Sunday, May 23, 2010


The marvelous Margaret Maron, for those readers who aren't already acquainted, is the author of more than twenty novels and a ton of short stories, and has accumulated a mantle filled with awards and honors for her work. (One book alone, The Bootlegger's Daughter (1992), swept the mystery prizes of its year, including Edgar, Agatha, Macavity, and Anthony Awards).

I had the chance to spend some time with Margaret a few weeks back at Malice Domestic. And today I learned that she wrote a column about me on her web page.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

In 1901, G.K. Chesterton published a series of sixteen essays under the title The Defendant. Each essay is written in "Defense of" some thing or another. Below is the fifteenth chapter for your amusement and edification:


by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a book popular. Bradshaw's Railway Guide contains few gleams of psychological comedy, yet it is not read aloud uproariously on winter evenings. If detective stories are read with more exuberance than railway guides, it is certainly because they are more artistic. Many good books have fortunately been popular; many bad books, still more fortunately, have been unpopular. A good detective story would probably be even more popular than a bad one. The trouble in this matter is that many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil. To write a story about a burglary is, in their eyes, a sort of spiritual manner of committing it. To persons of somewhat weak sensibility this is natural enough; it must be confessed that many detective stories are as full of sensational crime as one of Shakespeare's plays.

There is, however, between a good detective story and a bad detective story as much, or, rather more, difference than there is between a good epic and a bad one. Not only is a detective story a perfectly legitimate form of art, but it has certain definite and real advantages as an agent of the public weal.

The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious the detective story is certainly the 'Iliad.' No one can have failed to notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery.

This realization of the poetry of London is not a small thing. A city is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while Nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol—a message from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post-card. The narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention, the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Every brick has as human a hieroglyph as if it were a graven brick of Babylon; every slate on the roof is as educational a document as if it were a slate covered with addition and subtraction sums. Anything which tends, even under the fantastic form of the minutiae of Sherlock Holmes, to assert this romance of detail in civilization, to emphasize this unfathomably human character in flints and tiles, is a good thing. It is good that the average man should fall into the habit of looking imaginatively at ten men in the street even if it is only on the chance that the eleventh might be a notorious thief. We may dream, perhaps, that it might be possible to have another and higher romance of London, that men's souls have stranger adventures than their bodies, and that it would be harder and more exciting to hunt their virtues than to hunt their crimes. But since our great authors (with the admirable exception of Stevenson) decline to write of that thrilling mood and moment when the eyes of the great city, like the eyes of a cat, begin to flame in the dark, we must give fair credit to the popular literature which, amid a babble of pedantry and preciosity, declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace. Popular art in all ages has been interested in contemporary manners and costume; it dressed the groups around the Crucifixion in the garb of Florentine gentlefolk or Flemish burghers. In the last century it was the custom for distinguished actors to present Macbeth in a powdered wig and ruffles. How far we are ourselves in this age from such conviction of the poetry of our own life and manners may easily be conceived by anyone who chooses to imagine a picture of Alfred the Great toasting the cakes dressed in tourist's knickerbockers, or a performance of 'Hamlet' in which the Prince appeared in a frock-coat, with a crape band round his hat. But this instinct of the age to look back, like Lot's wife, could not go on for ever. A rude, popular literature of the romantic possibilities of the modern city was bound to arise. It has arisen in the popular detective stories, as rough and refreshing as the ballads of Robin Hood.

There is, however, another good work that is done by detective stories. While it is the constant tendency of the Old Adam to rebel against so universal and automatic a thing as civilization, to preach departure and rebellion, the romance of police activity keeps in some sense before the mind the fact that civilization itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions. By dealing with the unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of society, it tends to remind us that we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic world, and that the criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but the traitors within our gates. When the detective in a police romance stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists of a thieves' kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure, while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves. The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies. It reminds us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable police management by which we are ruled and protected is only a successful knight-errantry.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I just rediscovered a short piece I wrote some time ago about Jacques Futrelle. My friend Lou Boxer, organizer for Philadelphia's Noircon, posted this on the Noircon blog. I've written about Futrelle here before, so much of what you'll read will be repetition. But it's a fun piece - if I may say so myself.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Doubleday Crime Club, part 1

Beginning in 1928, the American publisher Doubleday, Doran began issuing titles under the imprint The Crime Club. These books were accompanied by a cute logo that looked, depending on how you stared at it, either like a man holding a gun, or a man falling (after having been shot?). A closer examination reveals that the logo is comprised of stylized versions of the letters C-R-I-M-E.The Doubleday Crime Club was not a book-of-the-month type of enterprise. They did offer a subscription service, and subscribers saved a little bit of money (what amounted to postage). But the books issued by the Crime Club were not inexpensive copies. In fact, they were among the finest hardcover editions of mystery and detective fiction of the time.

(In later years, the Book of the Month Club did work out an arrangement with Doubleday, so you can find Doubleday Crime Club volumes that are also what collectors call "Book Club editions." Confused yet?)

Above and to the right are several Crime Club volumes, mostly from the mid-1930s, showing some of the clever embossed spine art from that period. Even without dustjackets, these were beautiful books.

Here is a sampling of books from my shelves, all with nice dustjackets, and dating from 1928 through 1931.

As time permits, I'll be posting more trivia, artwork, and history of the Crime Club.

Meanwhile, be sure to visit my regular weekly blog-gig over at Criminal Brief. You'll find my column there every Friday.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

R.I.P. Danger Man

Just last night I was watching an episode of "Secret Agent," the early 1960s spy ITV television program ("Danger Man" in the UK) with my family. Then today I learn of the passing of Patrick McGoohan at age 80.

I first discovered McGoohan when I was a half-pint devotee of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color every Sunday night in Black and White. McGoohan appeared in two Disney films that I remember well: "The Three Lives of Thomasina" (based on Paul Gallico's novel), and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (based on the swashbuckling character of Russell Thorndike's novels).

As a teenager and college student, I rediscovered McGoohan as "Number Six" in the mind-bending science fiction spy program "The Prisoner."

Apparently AMC is putting together a miniseries remake of The Prisoner starring Jim Caviezel as Number Six and Ian McKellen as Number Two. I look forward to it, but my guess is that most of the mysteriousness of the show, as well as McGoohan's angst, will be missing.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Another Hero Gone!

I've just learned from Bill Crider's blog that the Mystery Community has lost another master. Donald Westlake, creator of the "Parker" novels as well as the "Dortmunder" comic-capers passed away on New Year's Eve.

My strongest memory of Don Westlake is from the first time I met him in person, at the Seattle Bouchercon in 1994 where he moderated a panel on Laughter. He shared the podium with Marissa Piesman, Taylor McCafferty, Parnell Hall, and a newcomer to the mystery world, S.J. Rozan, whose first novel had just come out.

Parnell had laryngitis, and to compensate he brought a cream pie (gasping that without a voice he was stuck with visual humor). He hinted that the pie was destined for Don's face. But as the suspense built, Don elbowed Parnell, and the pie wound up on Parnell's face.

I have an MP3 recording of that panel, and if I can figure out how to do it, I'll post it on this blog.

I'll also remember Donald Westlake for the stories he and Lawrence Block would tell about their apprentice years pumping out soft-core porn novels in the early sixties.

Farewell Don. You brought this reader a lot of smiles. I have a feeling you're still laughing up there somewhere.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Back from the Dead

It's been nearly a year since my last post. If anyone has been missing me here at Vorpal Blade Online, I've been posting a weekly column on Criminal Brief. Stop by every Friday and you'll find me there.

Speaking of Criminal Brief, a while back I told one of my cohorts over there, Leigh Lundin, a story of how I scared the pants off a boring tour guide when I ducked off during a tour of some burial caves in the Hebron hills in Israel. This was back in the 1980s, and I was a little less restrained than I am today. I ditched the tour and snuck ahead. I found a nice limestone sarcofagus and decided to stop for a rest. When the tourguide brought the group into that particular chamber, she stopped right in front of that sarcofagus, and leaned on it while going on ad nauseum. I added some nauseum of my own by rising up. This photo was taken at that very spot on that very day.

I had a lot more hair back then.