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The Best American Noir of the Centuryby James Ellroy
Foreword As a fan of mystery fiction for what is now approaching a half century (good grief! can it be?), I have read what some might regard as an inordinate number of short stories. It is impossible to count the thousands, but it is possible to count the great ones.
For me, it has always been the short story. It started when I was just a kid and loved the surprise endings of O. Henry, the bizarre situations of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and the deliciously creepy nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe. My appreciation of the short form was enhanced when I discovered the quirky humor of Damon Runyon and Ring Larder, clearly at their peak in a twenty-page sidesplitter. Finally, my devotion was complete when I learned that Stanley Ellin needed a full month to polish his little masterpieces, explaining their meticulous perfection.
Most classic detective stories rely on a single clue, or gimmick, or bit of legerdemain, or realization (the "aha" moment); the rest is embellishment. The old-fashioned detective novel, when it was good, created a universe with a population about whom the reader cared. An antisocial act, usually murder, occurred to disrupt the comfortable progress of that universe, and the remainder of the narrative illustrated the consequences of that crime on the population and the efforts made to apprehend the villain. With the identification of the perpetrator of the very bad deed (or deeds, as it was common for the culprit to commit additional crimes in order to cover up the first one), the universe was restored to its original peaceful state. And the villain was always caught because, no matter how brilliant he was, he invariably made one small mistake, which was spotted by the hero detective (but rarely by the reader).
Because the entire denouement relied on the uncovering of that single element to complete the jigsaw puzzle, it is clear that many of those novels could have been told in short story form with no loss of cleverness by the protagonist. Some of those novels, stripped to their essentials, became the brilliant short stories included in this volume.
But do not misunderstand me. Originality and felicitousness of language, development of memorable characters, even the texture of a created universe, cannot all be condensed into a short story. The best mystery novels, just as the best in all literature, are far richer than their plots. The story line is merely a single element, albeit a vital one, of any good crime novel, just as it is of any novel. In many cases, the tighter constrictions of the short story enable, or even force, an author into an economy of words that produces a crisper, superior work.
Searching for these gems of storytelling led me to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as a young reader in my twenties. Making its first appearance in 1941, it is still being published, carrying the banner of the mystery story longer than any magazine in history.
By the 1940s, the pulp magazines had begun their plunge into oblivion. These nickel and dime story magazines, which once numbered more than a thousand titles a month, served as the training field for scores of writers who went on to distinguished careers as novelists and screenwriters. Called "pulps" because of the cheap newsprint on which they were printed, they were the major reading material for masses of America's readers. The rest read the "slicks," which were produced on superior paper, were illustrated throughout, often partially in color, and paid writers tremendous fees. While a writer for Black Mask, Dime Detective, or The Shadow, for example, might be paid a penny or two a word (if he was a big name), such mainstream authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John P. Marquand were paid $10,000 for stories in The Saturday Evening Post or Scribner's.
The slicks, too, were dying at the same rate as the pulps. The increased availability and popularity of radio shifted America's use of its leisure time, and the creation of the inexpensive paperbacks completed the task. The introduction of television on a large scale in the 1950s pretty much finished the publication of short fiction in any medium that was designed to be read by millions.
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine battled terrific odds by offering a digest-sized periodical containing only mystery fiction, thereby giving up that substantial portion of readers who preferred more diversity. By commissioning new stories from the best mystery writers on both sides of the Atlantic, and reprinting classic (though frequently forgotten) fiction, the magazine flourished.
It is a tribute to Frederic Dannay, one half of the writing team of Ellery Queen, that he devoted so much time and energy to the risky vennture. His was not a celebrity endorsement or franchised name on a masthead. For nearly half a century, Dannay edited stories, corresponded with authors, suggested new (and usually better) story titles, and had his hand in every phase of the editorial content of what can only be regarded as his magazine.
Dannay was also a superb anthologist, breaking ground in a variety of fashions. Perhaps the finest anthology of mystery stories ever conceived and executed is his 101 Years' Entertainment, which I read in a Modern Library edition as a teenager. It introduced me to so many of the detectives and authors who became a major part of my reading life that I still regard it as one of the half dozen most influential books in my development as a lifelong addict of the written word.
It is largely Dannay's tireless efforts to preserve distinguished mystery fiction in his numerous anthologies (more than two hundred bear his name as editor) that rescued so many first-rate writers from obscurity, lifting a story from the futurelessness of an ephemeral magazine appearance to the enduring substance of a hardcover book.
I doubt that any good stories escaped Dannay's eye, making it dramatically easier to produce this volume of the century's greatest American mystery stories. It would have been virtually impossible to locate every fiction magazine of the twentieth century in order to identify which works were appropriate for consideration, much less read them all.
Other anthologies proved useful, too, of course, notably The Best Detective Stories of the Year series, begun in 1946 (and now defunct) by Dutton; the annual theme anthologies produced under the aegis of the Mystery Writers of America; and numerous solo efforts, but nothing approaches the contributions made by Frederic Dannay.
Having read many hundreds of these anthologies over the years, I had a pretty good idea of many of the stories that deserved consideration for inclusion in this important volume. Or I thought I did. The memory can play nasty tricks. Stories that I remembered with tremendous affection turned out, on rereading, to be disappointing, sometimes astonishingly so. Where was my taste, I wondered, when I reread two or three collections of stories by an author I'd once admired and couldn't find a single story that held my interest or that had even one important thought or original use of language?
What surprised me is how few pulp stories hold up today. Most are dated, both in outlook and in language. Characters are seldom multidimensional, dialogue is stilted as everyone tries to be tougher than a two-dollar steak. Chandler, arguably the greatest mystery writer who ever lived, transcends his venue, of course, and so does Hammett, and even the purple prose of Woolrich remains intensely readable a half century or more after it was written. But the fast- paced adventures of Carroll John Daly, Raoul Whitfield, Frank Gruber, Frederick Nebel, Norbert Davis, and Erle Stanley Gardner, once read with such avidity, don't stay in the memory a day later. They remain entertaining, like a television sitcom, but they lack the timeless magic of significant writers. In spite of their enormous popularity for three decades (the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s), there are few examples in the present volume.
An entirely different problem arose when I weighed the work of the truly wonderful authors. How many Chandler stories deserved to be included here? A half dozen, maybe, or more. And how many of Woolrich? A full dozen? And Stanley Ellin? Half his opera sounded about right. But we decided to limit the collection to no more than one story by an author, enabling readers to sample a rainbow of styles and subgenres. No one will stop you from searching out more stories by the authors you enjoy the most.
Another surprise, though it probably shouldn't have been, is how many of the best mystery, crime, and suspense stories were produced by authors not generally regarded as "mystery writers." Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Damon Runyon, O. Henry, Joyce Carole Oates, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, and others dipped their toes into the mystery waters and, as they did with their other work, excelled.
The process of list-making is, obviously, subjective. There are no scientific instruments that can tell a reader which of Harlan Ellison's two Edgar-winning short stories is better. It is a coin toss, and it can't be anything else. Let's just live with it.
Reducing the list of distinguished stories from several thousand stories to a few hundred required a good deal of rereading and weeding. Getting that list down to a manageable number from which Tony Hillerman made the final selection was like self-surgery. Each story eliminated after a certain point was like another incision, one painfully deeper than another.
Some Edgar winners made the final cut, and some did not. For the life of me, I cannot fathom how some Edgar committees, filled with smart and caring and honorable people, could have selected some of the stories they did while ignoring obviously superior ones. And yet ESPN recently chose the fifty greatest athletes of the century and actually picked Secretariat ahead of Mickey Mantle. Such choices are clearly subjective.
So here they are. Are these truly the best American mystery stories of the century? Almost. Tony Hillerman left out some I'd have wanted, but it would have been boring if we had agreed on everything.
And while I've been reading mystery fiction for about four decades, Tony Hillerman has been reading it even longer. He was clearly the right person to serve as the editor for this distinguished collection. He has been, for three decades, the quintessential American mystery writer, as well as being a most learned scholar.
His first book, The Blessing Way, was published by Harper and Row in 1970 and was nominated for an Edgar. His third book, Dance Hall of the Dead, won that prestigious award, the Oscar of the mystery world, as the best novel of the year. Since then, his sensitive and intelligent portrayals of the Navajo Indians and the two policemen who served as their guardians, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, have been given every imaginable accolade (and it's not hype to state unequivocally that they are fully deserved). They have also enjoyed the ultimate testament to their ability to reach readers in a meaningful way - frequent appearances on the bestseller list. As final acknowledgment of his preeminence in the mystery writing world, the Mystery Writers of America selected him to be a Grand Master, joining the elite company of such giants as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald, and Elmore Leonard.
Finally, the careful consideration that went into the selection of these stories should go unnoticed. This very large volume should be a joyful experience, a bountiful cornucopia of delights into which the reader can slip at any moment for a time of pleasure. Will you disagree with some of the choices? We expect so. However, because this is my bit of preamble, I hide behind the collaborative effort. If you approve of the choices, thank you. If you don't, it's only because Tony left out the stories that you'd have wanted to see included.
- Otto Penzler
Introduction If I, alone, were stuck with the Herculean task of selecting the best mystery stories of the twentieth century, I'm afraid they would be clustered in periods. I'd give you a lot of tales from the years between the wars when thousands of good writers were supporting their families with yarns spun for the pulps. I'd pick out a dozen or so from those slick magazines that paid living-wage prices for short stories until television destroyed both them and national literacy. Finally, I'd give you another bunch from the 1990s, when enough folks had been turned off by the tube to produce a new market for the short story form. In other words I would impose upon you my personal taste.
Fortunately, Otto Penzler was also involved in the selection process. To those of you who bring a mature love of mystery and detective fiction to this book, the Penzler name means the Mysterious Press, the Mysterious Bookshops, and other key contributions to the field, recognized by an Edgar for the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection and an Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America for lifetime achievement in the publishing world. Penzler helped select works that give us a broader outlook than I'd have managed on my own. All the eras in which the American mystery took its special form, wresting leadership from the British, defying the academicians, and - more than any other genre - making popular American literature dominant worldwide are represented between these covers.
For a quick glimpse of the progress that American popular literature has made in the twentieth century, first read "The Problem of Cell 13," published in 1905, and then jump ahead ninety-three years to "Poachers." I'm asking you to skip O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation" and Willa Cather for the moment. O. Henry, being a genius of the short form, was too far ahead of his time to be typical, while Futrelle's tale is a fine example of what American writers were doing at the turn of the century.
At that time, American mystery writers generally copied the British, who were copying Edgar Allan Poe. They produced puzzles involving the wealthy educated leisure class. That was logical because the educated leisure class included the folks with the ability to read, the time to do it, and the money to buy the stories. Was Futrelle himself upper-class? He drowned (heroically saving others) when the Titanic hit an iceberg, and he wasn't traveling steerage class. Thus it's no accident that "The Thinking Machine" character he invented reminds one of Sherlock Holmes and that his characters aren't likely candidates for AFL-CIO membership.
But in 1905 the characters in mysteries were not important. Only the puzzle mattered. Now, skip ahead to 1998 and "Poachers." In Tom Franklin's story, the puzzle matters hardly at all. Here you meet real people - three orphaned and brutish brothers who live as predators in the wet woods of the Gulf Coast south, the old widower who loves them, and the sheriff who pitied them all. Who killed two of these brutal boys and blinded the third? You never really know. If you care, you can take your pick. In any case, the muddy river, the endless rain, the half-wild hunting dogs, are more important than the plot.
Futrelle and most of his contemporaries produced puzzling whodunits as pastimes for the educated few. But, even as he wrote, the market was changing. Pulitzer, Hearst, Greeley, McCormick, Nelson, and a host of other publishers were building their empires with the so-called "Penny Press," published for blue-collar workers. Public education was making the hod carriers, farmers, miners, maids, and millers as literate as lords and ladies.
Many of these newspapers of the "Yellow Journalism" days published short mystery stories, helping set the stage for the golden years of the pulp magazines. By the second decade of the century (and on through the third and fourth), virtually every drugstore in the nation big enough to have its own soda fountain had a magazine rack made glorious and alive by the gaudy reds, yellows, greens, and blues favored by the publishers of such journals as Black Mask, Hollywood Detective, Spicy Detective, and so on. They usually boasted "bodice- ripper" illustrations and promised as much blood, violence, and raunch in their headlines as the mores of the times would allow.
With the pulps, American writers made the big break from the British. The pay scale ranged from two cents a word downward (though a really spectacular yarn might merit three cents a word). As a young fellow making $1.25 per ten-hour hay-baling day when I first paid a dime for a detective pulp, two cents a word sounded generous. Personally, I rated only rejection slips from the pulps, but many of the writers herein did well with them - especially Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The pulps took the mystery story out of the parlors and drawing rooms and onto the "mean streets" among the people who were actually the victims of the crime. One of the old rules had been "the butler didn't do it," implying that the criminal, as well as the victim, must be an upper-crust person - someone the well-bred reader would care about. Such rules made no sense when neither you, nor those for whom you were writing, had ever seen a butler.
By midcentury the American mystery genre was generally being written in American English. It had left the manicured lawns of the manor houses behind to focus on those folks I like to call "real people." Local color had crept in (though rarely as emphatically as in "Poachers"), as well as social issues. The tales of pure ratiocination still thrived in the form of U.S. versions of the polite British "cozies." The segment of American fiction devoted to crime and its solution was not only booming, it was developing in a variety of channels. Most important of all - certainly for me - mystery fiction was elbowing its way from the shelves that bookstores reserve for mere tales to the front, where the novels are stocked.
In this volume, you'll encounter many writers who had a hand in this movement - including the great Raymond Chandler. I consider Chandler the Thomas Paine of this twentieth-century American revolution. That analogy makes Professor Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor the spokesmen for the counterrevolution in their landmark A Catalogue of Crime, but the first blast fired by the Tories came from Edmund Wilson, who in the 1940s was America's most portentous literary critic. Someone had called his attention to The Maltese Falcon, which I consider Hammett's masterwork. Wilson rated it on the level of newspaper serial comic strips and wrote a New Yorker essay denouncing the entire mystery-detection field as trash that served only to worsen the wartime paper shortage. Then, persuaded by a friend that to be fair he should read an Agatha Christie, he did, and wrote "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" While I agree that's a fair enough question, I disagree with his summary judgment that the entire genre was devoid of value. (Those too young to remember Wilson might like to know that he's the fellow most responsible for introducing Americans to Marcel Proust and James Joyce, causing untold thousands of college students to suffer through Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce's stream of consciousness.) Chandler's rebuttal "The Simple Art of Murder" was published by The Atlantic Monthly in 1944, a sort of declaration of independence from the British detective form and an argument that mystery fiction was as likely to have social importance as any other work of fiction - the implication being that literature didn't have to be boring.
"The British may not always be the best writers in the world," he said, "but they are incomparably the best dull writers." One of Chandler's points was that many American writers had been copying this British business of turning out mystery stories in which the whole purpose was the puzzle - avoiding character development or any real effort at realistic settings or situations. S. S. Van Dine, America's best-selling mystery writer of the 1920s and 1930s, created Philo Vance, probably the most insufferable snob in all of literature, and gave him an upper-class British accent and foreign cigarettes. Van Dine even used phony footnotes to underline Philo's intellectual superiority.
Chandler argues that unless the plots really worked in such books (and they rarely did), the reader received nothing for his two dollars. Dorothy Sayers had just published an essay stating that detective fiction could never attain "the loftiest levels of literary achievement" because it was literature of escape and not "literature of expression." Chandler rated this critical jargon as nonsense. This isn't the place to reprint "The Simple Art of Murder," but as you read this book you'll note that Chandler's position - that detective fiction could, and should, include the same elements that deemed novels "literature of expression" - was adopted by most of the writers who followed him.
In their introductory essay to A Catalogue of Crime in 1971, Barzun and Taylor fired their broadside in favor of preserving mystery fiction in its classical form. Mystery stories should be "tales of ratiocination," written for those who wish to entertain themselves with amusing intellectual exercises. They should be set in quiet havens without intrusions of realism to distract the reader from the puzzle. Detective fiction, said Barzun, is a tale, not a novel. It should deal with the intellect, not with emotions. It should not pretend to have social importance. "The characters it presents are not persons but types, as in the gospels: the servant, the rich man, the camel driver (now a chauffeur)." As you will note in the short stories that follow, the argument didn't end in the 1970s. It still hasn't. It never will. There will always be room under the tent for the classic form and the novel form, with untold variations in between. I'd guess that approximately half of the audience for mysteries today still prefers the puzzle to the novel. What's important is the example Chandler gave us with his own novels. His use of the work of a private detective to illuminate the corruption of society has attracted into the genre many mystery writers who wish to produce "literature of expression" and shoot for lofty literary goals. Driven out of the so- called mainstream of American writing by the academic critics and the academic trends - minimalism, deconstructionism, and whatever is next - we have found a home in the mystery form.
- Tony Hillerman
Copyright (c) 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright (c) 2000 by Tony Hillerman. Foreword copyright (c) 2000 by Otto Penzler
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