Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Shot Heard Round the World Wide Web: A Shot Rang Out Selected Mystery Criticism by Jon L. Breen (2008)

A Shot Rang Out, a volume of Edgar award-winning crime fiction critic and mystery writer Jon L. Breen's selected mystery criticism published by Ramble House's Surinam Turtle Press imprint, is a highly engaging and informative collection of pieces, with much of interest for fans of the mystery genre. 

As a crime fiction critic Jon Breen has the finest of lineages, having taken over the "The Jury Box" review column from the terminally ill John Dickson Carr--you may have heard of him--all the way back in January 1977 (coincidentally, in December of that same year, I read the Sherlock Holmes stories for the first time).

At about 300 pages, A Shot Rang Out offers a wide array of Breen criticism, including a good number of his Weekly Standard pieces from the last decade (of his stint at the Weekly Standard, Breen wryly notes that it's a good thing "I wasn't asked to write about politics").

There are four sections in A Shot Rang Out:

  • fifteen longer author studies
  • short takes on 100 writers (many derived from "The Jury Box")
  • eighteen topical crime fiction essays
  • two essays on true crime books
Indeed, there's so much much here naturally one can't write about all of it, but that readers are sure to find plenty of interest, I will vouch!
Jon L. Breen

One thread running through the volume is Breen's belief that the modern crime novel has a regrettable  tendency toward prolixity, a point with which I agree.  For example, in his piece praising best-selling crime writer Michael Connelly (whose work he greatly admires), Breen notes "lots of pages" as one of the main characteristics of today crime fiction:

Though the under-200-page length common twenty or more years ago remains ideal for most mystery plots, the current market demands longer books.  This goal can be achieved by greater complexity, increased detail and depth of characterization, or (all too often) pure padding.  In Connelly's books, generally just under 400 pages, no detail or action goes undescribed, but there is seldom a sense of padding.  A recent inquirer to Connelly's website would like his books stretched to Tom Clancy-like length, but Connelly declines for the right reasons.

The hugely popular Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell does not come off nearly so well on this point as does Michael Connelly:

Henning Mankell: inflated reputation?
 The fashion in crime fiction is for long books, not a bad thing if the extra pages provide more depth of character, richness of background, and complexity of plot.  Unfortunately, what usually comes instead is recapping of the same plot points over and over, irrelevant details of the protagonist's daily activities, and extra scenes and exchanges of dialogue that add nothing necessary or useful....

[The ]exchanges between Mankell's characters are bland and flavorless, for which I don't blame the translator; given the mundane content, they could hardly be any livelier in Swedish....Mankell's inflated reputation remains a mystery.

P. D. James: interesting longeurs
P. D. James comes somewhere in between these two other crime titans.  While conceding that James' 2003 novel The Murder Room is "an effective job from a writer who is always worth reading," Breen nevertheless complains that "[i]n common with most current crime novels from major is longer than it needs to be."  Still, "James is too interesting a writer for her extraneous passages to be completely without interest."  Nicely put!

This length issue comes up again in an amusing, previously unpublished Breen piece, "Fragments from a Lost Introduction."  Breen's "Recipe for a Late-'90s Mystery Series" is so apt I would love to reproduce the whole thing, but can't of course.  I will content myself with noting some of Breen's ingredients:

2 pages of acknowledgments per book to everyone the author is grateful to...(if you're really grateful, make it three pages...

5-6 or more genuine real-life mysteries the lead character must cope with over the course of several books...(1 full-scale tragedy may be substituted for a half dozen lesser misfortunes, but it must be a severe one...and it must be dwelt upon book after book).

10 to 12 full-life histories for minor characters who appear in one scene and are never seen again.

I must say that I myself have wondered about this acknowledgements business.  I'm a historian and certainly have done them in my two published books, as is the custom in the field (for good reason, when researching alone often takes years); but the multi-page acknowledgements craze in mystery fiction seems a relatively recent phenomenon. In their many, many books, how did P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, get by all those years with only an occasional dedication?  Weren't their pets put out by this ingratitude?

Chester Himes: not too literary to plot
But this just barely scratches the surface of Breen's book.  Breen writes about past mystery masters as well as modern bestsellers: Margaret Millar, Jack Finney, Nicolas Freeling, Chester Himes and Edward D. Hoch, for example.  I liked Breen's rebuke (in an otherwise quite favorable review) of James Sallis' Chester Himes: A Life (2001) for contending that Himes "largely rejected plot."  Au contraire, declares Breen: Himes"hardly rejected plot, respecting the mystery genre, observing many of its conventions, and meeting its requirements of misdirection and surprise."  Breen compares Himes' plotting in The Real Cool Killers (1959) to that of Agatha Christie

This sort of observation cannot be made enough as far as I am concerned.  Too often, in an effort to enhance the literary reputations of the higher-browed writers associated with the mystery genre, like Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, their partisans seem to seek to downplay their heroes'/heroines' devotion to puzzle plotting, evidently out of a feeling that such devotion, if acknowledged, might diminish the standing of their work as literature.

Raymond Chandler
I have written about this myself in the case of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (happily, these have proved some of my most visited pieces on the blog). It's become an urban legend that Chandler cared nothing for plots and that his books all are plotless, incomprehensible messes (albeit with wonderful writing!), which is not true at all (though please don't ask me who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep). In truth, Chandler actually could walk and chew gum at the same time, so to speak (as could Dashiell Hammett, as I try to show in my piece on his short stories).  It is possible to write well and plot well, and the latter doesn't somehow necessarily diminish the former.

Readers will find that repeated dives into Breen's "Short Takes on 100 Writers" will yield pithy pearls of wisdom plentiful enough to string a necklace.  Here are a few:

  • Bill Crider: "One of the best and most prolific novelists to emerge from mystery fandom has proven remarkably versatile."
  • Deborah Crombie: "[O]f the three prominent American women turning out British police procedurals, she is much the best."
  • Amanda Cross: "Even liberals like your reviewer may be bothered by the author's facile assumptions about the right wing."
  • Peter Dickinson: "If I were choosing the greatest crime novelist of the past thirty years, Dickinson would be on the short list."
  • Peter Robinson: "The British-born Canadian belongs in the front rank of contemporary crime novelists."
Anyone reading this section will probably find 100 mystery books they now want to read.

Of the longer essays, the following I must mention before closing:

"Ellery Queen" (2005)--Breen's explanation for the decline in popularity of this great and hugely important Golden Age writer--as I have elsewhere noted The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction does not even deign to mention Queen--is discerning, especially his point about how the misleading bifurcation of Golden Age crime fiction into two exclusive camps, an American hard-boiled school and a British "cozy" school has lamentably led to scores of writers who don't fit into their "proper" categories falling through the cracks of history.

Dorothy B. Hughes
books with no pulp
"American Women Mystery Writers" (2004)--Breen challenges the view--taken as Gospel in much feminist mystery criticism--that earlier American women mystery writers "have been ignored or marginalized by mostly masculine historians and scholars."  Counters Breen: "Time and forgetfulness are equal-opportunity erasers."  As someone who has written about "erased" male detective novelists, I would tend to agree with Breen.  I also agree with him that there are many "unjustly neglected" writers of both sexes deserving reprinting.

Incidentally, Breen has a good discussion here of Dorothy B. Hughes, about whom, he asserts, there is a modern-day misconception in academia: that she is a pulp writer.

Academics make the mistake of assuming "pulp" is "a synonym for mass-market paperback," notes Breen.  But "pulp writer simply will not do as a description of Dorothy B. Hughes," he insists:

Her first book was a volume of poetry from Yale University Press, her novels were written for the hardcover book market from the beginning, she was inspired to fiction-writing by the very un-pulpish Eric Ambler, and she received respectful reviews from distinguished publications throughout her career.

Margaret Truman
Ghostly Mysteries?
 "The Ghost and Miss Truman" (2002)--a bitingly amusing and thoroughly enlightening essay on the publishing phenomenon of ghost-written mystery novels credited to celebrities, including, for some odd reason, children of presidents (the most famous example being Margaret Truman).  Honestly, I had no idea of the extent of this practice.  Breen asks of the "ostensible celebrity novelist": "[H]ow can you stand to see your name on a book somebody else wrote?"

Answer came there none, one imagines!  But it's a very good question nevertheless.

"British Mysteries in the Twentieth Century" (2000)--An informative thirteen-page survey on the subject so dear to me own 'eart!

Among other things, the essay includes an admirable defense indeed of the great Agatha Christie:

Nothing better demonstrates the dominance of Christie than the way later writers fall over themselves asserting how unlike her they are, dutifully saluting her plot spinning while exaggerating the flatness of her characters and underestimating the subtle charm of her style.

Also I was pleased to see Breen class John Rhode (Major John Street) as one of the "major practitioners" of the Golden Age of detective fiction and to recognize the worthy contributions of such writers as J. J. Connington (Alfred Walter Stewart) and Anthony Wynne (Robert McNair Wilson)--writers who are familiar, I'm sure, to readers of this blog!

"Don't Thrill Me" (2007)--an insightful piece on mystery/crime thrillers that includes this priceless line: "In fact, Dan Brown's novel [The DaVinci Code] works best as an old-fashioned clued detective puzzle, albeit an unusually badly-written one."

Epic fail?
I also really enjoyed Breen's two bracing essays on true crime, where he reviewed, respectively, Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed (2002) and Steve Hodel's The Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder (2003).

In "Forensic Failure," Breen rips Cornwell's book for overstating a weak case: "[I]f Cornwell's case went to court, the judge would dismiss it as without merit at the end of the prosecutor's evidence, sparing the defense the need to call any witnesses."

In "Daddy Did It" Breen deems Hodel's case (against Hodel's own father!) vastly more convincing, though he faults some of its more "fanciful speculations."

Rather witheringly Breen concludes: "Perhaps the next Dahlia book should be an objective assessment of all the competing theories by someone without a dramatic new suspect to advance.  But that approach doesn't make for bestsellers."

After decades on the field, Jon L. Breen calls 'em like he sees 'em and, whether you always agree with him or not, you find what he has to say very much worth reading.


  1. Curt - This does sound like a terrific addition to your library. It definitely will be in my library at some point. I've heard of it but hadn't dipped in yet. I will now.

  2. Curt, I'm going to pull out my copy and put it at the top of my TBR mountain!

  3. As the publisher of A SHOT RANG OUT I am very pleased with the review. But as a reader of books like this, I am amazed at how well the Passing Tramp described the book and its contents. I want to read this book again because of the review.

  4. Glad everyone enjoyed the review, it's a rich book. Fender, thanks-and keep up the good work!

  5. This is another book I have in my "read soon" pile. I guess I'll have to move it to the top.