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Extract from 100 American Crime Writers

October 2, 2012

Below is an extract from the introduction of 100 American Crime Writers which describes the emergence and development  of crime fiction in American literature. You can download the entire introduction on Palgrave’s website, or you can buy the book on amazon.co.uk or amazon.com.

Any attempt to trace the genesis of American crime fiction is hampered by the need or desire to locate a source and date, which is inevitably open to revision and dispute. The oldest author to appear in this volume is Edgar Allan Poe (b.1809) whose “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) is widely credited as the first detective story. Poe’s ‘tales of ratiocination’ featuring C. Auguste Dupin were  a significant influence on the Golden Age of detective fiction, and his influence can still be seen in the work of contemporary crime writers. Although Poe and his successors laid much of the foundations of the crime fiction genre that a modern-day reader would identify, American crime fiction, however, can be said to have pre-dated Poe. Sara Crosby argues that some of the earliest American crime writing is to be found in the popular execution sermons of seventeenth- century New England which were written to pass judgment on condemned men. The decline in church influence and advances in publishing caused these ‘sermons’ to evolve into different forms, and Crosby identifies ‘crime writers’ amongst the first generation of American novelists, including William Hill Brown, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster and Charles Brockden Brown, all of whom were particularly fascinated with the subject of crime and the criminal (Crosby 2010).

To understand the historical developments and trends in American crime fiction, it is necessary to examine similar trends in British crime fiction in regards to late nineteenth and early twentieth century writing. This was a period when trends in British and American crime writing often paralleled but sometimes moved in opposition to one another. Julian Symons argued that there were essentially two Golden Ages in the crime fiction field: the Golden Age of the Short Story and the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Even within these two ages, opposition to the dominant trend was emerging in the form of a more realist style (Symons 1972). During the Golden Age of the Short Story, which was exemplified by the works of Poe in America and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in Britain, the Dime Novels, including the long-running Nick Carter series beginning in 1891, were also flourishing. The successor to the first Golden Age, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, is generally regarded as the period between the two World Wars, and is often identified as an idiosyncratically British form, if only because the settings of country houses and rigid class structures did not apply so easily to American society. However, Americans also succeed in this form, and among the American Golden Age writers, John Dickson Carr and Jacques Futrelle achieved popularity on both continents. Just as the Dime Novels were popular during the era of the classic detective short story, so too did another more radical form of crime fiction emerge during the second Golden Age. In the 1930s, the pulp magazines Black Mask and Dime Detective began to publish detective short stories by a new breed of crime writers including Carroll John Daly, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The magazines were dubbed ‘pulps’ as they took their name from a new wood-pulping procedure whereby the trademark slick covers could be produced quickly. Black Mask introduced tough, urban private detectives, such as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, who were far removed from the aloof, eccentric intellectual ‘detective’ developed by the  Golden Age writers. Violence, sexuality and instinct were brought closer to the reader, stripping away the sanitising veil of scientific and intellectual crime solving. The prose style was shortened to reflect the immediacy of this new genre and the cynical thought processes of the world-weary protagonists, although Chandler himself was fond of using elaborate similes. Many Black Mask writers transitioned successfully to novel writing, often expanding the material of their short stories into novel-length narratives. The hardboiled style continued to thrive with the rise of the paperback industry in the 1940s, which allowed the reading public greater access to crime fiction, and led to the reprinting of Chandler and Hammett’s 1930s hardcovers.

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