Crime in good Company: Essays on Criminals and Crime Writing (1959) ed. By Michael Gilbert

This was a CWA produced anthology and aside from three essays, all the pieces were written for this publication. One of the key things I took away from this book was how very much it is a lens into perceptions of the times and it leaves you considering how opinions may have changed and which of their fears and hopes have been realised. Gilbert starts off the collection with an introduction which expresses the contradictory approaches to crime. On the one hand writing that ‘it has in it an appealing mixture of blood and violence with high judicial drama, all combined with the compulsive attractions of readership identification.’ Whilst on the other likening it to war, with the investigation of crime containing ‘long periods of boredom interrupted by briefest moments of excitement’ and then continuing to write that ‘for in truth, crime is disease of the body politic, rooted in poverty, flourishing under neglect, never entirely curable…’ Gilbert then translates this into how writers approach the creation of their mystery novels:

‘Should the writer present the whole affair as an intellectual exercise, a game of chess between the criminal and the law? Should he concentrate on the violent aspects of crime and pursuit, aiming to excite rather than to puzzle his reader? Or should he look at the ‘why’ of a crime rather than at the ‘who’ or ‘how’ and seek, with careful scalpel, to dig down into the case-history of the criminal and his victim?’

The book is then divided into three parts. The first takes three different perspectives on real life criminals. The second looks at crime fiction as a genre of many divisions, whilst the final section concentrates on the different mediums crime novels or stories can be adapted or written for.

Part 1 – The Object of the Operation

The Criminal Seen by the Doctor: The Psycho-pathology of Crime by Josephine Bell

Part 1 is definitely the section in which the reader will encounter perhaps difficult attitudes of the time, which may seem too hard line and the terminology for describing biological causes of crime may not be considered appropriate nowadays. Bell provides a very brief survey of these medically identified roots to crime, including diseases of the brain, alcohol, drug addiction and even diabetes. Within this medical slant, Bell is also keen to point out the unsettled nature of children who grew up during and just after WW2, linking it with the increase in juvenile crime. Furthermore, she stresses her disagreement with the notion that humans have ‘no responsibility whatever for criminal action.’ Her approach to criminal behaviour culminates in her final paragraph:

‘There is nothing fair about the natural condition. It is not a welfare state. It is a free for all, with no holds barred. It does not appear from external evidence that the world was made for man, far less the universe. He must fight to survive, and if he sometimes uses his fighting powers wrongly, against laws he knows and understands, we need not, and should not, on that account alone, call him diseased; he is criminal.’

The Criminal Seen by the Lawyer by Michael Underwood

Underwood’s chapter was of the most interest to me out of the opening trio, as his discussion of how the legal system works is often interlinked with vintage crime novels. He even pulls Dorothy L. Sayers up for her novel Clouds of Witness, in which she has the police obtaining information for the defence.

The Criminal Seen by the Policeman by Maurice Proctor

In fairness I have not read any of Proctor’s novels but he does come across a little like a more literary Gene Hunt:

‘police are not usually intellectuals. They have a simple belief that punishment should fit the crime. They think that violence can be checked by lawful counter-violence. They believe that prison life should not be pleasant. They don’t believe that they can reform criminals by talking to them. Policemen don’t hate these people. They merely want to put them in their place, which is in prison or on the scaffold.’

As you can see he is not one for mincing his words and happily recalls how confessions are tricked out of criminals. The rougher side of policing certainly comes out too. One of the interesting aspects of this collection of essays is the diverse and contrasting nature of the views contained, something which becomes even more visible in part 2…

Part 2 – The General Practitioners

The Classic Form by Cyril Hare

Fans of golden age detective fiction will find a lot to mull over in this essay which seeks ‘to examine the technical structure of modern detective novels from the point of view of the writer…’ Hare has a very concise view of the point of such stories and that is ‘enjoyment,’ such works are not to be regarded as ‘literature with a capital L.’ Entertainment is their only function; a point Hare underlines with an anecdote concerning Dr Johnson:

‘Dr Johnson said of a famous novel of his day, “If you read it for the story, you would hang yourself.” If you read a detective novel for anything but the story, you would certainly be in a fairly suicidal mood by the time you reached the last chapter.’

I am not sure I entirely agree with this sentiment as his reasoning does not hold water when you consider the number of people who re-read detective novels, sometimes several times over their life. Unless they have poor memories and have forgotten whodunnit, then there needs to be more to the books than their plots.

I also feel vintage crime fans will disagree to a degree over another of Hare’s ideas:

‘I am sure that it is true to say that of all the detective stories you have ever read, the detectives are pretty well the only characters that remain in your memories.  I question whether you can remember so much as the names of the villains or the principal suspects in any of them.’

I on the other hand am pretty confident that there are quite a lot of readers who could prove Hare wrong. However, this point of view of his is part and parcel of his belief in the limited characterisation within detective stories. To Hare characters cannot be fully drawn, as in order to maintain the mystery, there needs to be an element of concealment. As for the victim, Hare suggests that too much fleshing out of the victim detracts attention needed elsewhere and makes the suspect characters seem more two-dimensional: ‘when the real man was dead, one could have no patience with the puppets that survived.’ Again I feel I this is an idea which can be challenged and rebutted.

Throughout the chapter Hare considers the various elements of constructing a detective story and often offers the pros and cons of choosing one method over another, such as whether to have a police or amateur sleuth and when to have the murder take place.

The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler

Whilst it was almost surprising to have so much to quibble with in Hare’s chapter, a chapter written by a proponent of the traditional detective story, it is much less startling to find a hundred and one things to disagree with in Chandler’s infamous piece. Hard to know where to start really. There’s his, I believe, erroneous assertion that:

‘The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway.’

Given the high number of blogs, academic papers and discussion forums which are devoted to exploring the ins and outs of such books, I don’t think it is too hard to pick holes in this idea. Yet it is interesting to think how influential this essay has been and the way his ideas have often been adopted with little thought as to their accuracy.

There is also of course Chandler’s gendered opposing categories of British and American detective fiction. The former is implied and then out right demarcated as sissy and weak, whilst the USA’s brand of crime is portrayed as masculine and full of “real” men. We get this idea first when he writes about A. A. Milne’s amateur sleuth Anthony Gillingham: ‘the English police seem to endure him with their customary stoicism; but I shudder to think of what the boys down at the Homicide Bureau in my city could do to him.’ Finally, when Chandler takes critics of Dashiell Hammett to task, he maturely writes of such people as ‘the flustered old ladies – of both sexes (or no sex).’

His opinions of other writers generally are not particularly high, though poor old Dorothy L. Sayers probably takes the biggest kick, writing that she uses an ‘arid formula,’ which even she is not supposed to be satisfied with. Overall British writers are lumbered with the backhanded compliment that: ‘the English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.’ In a way I think Chandler just has a very narrow view of what makes good detective/crime fiction and is myopic when it comes to the lack of realism in his own work and the work he approves of. Though I was surprised that there were two books which we both enjoyed: Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve and Donald Henderson’s Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper.

For a very entertaining and full length take on this essay I recommend reading Brad’s recent post on it.

The Moment of Violence by Michael Gilbert

This essay was actually the reason I first heard about this book as it was mentioned by Martin Edwards in the recent British Library Michael Gilbert reprints. I haven’t mentioned so far, but each essay is begun with a biographical note and I must say Gilbert’s is the most amusing, taken from an interview he did with John Dickson Carr. A particularly funny moment is when Gilbert says, ‘I maintain or have maintained so far a steady balance of production both in books and children… one child to two books… I have maintained this rate of production so far and I mean to go on doing it until my powers fail in one direction or the other.’ Carr is somewhat anxious on this point given how many books he himself had written, but at the point of writing it was said that, ‘up to date figures are ten books and six children, which would seem to give Mrs Gilbert a clear two points lead.’

Gilbert’s chapter is focused on the thriller; first in defining it in comparison to the detective story and adventure story, before exploring why it is so hard to write a really good thriller and what a writer must do in order to accomplish this. One point which struck me as interesting was Gilbert’s assertion that thrillers actually involve much less physical violence than you think, a point he elaborates on using Chandler’s The Lady in Lake. The reasons for this are equally looked into, such as when Gilbert writes that: ‘For the first time the thriller writer views the prospect ahead of him and realises the truth. He has a hero. He has a villain. But they cannot fight continuously for sixteen chapters. Something has got to be done about the bits in between.’ He also cautions against setting violence levels too high early on: ‘How is he to produce, or to suggest, an adequacy of villainy. Unless the powers of darkness start moderately level with the children of light Armageddon is going to be a tame affair.’

Gilbert has a wonderfully entertaining style of writing and explaining things and this bit certainly made me chuckle:

‘You will notice, incidentally, that I have already used the word “thriller” a number times, without troubling to define it. This is quite an acceptable practice, even in the highest legal circles. A Judge remarked, in the course of a recent Judgement, that whilst he would hesitate to define a sausage, he was confident that he would always recognise one when he met it.’

The Crime Novel: The Face in the Mirror by Julian Symons

Symons’ chapter is concerned with crime fiction which doesn’t fit the pigeon holes marked out by genre rules. In particular he explores the prerequisites of such works, honing in on their accurate portrayal of relations between human beings.  Meyer Levin, John Franklin Bardin, Margaret Millar and Francis Iles are exemplar authors he brings into the discussion, before describing how the crime novel moves beyond ‘puzzles pure and complex’ and notions of mystery stories as ‘parlour game[s].’ He concludes his essay looking at what the very best crime novels can achieve, which seems to be along the lines of them unnerving us with the potential for crime within ourselves, though only for a moment.

Detection in Extremis by Jacques Barzun

I’ve been aware of Barzun’s status as a critic for quite some time, but this is the first time I have read a whole piece by him. Unlike Symon’s who approves of the changes happening in crime fiction in the 1950s, Barzun is very much bewailing it, blaming it on the readers:

‘I am certain that detective stories have little or no effect on their readers. Rather, it is the readers who in the last fifteen or twenty years have had a corrupting effect on detective stories and have spoiled a respectable form of literature.’

He also in an entertaining fashion takes critics to task for praising a book for being ‘a real novel.’ For Barzun at any rate detective fiction is to be independent and distinct from other story types, especially melodrama. The notion of stories using a form of genre fusion does not appeal to him, likening it to wanting ‘lullabies that teach multiplication table and candies that are laxative.’ He goes onto tackle the increasing presence of psychology in detective stories, something ‘the older genre was created to avoid’ apparently. Physical clues are much more his cup of tea. Novels labelled as ‘novels of suspense,’ also receive a touch from Barzun’s caustic wit, annoyed that such labels suggest that ‘suspense w[as] not an ingredient in every good work.’ Instead he feels ‘the label conceals the absence of mystery, detection, and general plausibility’ in such books.

One of the reasons I loved reading this essay was just how funny Barzun is when he gets a bee in his bonnet, such as when he talks about Mary Kelly’s Dead Man’s Riddle, which is:

‘a story laid in a Scottish university; the problem: murder and forgery. Excellent, but why in the name of literature must I be fobbed off with long discussions of the detective personal problems? Am I a couch? It seems the detective married a singer, whose career naturally interferes with his detection. But it oughtn’t to interfere with mine. It is nothing to me that she leaves him alone too much: she doesn’t leave me alone enough.’

I can only begin to imagine what he would make of crime fiction these days…

Part 3 – The Specialists

The Crime Short Story: An English View by L. A. G. Strong

Strong ‘look[s] at the crime short story,’ exploring ‘whether it has special qualities of its own which entitle it to be considered as an independent art form.’ He often compares it to the construction of straight short stories and in particular comments on two stories by Chekov, as well as on Carr’s ‘The Gentleman from Paris.’

The Crime Short Story: An American View by Stanley Ellin

In contrast Ellin’s piece talks about the growing anxiety over the disappearing of short story markets, exploring especially the factors which led to this. I found this aspect very interesting as he traces its roots to the end of the 19th century and changes in writing styles there, which according to him allowed more bad writing into the crime short story market. The rise of the paperback also had an influencing factor on the situation and TV is mentioned as a new threat. Part of his advice for this predicament is that, ‘the editor must be willing to publish the new, the unusual, the unorthodox story with which television cannot possibly compete, and the writer must try to supply that story.’ It is interesting to consider how the short story has hung on in there over the years. It may not have made a full recovery, but it certainly isn’t dead, and it is pleasing that the British Library have found a lot of popularity for their short story collections. Maybe in an age where attention spans are meant to be so short, the short story may make its’ comeback yet?

Crime on Stage: The Criminological Illusion by Roy Vickers

Vickers’ take on this is to explore how real-life crime makes its way into stage productions. In some ways he says it is much more problematical to adapt true crime into a play, using several examples such as Frank Vosper’s People Like Us, which was based on the Thompson/Bywaters case. Moreover, when it comes to the case of Crippen, he writes that: ‘it may be true that this case contains the potentiality of a memorable play. Assuredly it contains also a will-o’-the-wisp to lure authors into a bog of banality’ and he goes on further to write that ‘the truth is that nothing can be gained by dramatizing real crimes and their perpetrators. As a document the play will be valueless and unnecessary. A good author will cheerfully distort fact to fit character, while the character, as indicated, can rarely have much in common with the original.’ Not having any experience of play writing or the staging of them, I would be keen to hear more experienced views on Vickers’ ideas.

The Novelist and Films by Eric Ambler

Ambler tackles the negative stereotypes of novelists adapting their novels for films, not by dismantling them, but by justifying such a writer’s woes. He defends the compromises producers make and reminds us of the money to be gained instead. He entertainingly delivers all of this through a hypothetical writer going through the process and the dialogue they face with different team members.

Crime on the Radio: Basic Demands by Mary Fitt

Fitt seems to have had a lot of experience in this particular field and her essay looks at the practicalities of producing a play either writing it specifically for the occasion or adapting a pre-existing story. It is a challenging activity but one she argues is ‘immensely interesting’ for the writer and their creativity. My only quibble with this essay is the randomly abrupt ending, though maybe that is just my perception of it.

Is Television Necessary? By David Alexander

Alexander has a very mercenary approach to TV and the adaption of novels for it, writing that ‘if television is art, it’s art for money’s sake.’ He explores the decline in quality of TV drama productions, assigning the move to Hollywood as part of this, but is not too upset by it all, because of, you guessed it, the money. He comments on a number of different TV shows that had been running including Dragnet, M Squad, Mike Hammer and Perry Mason, commenting on the last one that ‘to date each show has been an adaptation of a Gardner novel. But since TV is a great maw that eats up material faster than the most voracious carnivore, it is evident that even the prolific Gardner cannot supply enough novels for the TV demand once his backlog is exhausted.’ In some ways I think it would be interesting to write a spoof updated version of this piece, perhaps revealing the similarities which still exist in TV dramas today, which are adaptations.

Overall, I found this to be an engaging and thought-provoking collection, which offers a wide range of perspectives on crime fiction and from many different angles. Although it can be read as a whole item, you can also easily dip into when you want to and read out of order. There aren’t many second-hand copies online when I last looked, but there are a number of reasonably priced one, so definitely recommend picking up a copy.

Rating: 4.25/5

10 comments

  1. Thanks for the mention, Kate! I think I’m backing off from these literary disquisitions on the genre for a while. Just bought Laura Thompson’s biography of Christie. That shouldn’t get me into too much trouble, should it??

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha no of course not!
      I only have one more review in the offing which is of the ‘literary disquisition’ persuasion, but then I’ll be back to novels, so you won’t have to stay away from the blog too long!

      Like

  2. Excellent review. Will have to get hold of a copy as you made the book very enticing, even if I’m sure I’ll disagree with almost everyone there! 🙂

    I’m most puzzled by Hare’s views on the “classic form” as his own books contradict them – they certainly display a higher ambition than just being entertaining and while maybe not being “Literature with a capital L” they are certainly better written and psychologically more acute than your average whodunit. Also, the characters are far from being forgettable. It’s a constant feature of crime writers pondering over their job that they never or rarely apply their own rules but it never ceases to amaze me.

    I agree that modern crime fiction would make Barzun raving mad and while he was way too conservative for my taste he certainly had many points and perhaps was the one who predicted the further development of the genre most accurately – also I agree with him that calling a good mystery a “real novel” (a jab at his bane Anthony Boucher?) is particularly annoying and ultimately snobbish. There are no “real” or “fake” novels, but just either good or bad ones, period.

    Liked by 2 people

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