Tuesday, February 16, 2016

An Echo of Eliot (Not to Mention Nabokov)

Paul Grimstad's recent New Yorker essay, "What Makes Great Detective Fiction, According to T. S. Eliot" is an interesting and well-written piece, to be sure, though it tends to fall into the standard pattern of reflexively contrasting "quaint and artificial" "British murder mysteries"--"decorous country house puzzles"--with the "meaner, starker, bleaker kind of urban crime thriller" "taking shape across the ocean" from Britain in the United States.

Of course Grimstad means by the latter American hard-boiled crime fiction. T. S. Eliot's admiration for the classical, clue-puzzle detective novel (by no means always British) Grimstad suggests stems from Eliot's "sharp turn to the right politically," "his conversion to a man of royalist proclivities and religious faith."  Eliot liked classical detective fiction, in short, because it provided order in a "fractured modern world."

The view that classical detective fiction and its audience are right-wing and hard-boiled detective fiction and its audience are left-wing is a common one, though in fact one familiar with the genre can easily find examples of left-wing writers and readers of detective fiction and right-wing writers and readers of hard-boiled crime fiction.  Dashiell Hammett's left-wing sympathies are well-known, but Raymond Chandler himself is on record as criticizing Franklin Roosevelt and the Soviet Union and declaring that he would have fought for the Confederate States of America during what he termed the "War Between the States."  Some of the attitudes he evinced toward homosexuals and racial and ethnic minorities have caused even some of his fans (I like a good deal of his work myself) to squirm.

Similarly, in Britain the leftist intellectuals GDH and Margaret Cole were great fans of classical detective fiction, and began writing it themselves in the 1920s.  Indeed, one could argue, I think, that the Socialists and Communists of the 20s and 30s had quite an interest themselves in instituting order in the world, albeit an order of a different sort.

So perhaps the popular right-life binary view of "cozy" and hard-boiled crime fiction is in need of some revising, but that I will save for a later day.  I touch on some of this in an essay on Chandler called "The Amateur Detective Just Won't Do: Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction," published in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014).  I recommend it to Grimstad.

Incidentally, I wonder whether Grimstad read some of my work already?  I first wrote on Eliot and his detective fiction criticism in The Criterion, a surprisingly neglected subject (usually one just reads about his admiration for Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone), in an article in CADS in 2011, which I expanded into an essay, "Murder in The Criterion: T. S. Eliot on Detective Fiction," also published in Mysteries Unlocked.

I discussed my essay on my blog last June, including in this piece a discussion of T. S. Eliot's detective fiction rules (rules of "detective conduct"), which he set down in The Criterion in 1927.  I had earlier discussed Eliot's great interest in classical detective fiction of the Golden Age on my blog in May of that year.

I don't know whether Grimstad has read any of this work--there's certainly no mention of it in his New Yorker piece--but what was even more striking to me when I read his essay is that he opens it discussing the correspondence concerning detective fiction between Russian author Vladimir Nabokov and American author and critic Edmund Wilson, the latter notoriously a detective fiction hater.  To this subject I devoted an entire February 2015 blog piece, "The Bells and the Bees: Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov Discuss Detective Fiction."

Here's Grimstad in the New Yorker:

Yet everyone [Wilson] knew seemed to be addicted [to detective fiction].  His wife of the time, Mary McCarthy, was in the habit of of recommending her favorite detective novels to their emigre pal Vladmimir Nabokov; she lent him H. F. Heard's beekeeper whodunit "A Taste for Honey," which the Russian author enjoyed while recovering from dental surgery. (After reading Wilson's essay, Nabokov advised his friend not to dismiss the genre tout court until he'd tried some Dorothy L. Sayers.)

I discuss all these points, and more, in my blog piece.  It's the fifth most-read blog piece in my blog history, on account of the fact that Michael Dirda linked to it in a Washington Post review article he wrote on the crime writer Todd Downing and my book about Downing, Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.

On other matters, I have about completed my current book project and there will be more about this soon on the blog, as well as some other projects of late and another book review.  I hope it will be as interesting as discussions about Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot!


  1. I definitely agree that clue puzzle novels are not necessarily all about order being restored and upholding the political right. There are quite a number of books within this genre which have very unsettling and non-restorative endings such as Rutland's Blue Murder. Looking forward to reading about your various writing projects.

    1. Yup, Blue Murder definitely is unsettling! Whether Grimstad has read some posts my blog, I don't believe he's read a lot of what I've written in books, not to mention Martin's book.

      Hope to be making a post on some of the other projects later today!

  2. And once again Hammett and Chandler are credited with creating the "new kind of literary detective novel that was taking shape across the ocean." All we ever get is the same rehash from people who know little of the history of the genre and have done no real intensive reading of early crime fiction. This "meaner, starker, bleaker kind of urban crime thriller" had been around for decades displayed most prominently in the work of Frank Packard, a Canadian writer never given his due in the development of the genre, and Carroll John Daly whose work predates Hammett's in the same magazine.

    1. It does so often reduce for people to Hammett and Chandler (hard-boiled), Christie and Dot (cozy). Maybe Ngaio and a spot of Marge as well. While I'm being pettish, I might add that the author should check out the publication history of The Simple Art of Murder as well.

    2. When I read it two weeks ago he had "R.F. Heard" as the author of the "beekeeper whodunit" -- it's not, it's an inverted detective novel -- A TASTE FOR HONEY. Someone must've emailed him pointing out the error because the writer's name has been rectified to H. F. Heard. But no mention that it was corrected as the Times usually does.

    3. Agreed. Carroll John Daly invented the classic hardboiled style. Hammett was just one of a whole bunch of writers working in that style (a bunch that included Erle Stanley Gardner). And you're right about Frank Packard - an important overlooked writer.

      What's also often overlooked is that most of the hardboiled stuff simply wasn't very good. Chandler is the only one who lives up to the hype. And Chandler was fairly traditional really - puzzle plots and detection.

  3. It's worth bearing in mind that left-wing in the 1930s was a very different thing to left-wing today. Left-wing today means social justice. Left-wing in the 1930s meant class struggle and economic justice. There's virtually no overlap between the two. You could be left-wing in the 30s and be very very socially conservative.

    An Old Leftist from the interwar years would consider most modern leftists to be right-wing. Modern leftists aren't really into the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    1. Chandler was a complicated (and contradictory) person and I think it's hard to pigeonhole him as either "conservative" or "liberal" frankly. I'm uncomfortable with the whole rigid binary of hard-boiled = left, classic/cozy = right, because when you start getting beyond the same old group of authors you start finding significant exceptions to these rules. And then there's the whole question of readerships. There were a lot of liberal/left readers of classic crime fiction in that era, just as there are today.

    2. "I'm uncomfortable with the whole rigid binary of hard-boiled = left, classic/cozy = right"

      I agree wholeheartedly. I'm also uncomfortable with the equally rigid hard-boiled = left = good, classic/cozy = right = bad. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum you can be a good writer.

      The hardboiled school in general has been ludicrously overrated. On the whole I'd say that the classic/cozy school produced a much higher proportion of good writers. The later "psychological crime writing school" has also been overrated. There's a lot of snobbery among literary academics and literary academics are also often inclined to judge writers not on how good they were but on how much the academic agrees with the writer's politics.

      And the left = liberal, right = non-liberal thing was not accurate in the 30s, and it's not accurate today. A lot of liberals were right-liberals and a lot of leftists were very decidedly not liberal. Stalin was a leftist but I don't think anyone ever accused him of being a liberal!

    3. Chandler on the one hand criticized rich and vacuous American snobs and on the other unloaded on Stalin's crimes against humanity quite forcefully. He certainly wasn't someone who reflexively defended the USSR, like GDH Cole, for example. One thing I've found in my researches, writers are apt to surprise you. when you try to pigeonhole them.

      I do think Chandler tends to a pass on grounds of "political incorrectness" that get the Crime Queens damned frequently, because critics tend to hold him in higher literary esteem. Apparently it's okay if you have anti-gay or anti-minority hiccups in your writing if you couple it with digs against the corruption of the rich and police brutality!

    4. "I do think Chandler tends to a pass on grounds of "political incorrectness" that get the Crime Queens damned frequently, because critics tend to hold him in higher literary esteem."

      There are definitely different rules for "the writers we literary critics approve of" and "those horrid writers we literary critics don't approve of" and Chandler certainly falls into the first category.

      It's even more noteworthy that Hammett never gets challenged on political incorrectness- apparently being a card-carrying communist absolves you of all other sins.

  4. The problem with your argument is that most hardboiled writers were leftists or liberals, even Chandler, and most classic detective novelists were upper-class, British right-wingers. Of course there are exceptions to the rule (right-wing Mike Hammer is hardboiled) but as it stands hardboiled tended to be left-wing and manor house mysteries right-wing. Also hardboiled novels tended to be more realistic and less stupidly contrived than manor house mysteries which tended to make them actually good and manor house mysteries pretty poor.

    Chandler and Hammett are let off the hook because they were ''politically correct'' for their time, not because they were, respectfully, a liberal and a communist, with Hammett especially being anti-racist (Nick Charles is, quite noteworthy, a Greek, despite anti-Greek prejudice at the time), whereas the racist and classist attitudes of a lot of ''Golden Age'' actually were politically incorrect at the time... but they get a free pass too because such attitudes are often mistaken as common prevailing attitudes. Similarly the hideously racist 'Birth of A Nation' is often said to be ''of its time'' despite the fact that it was controversial for its racism at the time it was released.

    Also the reason that Hammett is often considered to be the true father of hardboiled is because most hardboiled works owe far more to him that Daly (Hammett was more popular with hardboiled writers themselves) and his stories have most of the tropes and themes that became standard for the genre, whereas Daly's works only had some of them. Hammett should never be considered ''Hammett was just one of a whole bunch of writers working in that style (a bunch that included Erle Stanley Gardner''. That doesn't mean that Gardner, Packard and Daly should be overlooked, however.

    1. Rather massively sweeping generalizations are being made here about Hardboiled and "classic" mystery writers, some wrong, like the idea that most of the latter were British or upper class, or even that all took place in manor houses. As far as Hardboiled writers go there were many who weren't left wing and their books display right wing tendencies. I think identifying the idiosyncratic Chandler as "liberal" is problematic, with views he expressed on race, the Civil War (or War Between the States as he called it), FDR, economic redistribution, etc.

      Really, there is a lot of new scholarship on these subjects, including mine, that I would recommend to you. A lot of us have moved a bit beyond The Simple Art of Murder.