- The Simple Art of Murder Criticism
Lee Horsley's Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction begins with a characteristically trenchant epigraph from Raymond Chandler on the subject of detective genre fiction and its criticism. "The academicians have never got their dead hands on it. It is still fluid, still too various for easy classification, still putting out shoots in all directions" (1). Identifying the problems and dangers of genre criticism (and striking an uncannily poststructuralist note while doing so), Chandler frets about the procrustean effects of institutionalized criticism on a genre that he describes as a rhizomatic "putting out [of] shoots." And yet, if the academicians had failed to get their dead hands on it by the midcentury when Chandler made this observation, it was not for lack of trying. In his landmark 1946 anthology, The Art of the Mystery Story, Howard Haycraft documents how the new criticism of English departments in the interwar period had already produced a large body of critical writing on detective and mystery fiction.1 [End Page 876] Surveying this criticism at the midcentury, Haycraft observed four main categories of academic criticism: "the-viewers-with-alarm" who perceive the genre as a type of low cultural threat to the taste and morals of the nation; "the-seekers-after-truth," who are "primarily concerned with the still unanswered 'why?' of crime fiction"; "the fundamentalists" who "would restrict the form forever to the narrow confines of 'pure' detective story"; and "the non-fencers-in" whose interest in the genre is premised upon its "unlimited room" for variation and hybridity (541). Although a general move toward historicism is everywhere detectable in the scholarship of the last decades, the three new studies under review here attest to the shrewdness of Howard Haycraft's metacritical overview. His classifications remain relevant because they identify fundamental tensions and questions that must animate any criticism that takes a genuinely—perhaps, disconcertingly—popular genre literature as its object: what is genre and why is it popular?
Of these three new studies, Horsley's Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction is by design the most comprehensive, analyzing over forty-seven wide ranging Anglo-American novels and short stories. (Indeed, it is the most comprehensive study of this literature that I am aware of.) Horsley's close readings of many of these fictions are complemented by discussions of major trends in crime fiction criticism from 1920s Black Mask editor Joseph Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, and Raymond Chandler to the more properly theoretical analyses of Northrop Frye, Pierre Bayrd, and Mark Seltzer. Certainly, the scholarly project undertaken by Horsley is encyclopedic, and for that reason alone it should become a valuable resource to students of crime fiction. Despite its thoroughness as a scholarly survey, the book manages to avoid the reductive formalism about which Chandler complains in its epigraph. While Horsley utilizes some common crime subgenres, they are used as indicators of overlapping structural or thematic emphases rather than as static containers. This approach—more venn diagram than taxonomic scheme—allows Horsley to trace generally overlooked but salutary connections between, for example, the transgressor centered crime fiction of Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith, and the detective novels of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. Focusing on the developmental energies and heterogeneity of crime fiction, rather than its generic indexing, Horsley's contribution to the field falls within the category of Haycraft's "non-fencers-in." For Horsley, the awesome success of crime fiction is a product of its remarkable adaptability and seemingly endless variation in new feminist, environmentalist, gay and lesbian, black, and postcolonial iterations.
Consequently, the general narrative organizing Horsley's literary history is one of progress toward an increasingly sophisticated [End Page 877] liberal or left political critique: "Individual writers create transgressive meanings that respond to critical dissections of the ideological content of crime fiction. They may . . . . create detective figures who embody the oppositional values articulated in existing genre criticism or who challenge the assumptions about race and gender...