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  • Colloquium on Crime: Eleven Renowned Mystery Writers Discuss Their Work
  • Peter Wolfe
Robin W. Winks, ed. Colloquium on Crime: Eleven Renowned Mystery Writers Discuss Their Work. New York: Scribner's, 1986. 216 pp. $15.95.

The eleven contributors to Colloquium on Crime confirm the range, variety, and richness of possibility inhering in mystery fiction. Rex Burns writes police procedurals; Dorothy Salisbury Davis yokes crime to religion; Robert B. Parker carries forward the American hard-boiled tradition; many of the cozy whodunits of Reginald Hill unfold in Yorkshire and favor team detection. But regardless of approach, setting, or dramatic focus, all of Robin Winks's contributors believe in what they do. Glad for the chance to discuss their work, they may develop ideas about storytelling that have influenced their whole careers. Sometimes, they'll discuss a fresh find. One of the great merits of the book is its ability to surprise. There's no telling the direction an essay will take. The only invariable consists of the writers' willingness to talk candidly and cogently about a subject that matters to them.

Other similarities crop up on the way. All of the writers agree that crime dominates our violent century and that we react to it from deep sources. Whereas the writers also agree that literary detection can improve our self-knowledge, they warn against using the form to peddle messages and ideologies. A shared admiration for stylistic precision and economy leads several of them to praise the mastery of Simenon. Another writer often acclaimed for the concise elegance of his prose, Dashiell Hammett, fares less well. Parker disparages his deadpan prose as "a loss" because it leads to a flattening and a foreshortening. Robert Barnard calls The Glass Key "one of the dullest and deadliest books I have ever . . . struggled to the end of, and the symbol of the Maltese falcon among the most contrived and unconvincing in literature."

Such remarks usually tie in with the contributors' own fictional practice. Burns talks about keeping a character consistent without letting him/her become static. K. C. Constantine reminds us of the importance of relating the way people look to how they act: "Somebody said," he recalls, "that the world is not the same place for a short man as it is for a tall one." Tony Hillerman tells how the improvised and the preplanned join hands in Listening Woman. Discussing the tricky interplay of impulse and design, Hillerman explains how the flow of a book-in-progress once forced him to change the identity of his murderer.

Literary technique occupies Michael Gilbert in a different way. Having written both thrillers and crime puzzles, he puts forth aesthetics for both genres. This [End Page 707] undertaking is commendable. And Gilbert does furnish sharp insights into matters of plotting, characterization, and the management of physical details. But his thriller-crime puzzle dichotomy needs rethinking. Chandler's The Big Sleep doesn't fit into the thriller category Gilbert assigns it to. He also goes wrong when he says that literary detection must avoid the explicit and the true-to-life. The grip of The Day of the Jackal (which he mentions) comes from its uncanny fusion of fiction and fact. We watch in fascination as Jackal prowls streets, passes notable landmarks, and visits shops and restaurants that existed in Paris during de Gaulle's presidency. As Burns reminds us, "the writer leads and the critic follows." The murder story has too much potential edge and leap to submit to Gilbert's formula, as intriguing as the formula is.

But how to assess this vitality? In 1950, Chandler indicted the murder mystery for being overworked but underdeveloped. He might grumble less today. Joseph Hansen's having addressed problems like senile dementia, runaway teenagers, and the careless disposal of toxic wastes describes serious attempts to tell an exciting tale while also confronting serious social and moral issues. Hansen ends his eloquent, impassioned essay by saying, "The form has tremendous potential to widen and deepen our understanding of ourselves and our time, if only we take it seriously." Colloquium on Crime deserves to be read because it fosters the honesty, the inquiry, and the self-awareness...


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pp. 707-708
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