff out fast, and you can’t afford to rewrite. You aren’t getting paid to rewrite. You can’t afford to be clever, either. Forget about how clever you are. Tell the damn story and get on with it. I know a guy who kept rewriting and took eighteen years to finish a novel. What a shame! It was probably better in the first version.

Sanders’s views about the writer’s vocation were refreshingly democratic and pragmatic. He insisted that anyone who can write a postcard can write a novel:Don’t laugh. That’s true. If you wrote a postcard every day for a year, you’d have 365 postcards. If you wrote a page every day, you’d have a novel. Is that so difficult? If you have something to say and a vocabulary, all you need is a strict routine.

The First Deadly Sin

Sanders’s next novel was The First Deadly Sin (1973), and it was an even bigger success than The Anderson Tapes. Some critics believe it to be his masterpiece because it possesses in rich and varied abundance all the literary devices, techniques, and characters that his readers have come to expect. Although Captain Edward X. Delaney was first seen in the second half of The Anderson Tapes, as he took absolute charge of an invading police force, in The First Deadly Sin, the reader sees him as a complete character in his home territory. A commanding presence, he is a mature, complex man who understands clearly the viper’s tangle of administrative and political infighting. He has operated within the labyrinthine organization of the police force for many years and become a captain, though not without making some uncomfortable compromises.

The key to understanding Edward X. Delaney is the quotation from Fyodor Dostoevski’s Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913) that Sanders plants in The First Deadly Sin: “If there was no God, how could I be a captain?” Delaney is tortured by the possibility of a world without meaning, and he yearns for an earlier, innocent world that has deteriorated into a miasma of demolished orders and become an existential nightmare in which no authority exists except the law itself. He views himself as a principal agent of this last remaining order, the law. The fallen world he inhabits is very much a wasteland, fragmented by corruption, chaos, and evil. For Delaney, evil exists and is embodied in criminals who break the law. He lives next door to his own precinct on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He cannot separate his integrity from his life as an officer of the law: They are one. Without a god or an order outside himself, Delaney cannot be a captain because the order necessary to create and enforce such hierarchical categories no longer exists. In an earlier time, he might have become a priest, but he realizes that the Church too has fallen victim to bureaucratic chaos and corruption.

Delaney must attend to the smallest details because they may become the keys to solving the mystery, to revealing its...

(The entire section is 2063 words.)