Jeff Siegel’s The American Detective: An Illustrated History

americandetective2Mark Cenczyk penned this review.

The course taken by American mystery fiction can politely be described as circuitous. The genre has been regarded largely as second-tier reading by the greater public, a fact that can be confirmed by even the most casual wandering through the local mega-bibliotheque chain store. Mystery often gets relegated to the way-way back corner of such places, along with fantasy, sci-fi, true crime, New Age, and the rest of the niche genres like the table of the groom’s old frat buddies at the wedding reception. Right next to the proverbial kitchen door, or, since it’s bookstores we’re talking about, the coffee bar.

That’s sort of a pity, because the genre has made some appreciable strides over the years. English departments at respectable universities are offering serious courses dealing with the classic examples of the genre. Writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler have migrated from that oft-neglected back corner and now sit proudly in the front “Literature” section of the store, which if nothing else has gone far to confuse a lot of us old mystery hounds who walk through the front door and spend about fifteen minutes trying to determine where the hell they’ve shelved The Maltese Falcon this week. Even Bill Clinton is reported to be an avid fan of mysteries (although considering what else he’s been accused of being an avid fan of, this may not prove to be all that complimentary).

The point is that mystery fiction’s star is on the rise. The detective has been one of the most resilient archetypes in modern American literature, espousing the essentials of the American ethos. Such resiliency has not come easily – the struggle by American authors to unshackle the detective from the conventions of the Christies and Conan Doyles is as revealing and as necessary for understanding both the sophistication and staying power of the genre. It is a process chronicled very well in Jeff Siegel’s work, The American Detective.

As its subtitle (“An Illustrated History”) doubtless belies to readers fluent in such titular doublespeak,The American Detective is a coffee-table book, and a short one at that. Topping out at barely 168 pages, Siegel’s work appears a bit malnourished when compared to similar offerings such as Dilys Winn’s Murder Ink or Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg’s The Fine Art of Murder. Make no mistake, though; Siegel has mapped out a well-researched, entertaining, and thought-provoking tour through the last 150 years of American detective fiction.

Apart from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, widely regarded as the first real “detective” story, the first decades of mystery fiction have been, as it were, veddy, veddy British. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and their contemporaries dominated roughly the first 80 years of the genre. The puzzle was everything in their books, a belief which attracted a host of great and not-so-great plots teeming with Madagascar plant poisons, ancient bejewelled daggers and detectives spouting off on the history of Etruscan mosaic pottery as if they were lecturing to a class of Oxford undergrads – and considering the amount of condescension shown to both police and suspects in such novels, they might as well have been.

As memorable as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Lord Peter Wimsey were and are, however, the genre itself stagnated in this country. Budding writers produced characters and plots that were effectively pastiches of these titans, and their books were quickly and rightfully forgotten. Siegel points to two men – Ellery Queen and Dashiell Hammett – as exploring new paths in the genre. Ellery Queen (the name of both the detective and the pseudonym of authors Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee), for Siegel, was the first real human detective. He showed emotion, frustration, confusion, attraction for the female gender: in short, Ellery was an ordinary person – a very appealing character for American readers gorged on such cold, high-minded, asexual types like Holmes and Poirot.

Dashiell Hammett, as Raymond Chandler put it so well in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (which if you haven’t yet read, you ought to be ashamed of yourself), did something that seems so obvious that one wonders why no one else had thought of it previously: he gave murder back to those people “who commit it for a reason, and not just to provide a corpse.” Hammett’s use of everyday American language, his dedication to character in his writing, and his understanding that murder is not a plot device, but the ultimate act of cruelty, served to point the genre in a new direction, one that had the potential to be taken seriously as literature.

Such themes of egalitarianism, unpretentiousness, and realism resonate throughout Siegel’s book. He examines the pulp magazines, legal thrillers, police procedurals, and espionage fiction with the same insight he displays in his treatment of Poe, Queen and Hammett. To be sure, Siegel is not afraid to spend time discussing the growing pains of the American detective, especially when he discusses the hundreds of eminently forgettable (and often regrettable) examples of certain types of mysteries – for every Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, there are hundreds of “Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective” types; for every Hill Street Blues, a T.J. Hooker; for every Travis McGee, a Philip Quest (someone’s bright idea for a series of books featuring an international photographer who just seems to go around stumbling into global conspiracies and bedding multitudes of women – and if you can’t see the prototype for Austin Powers after half a chapter of one of these books, you’re just not trying).

Siegel’s contextualization of the mystery genre is also worth reading. A series of short essays by the author, gathered under the title of “The Third Degree”, offer a look into some of the often-overlooked issues that surround such fiction and its reception by American readers. “In Praise of Charlie Chan” is a succinct inroad into the presence of Asians and other minorities as detectives, and their warm reception by the public even when the “Yellow Peril” is still an active geopolitical bogeyman. “Calling Mr. Moto” discusses John P. Marquand’s famous character, a Japanese spy of the 1930s and early 1940s who articulated decidedly anti-American sentiments. “When Is a Policeman a Policeman?” examines the works of Tony Hillerman and K.C. Constantine, who write about characters in the Navajo Tribal Police and a law force in the dying Rust Belt of western Pennsylvania, respectively.

Siegel’s strength comes from understanding and illustrating the continual evolution of the detective-as-archetype. Even though immortals like Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald opened writers’ eyes to a rich palate of possibilities, it remained (and still remains) the responsibility of future generations of writers to adapt to the times, to push the envelope and reinvent the detective to suit the changing society around him (or her). No longer does the detective remain an enigmatic figure. In many ways, Siegel seems to say, today’s generation of mystery heavyweights have taken their forefathers’ ideas about character to heart, and have concentrated more on the human qualities – evidenced by characters such as James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux (a recovering alcoholic) or Jeremiah Healy’s J.F. Cuddy (a Boston detective who lost his wife to cancer). In addition, the female private eye has made an undeniable impact on the genre, thanks to characters like Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who bring a fresh perspective to the genre from the mere act that they are women operating in a world as brutal as any that ever confronted Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

If there is anywhere Siegel comes up short it may be with his concentration on certain subjects at the expense of others. For example, although Siegel’s treatment of the black detective, pioneered by Chester Himes’ Coffin Ed Jones and Grave Digger Johnson, is lucid and richly textured, he would do well to trace the development of the character further. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, to take one example, gets no mention in Siegel’s work. Neither does Siegel mention (except in passing) a character like Joseph Hansen’s gay detective Dave Brandstetter, or even Andrew Vachss’ troubleshooting loner Burke. Such characters provide many more alternative perspectives of the world and the evil that men and women commit in it. One gets the feeling that Siegel could have given such offerings a lot more space (particularly at the expense of his numerous discussions of bad TV shows, which get rather excessive at points).

Regardless, Siegel has produced a rather enjoyable work. His prose is fluid and engaging, insightful without the pedantry or condescension of an academic treatise (or, for that matter, a Sherlock Holmes diatribe). He exhibits an informed historical and literary perspective throughout the book, and his opinions on the vagaries of the genre (including the vast chasm of intelligence that separates the literary world from the world of television) are entertaining and redolent of a writer whose built-in B.S. detector is firing on all cylinders. In short, The American Detective is a solid, comprehensible treatment of mystery’s gradual transition from subgenre to literature, conscientiously penned by a man with a real love for his subject.

(Tay;or Publishing, 1998)

About Kage Baker

Kage Baker (1952 – 2010) ran away to sea when she was five, getting a job as a steam whistle on a tramp steamer, and learned to read and write thanks to the tutelage of a kindly one-legged sea cook. He suggested she try her hand at writing science fiction, so she produced her first novel, In the Garden of Iden, at the age of eight.

Thirty-seven years later she managed to sell it to Harcourt Brace, who promptly regretted their impulse purchase but oh well. She produced multiple fine works of science fiction, fantasy and horror over the course of a life cut far too short.

She resided in Pismo Beach, California, with her parrot and her sister.