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CLASSIC AMERICAN CRIME FICTION OF THE 1920S
by Leslie S. Klinger, ed. and Otto Penzler, intro.
Pegssus Crime, October 2018
1195 pages
$39.95
ISBN: 1681778617


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Leslie S. Klinger has edited the highly-regarded three-volume The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. He produced an annotated H.P. Lovecraft. He now turns his attention to American crime fiction of a single decade - the 1920s - when a distinctively American voice began to cut through the cultivated British accents that had dominated crime fiction since well before the First World War.

In a brisk but informative foreword, Klinger reminds us that crime fiction has deep roots in American culture, going back all the way to sermons preached in Colonial America, discourses warning against the fate awaiting criminals but often including entertaining details about their careers prior to their date with the hangman. But it was an American, Edgar Allan Poe, who established the mystery as a fictional genre with his Sherlock Holmes precursor, Auguste Dupin. Dupin, like many who came after him, was an intellectual sort, cleverer by far than the bumbling police, and, not incidentally, not an American. Once the actual Sherlock was on the scene, the mould was fixed and mysteries almost universally would feature the eccentric, well-off, intellectual, and male detective, regardless of whether the author was American or British, male or female.

In Klinger's account, it would not be until the 1920s that a distinctive American voice emerges in crime fiction and even then, it took a while to be heard. He begins with Earl Derr Biggers, whose Charlie Chan suggests a certain affinity to Hercule Poirot though Biggers was himself no Agatha Christie when it came to plot. Still Chan was immensely popular in his day, though certainly not the object of serious critical attention.

It would be S.S. Van Dine who achieved that respect for his detective, Philo Vance. It might have had something to do with the fact that the man responsible for seeing him into print was the best editor of the period, Maxwell Perkins, whose other authors included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. Though patterned on the upper-class British sleuths that dominated the mystery fiction scene of the time, Vance was a New Yorker through and through, if a rich and snobbish one. And his adventures sold extremely well. There were those however who couldn't abide him - Oscar Nash remarked "Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance," and Dashiell Hammett wrote scathingly of the character and his creator.

So far, the authors Klinger discusses are probably not familiar to any crime fiction reader save the most historically-minded, but the next up, Ellery Queen, is a different matter, if only because the magazine named for the author/detective is still a going concern. Despite his original upper middle-class Manhattan persona, Queen was the product of two Brooklyn-born cousins, sons of Jewish immigrants. Perhaps as a result, he was always more accessible than the irritating Philo Vance. And the novels made a direct appeal to their audience by highlighting the entertaining puzzle element in the famous "Challenge to the Reader," which stopped the narrative to encourage the reader to be at least as smart as Ellery Queen.

Although this volume is dedicated to crime fiction of the 1920s, the mould breakers with whom Klinger concludes, Dashiell Hammett and W.R. Burnett, just barely squeak into the decade as their first novels, RED HARVEST and LITTLE CAESAR, respectively, both appeared in 1929, just as the Jazz Age was about to come to a crashing halt and the aestheticism of the Philo Vance type became insupportable. Hammett of course had his roots in the nascent American noir of pulp fiction; Burnett was originally inspired by his contact with a real life gangster. Both notably did their best to use the actual language of their subjects; neither presented a glamourized version of crime in America or ignored the social context in which it flourished. Neither author based his work in New York. RED HARVEST is set in a fictionalized Butte, Montana; LITTLE CAESAR in Chicago.

I am not sure that Klinger makes the strongest possible case for a developmental link between his final two authors and the first three, but it is certainly true that the lot of them were formed and shaped by the decade in which they broke into print. Readers are certainly invited to come to their own conclusions as the full text of a novel by each of the featured authors is provided and fully (sometimes a little too fully) annotated. Whether even the youngest of potential readers needs to be informed what a "gat" was is debatable. Still the notes, conveniently arranged in the margins, are frequently both informative and entertaining and can be ignored when not required.

If you are searching for an impressive (and yet reasonably-priced) present for a crime fiction fancier, this volume certainly is worth considering. You get the full texts of Biggers' HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY, Van Dine's THE BENSON MURDER CASE, Ellery Queen's THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY, plus RED HARVEST and LITTLE CAESAR. All are amply annotated and lavishly illustrated. The only warning I have if you are planning this as a gift is to make sure your lucky recipient is in good physical shape. The size and weight of the volume is intimidating.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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