Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s
Mystery fans, if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the medium, there’s a super-sized — over 1100 pages! — volume coming out this fall you’ll want to check out.
Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s reprints four significant mystery novel launches, plus the inspiration for one of the classic gangster movies. And they’re all annotated by Leslie S. Klinger, who did The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (and is responsible for getting Holmes into the public domain).
The publisher provided a digital sneak peek that’s only the first few chapters of each novel. I dove first into The Roman Hat Mystery, the first Ellery Queen novel, since I’ve read that entire series several times.
The notes are good, explaining references that may not be as commonly known and pointing out internal contradictions. (The first Ellery Queen had a number of elements mentioned that were dropped over the years, including a wife and baby son, as well as a detective who was noticeably more scholarly than later.) I would have liked more of them, with more explanation of the various cultural changes. Inspector Queen carries and uses a snuff-box, for example; how common was that in the 1920s? What does it mean for his character?
More information on theater-going of the time would have been nice, given the theatrical setting of the murder, as would Ellery’s tendency to scribble notes in other books. Also, given the early Queen predilection for a fancy biography, there were a few more words that could have been noted, such as “brachycephalic”, or more about slang of the time, like “bluecoats”. An explanation of the fashion behind the title would have also been appreciated, since few readers today will understand the meaning of a missing top hat in a man otherwise perfectly formally attired for a night out.
Still, it was a pleasure to re-read the novel, particularly with the comments shedding new insights. It was like a book club on the page.
The 20s was the era of the classic mystery novel, with a distinctive continuing character, an eccentric cast, and the artificial construction of a puzzle to figure out. The other books included are
- House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers, featuring Charlie Chan
- The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, featuring the pedantic Philo Vance
- Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, one of the earliest hard-boiled detective books, featuring the Continental Op
- Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett, a standout for bringing naturalistic dialogue to a novel about organized crime
Klinger’s foreword is a history of crime fiction from the late 1600s to the period covered here. I found the first half unnecessary delay. It’s like having to sit through a professorial lecture before the film starts. Later, though, he includes brief backgrounds on the authors, which were appreciated, and he makes some good points about the distinctions between American and English authors.
Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s will be out at the beginning of October and can be pre-ordered now for a ton of reading to get you through the holidays.
This volume is handsome and invaluable, not only for its reprinting of five revolutionary classics of crime and detection but for the herculean amount of scholarship invested into each reprint (particularly necessary when dealing with the era’s verbose, erudite sleuths: Philo Vance and “early” Ellery Queen). Each of these novels continues to be enormously entertaining, and even the most leisurely read of The Benson Murder Case coupled with the scholarship and detailed, insightful introduction calls for a reevaluation of Philo Vance. While this is an essential book (and reference!) for the ardent mystery fan, the casual buff will find plenty that is absorbing, fascinating, and downright pleasurable