As World War II was drawing to a close, Edmund Wilson attracted considerable attention with a pair of New Yorker articles in which he undertook to demolish any claim of crime fiction to literary merit: “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” (1944) and “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (1945).1 A controversy over popular reading matter must have been a welcome relief from war news, and Wilson provoked a good many rejoinders in the following months. The essays remain thoroughly entertaining performances—eviscerating mockery being a Wilson subspecialty—despite failing to answer either question satisfactorily. To the second question it is easy enough to respond: far more readers than he could have foreseen would continue to care, long after he wrote his screeds. Having been in Japan during a celebration of Agatha Christie that made clear the vast and serious esteem in which she was held there, and having visited the Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières in Paris where I was shown a rare early edition of Le Meurtre de Roger Ackroyd as one of the treasures of the collection, and having recently revisited a dozen or so of her best novels, I feel confident that Christie’s work will endure for its very real literary qualities, even if Wilson might never have recognized them as such. (I say “might” because the only Christie book he reviewed was an altogether atypical exercise set in ancient Egypt.)
As for the first question, it remains tantalizingly unanswerable. Perhaps only after a lifetime of immersion in crime fiction—whether as a primary, possibly obsessive concern or as a perennial side interest—can one begin to wonder what all those stories have really imparted. For Wilson the answer would be: nothing at all beyond temporary and quickly forgotten relief of a trivial urge. His argument for the essential worthlessness of the genre becomes an indictment of its devotees. “Detective-story readers feel guilty,” he wrote, “they are habitually on the defensive, and all their talk about ‘well-written’ mysteries is simply an excuse for their vice, like the reasons that the alcoholic can always produce for a drink.”
Three years later, in his 1948 Harper’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” W.H. Auden seemed to chime in: “For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” But if for Wilson the reading of mystery novels was a vice comparable to crossword puzzles, Auden’s theological musings led him to a deeper avowal: “I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin.” Auden, clearly some kind of fan, acknowledged his complicity, while Wilson stridently absolved himself of any hint of temptation. (He did, however, grant himself one indulgence: his lingering attachment to the Sherlock Holmes stories of his childhood, with their “fairy-tale poetry of hansom cabs, gloomy London lodgings, and lonely country estates.”) In any event a stain of guilt is attached to the readers of such fictions, just as much as to the murderers whose crimes they unravel.
If mysteries were a drug, they were the drug of choice when Wilson and Auden wrote. At the midpoint of the 1940s, David Bordwell notes in his brilliant book Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder, “mystery stories made up one-quarter of all fiction published in the United States and a third of prime-time radio programs”—not to mention magazine serials, Broadway plays, comic books, and the television shows that soon followed. That teeming culture of criminal entertainment was a paradise of fictional invention, a laboratory of variation and subversion and artful manipulation. For Bordwell it provides a particularly rich instance of how storytellers function “as narrative engineers, subject to the constraints and compromises facing every artificer.”
In his wide-ranging studies of film, Bordwell has been one of the great exponents of precise formal analysis for whom methods of narration are never to be taken for granted. His writing is at once impeccably scholarly and acutely sensitive to the human use of stories and the part they play in people’s lives. His Reinventing Hollywood (2017) explored in great detail the narrative innovations of 1940s movies.2 In Perplexing Plots he extends his research to the history of crime fiction, conceived as a genre that “devotes itself almost wholly to cultivating an appreciation of formal artifice.” It tracks, across novels, plays, and films, from the era of Wilkie Collins to the newly minted gimmicks of Quentin Tarantino or Laura Lippman, the methods by which such works have educated readers and spectators to interpret new forms of surprise, in an ongoing collaborative give-and-take.
To contemplate crime fiction in its totality is to be overwhelmed by profusion. It has been produced on an industrial scale almost from the start and has continued to proliferate in every available medium. A reading of Martin Edwards’s The Life of Crime, a staggeringly knowledgeable attempt to survey the genre’s historical range, gives some idea of that almost infinite expanse. Edwards’s book spills over with information about the lives of crime writers (in which strange stories abound), the real-world crimes they were so often inspired by, and the multifarious afterlives of their work. Innovators spark imitators, and the imitators in turn have imitators. In the process, startling effects sometimes result from the haphazard collision of commonplace elements not previously juxtaposed, as if stories were writing themselves and genres were sprouting networks of mutating subgenres interconnected with one another and the world by multiple threads. I once spent a year reading nothing but paperback crime fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, research for a book that turned into a sort of psychological experiment: What if your knowledge of the world were limited to that source, and who or what was generating that knowledge?
Bordwell maintains an admirable balance between the generic and the unmistakably individual, and he refreshes one’s sense of the singularity of familiar writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler even as they avail themselves of market-tested techniques. In a close reading of a brief passage in Chandler’s The Big Sleep—a description of the casino owned by the gangster Eddie Mars—he shows, for example, how much Chandler packs into what might pass for a bit of background color:
The description sets the room between two phantoms, one in the past and one in an alternative present: a mansion’s ballroom haunted by ghostly dancers and a virtual high-tech casino (as if modern design, with its violent leather, had sadistic intent).
Throughout the book there are illuminating explorations of the methods of writers as distinct as Marie Belloc Lowndes, Francis Iles, Vera Caspary, Donald Westlake, and Erle Stanley Gardner, always with an eye to their particular variations in technical approach. Bordwell creates not so much a canon of individual works as a lexicon of devices, many drawn from unlikely sources. Few readers will be familiar with the full spectrum of works he considers, and one of the book’s delights is his boundless curiosity about odd literary artifacts. Coming to Perplexing Plots after a long stretch of Covid-prompted hibernation in which (with everyday life reduced to something like a locked-room mystery) immersion in crime fiction felt like a natural resort, I was exhilarated by Bordwell’s multiple demonstrations of the pleasures of deflection and distraction, shapely detours and sidewise turns, in the service of what he calls the “playful experience of form.” “Playful” does not imply negligible. He accords playfulness the seriousness it deserves, all the more so when the subject is crime fiction, considering the nature of the things it plays with.
Crime novels are conventionally esteemed to the extent that they transcend their genre; Bordwell is more concerned with the ways they both exemplify and reinvent the genre’s characteristics. As he observes at the outset, critics and teachers tend to respect works in which story grows out of character—“works that explore personality, as we say, ‘in depth’”—rather than the other way around. After all, even Chandler complained that the characters in most mystery novels “must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.” But Bordwell unapologetically prizes artificial patterns—“patterns of events, patterns of particles of the medium (words, shots)”—and he finds them just as readily in obscure whodunits and Broadway thrillers as in the novels of Virginia Woolf or Ford Madox Ford, uncovering an alternative trove of modernist experiments deployed for mass consumption. Borrowings and influences, acknowledged or not, went in both directions. As the poet David Lehman reminds us in The Mysterious Romance of Murder, Gertrude Stein called the detective story “the only really modern novel form.”3 On a similar note, Bordwell, looking at the extravagant inventions of some forgotten Broadway comedies, remarks that “popular theater . . . was Pirandellian before Pirandello, and Brechtian well before Brecht.”
Where games and puzzles link up with the real world is a question that inevitably arises in the reading of crime novels. Under the right circumstances there is no telling what sudden harsh encounter with the actual might be provoked in the midst of even the most generic mystery, a surge deriving from the convergence of a bare framework (a grid as abstract as music) with whatever real-world particularities are draped over it. The procedure might seem to resemble the workings of a mechanical toy. I returned in my hibernation to the police procedurals of Freeman Wills Crofts and Ed McBain, two altogether different writers who illustrate the radical disparities between two cultures and two eras. On the one hand there is Crofts’s plodding but doggedly persistent Inspector French, in an insular Britain fixated on order and respectable appearances; on the other, McBain’s toughened cops of the 87th Precinct in a zigzagging pop modernist version of Manhattan that seethes with anarchic impulses. (Bordwell does notable justice to the variousness of McBain’s multivolume saga.) Crofts and McBain share, however, a constructivist obsession with making a miniature counterworld that can run by itself, not so far from William Carlos Williams’s definition of a poem as “a machine made out of words.”
Both novelists revel in unlikely coincidences and fantastically convoluted alibis and conspiracies elaborated like the grammar of a newfangled language, yet they distill from the debris available to them a flavor of pure materiality compounded of dust and concrete and a measure of blood. These books—these machines—speak as one nervous system to another. Their form elicits an energetic sense of the reader’s own wiring and capabilities. The ideal result is a transfer of exhilarated attentiveness. Even if the story’s details dissolve into the void—as they generally do—the memory of that intense transference is not lost. For Bordwell, such an exchange is not a trivial matter. Even when descending into the netherworld of the most minor and forgotten texts, the reader is in vital territory. There is someone at the other end urgently sending signals in an oblique code.
The message being transmitted might, of course, be a fearful one. Throughout its history the genre, as Bordwell acknowledges at the outset, “rests on the promise of murder,” even if it may also promise that Murder Can Be Fun (Fredric Brown, 1948) or Murder Is Easy (Agatha Christie, 1939). My own early feelings about murder were not quite so fun or easy, even in what seemed a more or less tranquil village in early 1950s America. True crime was not quite everywhere in those days, but it drifted down as folklore into the minds and conversations of kids on the playground, sharing what they had picked up about Al Capone and the Lindbergh baby, Leopold and Loeb and the Mad Bomber, child abductors and psycho hitchhikers off a cover of True Detective glimpsed in a barbershop.
First encounters with crime fiction were almost as unsettling, derived as they were from crudely drawn, gruesome images in comic book versions of classic tales by Poe, Conan Doyle, and others: a bloodstained thumbprint, a corpse thrust upward into a chimney, a poisonous snake crawling through an air vent, a kidnapped orphan chained in a cellar by a one-eyed hag, an intruder bending forward to strangle an old man in his bed. There was nothing artfully roundabout in these scenes. Here was the brutal heart of the story laid out in garish colors.
My mother might have been appalled by such comic books, but she was glad to immerse herself in the uniform volumes of the Detective Book Club—three novels to a volume—with titles like Death Rings a Bell or Death Takes a Bow or Too Busy to Die. These provided distraction during the war years while she was raising two small children and later while my father was stationed in occupied Germany. For a kid just getting curious about the books that adults read, such titles had an irresistible appeal. Reading them was something else. They seemed quite drab, a sequence of mechanical actions in humdrum settings. People drank coffee. People got out of cars. People tried to remember what time the phone had rung the night before. The people were ciphers, and the scenes did not have a trace of enchantment.
It took years to understand that to read them with pleasure required a process of initiation. You had to learn what a clue was and how to distinguish it from any other meaningless detail—a smeared napkin, a burnt match dropped in a phone booth, a typewriter with a broken key. You needed to cultivate a taste for a certain kind of strangely pleasurable tedium, an appreciation of time merely passing, of objects merely existing. You had to find out, much later, by experience, how such reading even at its most flavorless could infiltrate a life: books to be read while waiting, waiting for a war to end or a pandemic to be declared over, read in the intervals, the in-between times. You had to learn how much gratitude someone might feel for the mere existence of such books: books for the bus, for the pocket, for the park bench, the night cot, the sickbed.
No crime novel existed by itself. It was a portal you entered, probably by accident, and in time you found yourself enmeshed in further networks and filaments. (“We enter this network,” writes Bordwell of hard-boiled detective fiction, “alongside an investigator with incomplete knowledge” who “inches from one thread or node to another.”) The connections ran deeper than anticipated. To be drawn in was to breach the boundaries of embedded histories—echoes of real crimes, intimations of crimes not yet committed—that would saturate your life. Its corridors and skewed sight lines would demarcate a world you inhabited; and when you glanced up from your book to survey the world beyond, it might have mutated in the meantime into another and more disturbing form of crime fiction. If the crime novel is a means of escape, it escapes finally into a place from which it is impossible to escape.
Such a book was a city held in the hand, a portable labyrinth. Every plot was also a geography, even if the action was confined to a single room or, in the end, to a single exchanged glance, as in Agatha Christie’s masterpiece Five Little Pigs (1942). The words were a diagram. To read them was to advance into different spaces, sensing a continuity of passageways from one book to another. At every turn signs could be detected, marks hovering in the air around faces, housefronts, patterns of rubble and erosion denoting a shifting border between safety and terror, free movement and confinement. It was a lot like moving through an actual city, newly conscious of such borders, recognizing their scuffed surfaces almost everywhere and finally learning to mistrust even the shiniest and most thoroughly sanitized wards.
Glimpses of space flickered in patterns that were like music. The music reverberates through Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”:
It was a labyrinth of an old house, with corridors, passages, narrow winding staircases, and little low doors, the thresholds of which were hollowed out by the generations who had crossed them…the plaster was peeling off the walls, and the damp was breaking through in green, unhealthy blotches.
Or Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep:
A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odor…the fire stairs hadn’t been swept in a month…crusts and fragments of greasy newspaper, matches, a gutted imitation-leather pocketbook.
Or David Goodis in The Moon in the Gutter:
The place had never been renovated…. All the paint and varnish had vanished long ago, but the ancient wood glimmered with a high polish from the rubbing of countless elbows…. It was the kind of room where every timepiece seemed to run slower.
Or Jim Thompson, in A Hell of a Woman, passing almost beyond the visible:
I looked around in there, and it was like I’d never seen the place before…. Everything seemed strange, twisted out of shape. I was lost in a strange world, and there was nothing familiar to hang onto.
I found those words in stained old books retrieved from thrift shops and attics. The places where they were found became part of the words, the words belonging to the world of which they were made and just as real—or more real, since they continued to exist while the world they came from had vanished in midair.
If you cared to, the trails could be followed much further back, to Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842–1843), in which “one dark, pestilential alley led to another one that was still darker and more diseased. They were connected by stairways so steep that one could barely climb them, even with the help of the ropes attached by iron clamps to the fetid walls”; to Balzac, in Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans (1838), finding in “the smallest details of Parisian life”—“the passers-by, the shops, the hackney carriages, a person standing at a window”—the same “poetry of terror” that James Fenimore Cooper had discerned in the “ominous” marks left by warring Native American tribes: “a tree trunk, a beaver’s dam, a rock, a buffalo skin, a motionless canoe, a branch drooping over the water”; or to George Lippard, in his novel The Killers (1849), finding in Philadelphia not echoes of Indian warfare but the contemporary reality of the “narrow space” where
twenty-four families managed to exist, or rather to die by a slow torture…. Whites and Blacks, old and young, rumsellers and their customers…packed together there, amid noxious smells, rags and filth, as thick and foul as insects in a decaying carcass.
The “poetry of terror” that Balzac transposes from the forests of America to the streets of Paris is echoed distantly by G.K. Chesterton, who in 1901 finds in the detective story “some sense of the poetry of modern life.” The poetry in its most obvious form is ideogramic—Sherlock Holmes in “The Musgrave Ritual” brandishing a flagrantly random bundle of clues (“a crumpled piece of paper, an old-fashioned brass key, a peg of wood with a ball of string attached to it, and three rusty old disks of metal”), or Hammett’s Continental Op registering in Red Harvest the half-light in the moments before a violent police raid in a tiny imagist sentence (“The street was the color of smoke”)—a notch, a scratch, a wedge that acquires opaque force by obtruding from a larger structure that is never seen but whose pressure is felt at every point.
What revelation does anybody seek from such a book? What by now could we possibly want to find out that we don’t already know? Crime novels neither solve nor resolve anything. They expose and then dissolve. Yet the compulsion to retrace your steps does not go away. The best are doors perpetually ajar. You go there for the music, or the architecture, or the eternal suggestiveness of shadows and alleys and empty hotel rooms. You go to eavesdrop on the pauses or maybe to have conversations with people who aren’t there anymore: the people in the book, or the people with whom you once relished long conversations about the book. If the appetite for crime is an appetite for a particular kind of form—a form that eternally promises pleasure (even if the pleasure masquerades as murder)—it feels in the end like an appetite for the absence by which form is haunted, like empty closets and cupboards through which you rummage for lost signs.
Both essays were collected in Wilson’s Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (Farrar, Straus and Company, 1950). ↩
See my review in these pages, May 24, 2018. ↩
Lehman’s exuberant collection of essays, poems, and annotated lists captures the manifold associations stirred by a lifetime’s attention to crime fiction and movies, touching on everything from wisecracks to cigarettes to musical soundtracks to Kenneth Fearing as “the patron saint of poetry noir.” ↩