Friday, August 15, 2014

The Missing Queen and Other Mysteries of Genre History: The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction (2010)

The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction is a book of fewer than 200 pages with fourteen essays, including an four-page introduction by editor Catherine Ross Nickerson.  The other essays, all ranging from 8 to 15 pages, that follow Nickerson's introduction are:

Early American Crime Writing 
Poe and the Origins of Detective Fiction
Women Writers before 1960
The Hard-Boiled Novel
American Roman Noir
Teenage Detectives and Teenage Delinquents
American Spy Fiction
The Police Procedural on Literature and on Television
Mafia Stories and the American Gangster
True Crime
Race and American Crime Fiction
Feminist Crime Fiction
Crime in Postmodernist Fiction

There is lots here about hard-boiled, noir, police procedural, gender and race, as one would expected from a modern academic survey of American crime fiction.

In the "American Crime Fiction Chronology" given at the beginning of the book, fifteen works, chosen to reflect the content of the essays, are listed as milestones for the period 1841 to 1939:

1841 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
1866 Metta Fuller Victor, The Dead Letter

1878 Anna Katharine Greene, The Leavenworth Case
1908 Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase
1923 Carroll John Daly, "Three Gun Terry"
1925 Earl Derr Biggers, The House without a Key
1927 S. S. Van Dine, The Benson Murder Case (actually 1926)
1927 Franklin Dixon, The Tower Treasure
1929 Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
1929 Mignon Eberhart, The Patient in Room 18
1930 Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Old Clock
1934 James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
1934 Leslie Ford, The Strangled Witness
1938 Mabel Seeley, The Listening House
1939 Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

A clear pattern can be discerned in this material:

The Distant Founder: Poe
The Women: Victor, Green, Rinehart, Eberhart, Ford, Seeley
The Tough Guys: Daly, Hammett, Cain, Chandler
The Brains: Biggers, Van Dine
The Juveniles: Dixon, Keene

Going strictly by this outline one would conclude that American men after Poe gave little to the detective fiction genre, outside of hard-boiled and juvenile mystery. The only male authors of classical detective fiction listed for the near century between the appearances of "Rue Morgue" and The Big Sleep are the creators of Philo Vance and Charlie Chan.

When we look at the actual text of the essays themselves, even Van Dine and Biggers don't come out so well.

On page 1, Van Dine's rules for writing detective fiction are mentioned, dismissively.

On page 29 he is again dismissed, as an imitator of Agatha Christie.

On page 43 he is called an imitator of Arthur Conan Doyle and used as the usual hard-boiled punching bag for not writing about "reality" (though interestingly he is deemed "the era's most popular writer").

On page 136 it is claimed that his novel The Benson Murder Case is "widely acknowledged as the first American clue-puzzle mystery."

Earl Derr Biggers gets one lone mention, on account of having created an ethnic detective (see "Race and American Crime Fiction").

Rex Stout
Of course at least Van Dine and Biggers are mentioned.  The hugely popular and admired Rex Stout is another such fortunate fellow.

Though he missed out on the list of milestones, Stout nevertheless is mentioned in the text.

On page 47 he is noted for having cleverly merged hard-boiled and classical styles for commercial purposes.

On page 136 he is criticized, along with Van Dine, for having ignored race and gestured "more toward Europe than toward actual American cities," by writing about rich white bankers, stockbrokers and attorneys ("Race and American Crime Fiction").

Jacques Futrelle gets one mention, on page 29, as a "famous but ultimately minor" mystery writer (how the determination was reached that he was "ultimately minor" is not explained).

On the other hand, if you are looking for anything on Melville Davisson Post, Arthur B. Reeve, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr--was he counted as British?--or Ellery Queen, you will search in vain (wait, Gardner is listed as the author of an article).

Meanwhile, Anna Katharine Green gets two pages, Mary Roberts Rinehart three and Mignon Eberhart, Leslie Ford and Mabel Seeley together as a trio another two (even Carolyn Wells gets a line).

The editor of the Companion, the aforementioned Catherine Ross Nickerson, is the author of The Web of Iniquity, an interesting book that is about--you may not be surprised to learn this--Metta Fuller Victor, Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart.  She also authored the Companion essay "Women Writers before 1960."

In her introduction to the Companion she writes:

It is only fairly recently that the multiple genres of crime writing have been taken up as subjects of academic study; before that, they were entirely in the hands of connoisseurs and collectors, with their endless taxonomies, lists and value judgments.  What Chandler opened up was a new way of looking at crime narratives, or rather looking through them, as lenses on the culture and history of the United States.

All well and good--though Nickerson sure seemed to be making a "value judgment" about Futrelle--and anyone familiar (alas! too few!) with my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, Clues and Corpses or various blog articles knows that I too am very interested in mining detective fiction for what it may tell us about cultural history.  But it seems to me that the book Nickerson edited too often looks not through American crime fiction, but past it--past it, that is, when the crime fiction does not fit preconceived and circular notions of what American crime fiction is.

According to Nickerson there were two indigenous creative strains in American mystery: the female domestic novel/female Gothic (the English Bronte sisters and Mary Elizabeth Braddon are admitted as influences here, but not Wilkie Collins or Sheridan Le Fanu) and the male hard-boiled/noir.

It seems that what we think of as the "classical" Golden Age detective novel was about as American as spotted dick. Nickerson writes dismissively of Golden Age detective novels with their "puzzles and country houses full of amusing guests," declaring that they were "presided over by Agatha Christie and imitated by Americans like S. S. Van Dine."

just in case you were wondering....

So, if you were an American man writing mysteries with puzzles and upper middle-class class/wealthy milieus, you were part of a British country house mystery tradition and thus not worthy of inclusion in a historical survey of American mystery fiction; but if you were an American woman writing mysteries with puzzles and upper middle-class/wealthy milieus, you were part of the American female domestic novel/female Gothic tradition--even though some of this tradition was British and male--and you make it into the survey.

So the result is Leslie Ford, for example, but no Ellery Queen.  Ellery Queen is the American detective story, Anthony Boucher once wrote--but then I suppose Boucher was just one of those mere connoisseurs and collectors.  What did he know?

Note: This piece is a revision of an article originally written for Steve Lewis' Mystery*File. Looking back at it now, I see that I should have noted that the Companion overlooks Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Craig Rice, Elizabeth Daly, Helen McCloy, Helen Reilly, Cornell Woolrich and most mid-century American women suspense writers as well. I have a feeling that the latter omission won't be happening again in any future edition of the Companion (these women suspense writers are coming soon to the Library of America).

For more of my genre literature encounters with Catherine Ross Nickerson, connoisseurs and collectors, see my Mabel Seeley's Murders in MinnesotaPart One and Part Two.

Also you can use the search box to check out the numerous past posts I have made on Leslie Ford, Mignon Eberhart, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Carolyn Wells, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Craig Rice, Elizabeth Daly, Helen McCloy, Helen Reilly and, yes, even Ellery Queen.  Check out the posts on Rufus King, Patrick Quentin, Cornell Woolrich, Hugh Austin, George Bellairs and Todd Downing too.  Those guys were no slouches either.


  1. Thanks for the review Curt - this sound alike the kind of thing that I would just end up disagreeing with the whole time - and the author is flat out wrong about Stout as race is definitely a factor in RIGHT TO DIE and the depiction of the FBI in DOORBELL RANG could hardly be MORE American - pfui, say I ...

  2. There certainly were some big gaps in this book. Was there any Highsmith or DB Hughes or Millar?

    1. Highsmith and Hughes are mentioned, but not Millar, Armstrong, Davis.

  3. Excellent analysis, Curt. When the facts decidedly don't fit the theory, what you have is some academic's fantasyland -- and the trouble is, those misperceptions tend to concatenate as the lazy academics drink each other's bathwater.

    1. Yes, they all tend to drink from the same well of theory, which is why you get books like this, which actually would have greatly benefited from things the "connoisseurs and collectors" could have told them.

  4. Better a connoisseur than a dilettante. HA!

    "...but if you were an American woman writing mysteries with puzzles and upper middle-class/wealthy milieus, you were part of the American female domestic novel/female Gothic tradition."

    So where are Isabel Ostrander, Helen McCloy and Helen Reilly? All of whom wrote exactly that kind of book mentioned above.

    Ostrander is long overdue for attention for her pioneering work in detective fiction. She is overlooked because she is primarily thought of as a pulp writer, commercial fiction not "literature." Yet she was one of the most popular writers in the Munsey magazines during her short lifetime. At least four of her novels, all published before 1920 I might add) I consider landmark in the genre. Even Dorothy L. Sayers admits that ASHES TO ASHES was a notable work in concept if weak in execution. Agatha Christie borrowed from Ostrander repeatedly and built upon clever plot mechanics invented by Ostrander but made more ingenious in the hands of Christie.

    McCloy is deserving for attention for her innovative use of "the psychological clue" in solving the crimes in a detective novel. I'm beginning to see her as the Anthony Berkeley of the USA.

    Helen Reilly practically invented the police procedural but no one ever writes about her contributions to the genre. Instead it's the pedestrian mystery novels of Elizabeth Linington as "Dell Shannon" that get all the attention as landmark. Reilly did it forty years earlier and did it better.

    So three very good women writers all of whom are repeatedly overlooked by one of the leading "feminist" crime fiction revisionists. And all of them miles above Zenith (Leslie Ford ) Brown in terms of storytelling if not the writing itself. It’s the first I’ve seen a Leslie Ford novel turning up as a cornerstone in the genre. THE HAMEMRSMITH MURDERS which she wrote as “David Frome” appears on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list, but I never see her turn up on any other “Best of” list I’ve ever encountered.

    Do you ever hear from Nickerson? Has she ever read these posts that continually point out how specious her research, how unsubstantiated her claims, and how innately prejudicial her work is? I'm surprised you don't have a contract out on your life! ;^)

    1. John, Howard Haycraft, who often seems like Professor Nickerson's bete noire, once referred to Jacques Barzun as a "very dilly tante." Funny, but Barzun was much better read in the genre than most people. The term could be justly applied to a number of academics writing about the mystery today, however.

      The book does mention Isabel Ostrander, but not McCloy, Reilly, Elizabeth Daly (I added those to my list above). One could go on and on with the omissions, but I guess what troubled me most when I originally did the piece was how Nickerson wanted to rule the American "clue puzzle" mystery out of serious consideration--unless it was written by a woman and then it was a neo-Gothic and somehow "real" American. It simply flabbergasted me that someone could contemplate such a book not even mentioning Ellery Queen, when he was such an important figure in the genre.

      No, I've never heard from Professor Nickerson, but she won the George N. Dove Award, along with PD James, in 2011 from the Popular Culture Association for her "serious study of mystery and crime fiction." This book was listed as one of the reasons. To be fair, her earlier book The Web of Iniquity is a solid piece of research and it helped put Anna Katharine Green back on the map in a bigger way, but it makes the same unfortunate dismissal of classic detective novels.

  5. I remember years ago talking with a friend who was about to teach a university-level class in, essentially, feminist mysteries. (Actually Nora Kelly, a talented mystery writer in her own right.) I offered her Rex Stout's "The Hand in the Glove", featuring female PI Dol Bonner, for her timeline, and gave her an idea of what was going on in the book. She said, "Oh, how interesting! But ... it doesn't FIT." To her credit, I think she revised her theories to fit the material, but so few academics will do that -- especially if there's little chance of being contradicted by someone more knowledgeable.

  6. I try not to be prejudiced about mystery reference books. I can usually find something interesting in each one. But, meager references to Rex Stout would be very irritating for me. The same for overlooking Elizabeth Daly and Helen Reilly.

    1. Tracy, it's true that one can play the "spot what they missed" game with any of these books, but it's the broader theoretical approach taken in this one that bothers me, the way the classical detective novel is read out of American history (except for Van Dine, who comes off as some sort of freak).

  7. Thanks for an excellent dissection. I get fed up over the fact that there's a whole industry of "academic" publishing charging very high prices for supposedly scholarly studies that are completely inadequate, especially when compared to supposedly hoi polloi studies of the same material. Even worse, the academics who contribute to such volumes get paid "honoraria" or, most often, nothing at all. That CUP should stoop to this level is sad indeed: the decline of a once-respected scholarly publishing house.

  8. Companions aren't real books. Their only purpose is to syphon money out of academic library budgets into publishers' bank accounts. If they contain anything worthwhile, it's purely coincidence.

    1. Nigel, in this case the scheme worked at nearly 400 libraries!

    2. Yes, but there was a time when the Cambridge Companion to Whatever actually meant something, just like the Oxford Companion to Whatever did. I have some excellent Cambridge Companions on my shelves -- just look at the Cambridge Companion to English Literature or the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. It seems to be that CUP has junked the idea of producing definitive reference works in favour of issuing crappo volumes whose sole aim is to milk library budgets.

      Is what I say.

  9. Those last three chapter headings would be enough to turn me off. You just know you're about to be lectured to when you encounter chapter headings like that.

    I bought the Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction a few years back so I'm not likely ever to waste my money on any further Cambridge Companions.

  10. Whoever made the observation about Rex Stout and race is just flat WRONG. "Too Many Cooks" explores that theme in a quite liberal way - I would say surprisingly liberal except that there is nothing surprising about it. Stout was a notable liberal who told off HUAC.

    It's not that race, gender, and class issues are not interesting; they are. But they are not ALL that is interesting, and academic books that thump them in a tiresomely predictable fashion are dated upon arrival.

  11. Hmmm, seems like one I wouldn't mind perusing a bit, but ultimately wouldn't buy. Thanks for the details.