Classics in September — The Great Detectives: The World’s Most Celebrated Sleuths Unmasked by Their Authors — Edited by Otto Penzler — “The Ubermensch, the superman, has almost vanished with the culture that extolled singular men performing singular deeds.”
In 1977, Otto Penzler, the founder of Mysterious Press and Edgar Award winner decided to gather together some of the best crime writers of the last three decades (50s, 60s, and 70s) and ask them how their detectives were born. Were they based on real-life people? How did they come into being, and did they even like their creations? There were two key criteria for Penzler’s selections: only authors who wrote in English, and authors still alive (obviously). Some authors did turn the project down, finding that writing about their heroes was just not possible for them, either physically or psychologically. However, the authors who did contribute, and their literary creations, show a broad range of characterisation and are wonderfully representative of crime fiction down the years. What Penzler collected together was released in print and is now out as an eBook too.
JIM Stewart, under the pseudonym Michael Innes, wrote over 50 novels between 1936 and 1986 about his Scotland Yard detective Sir John Appleby. He discusses his creation of Appleby during the six week voyage from Liverpool to Adelaide as an exercise in which to pass the time during a tedious journey. Ross Macdonald, the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar and husband of author Margaret Millar, is known for his southern California tales featuring Lew Archer. In The Great Detectives he writes of his love for the early crime fighters such as Falcon Swift featured in Boys’ Magazine. These early impressions went quite a long way in shaping his tough but ultimately very humane Lew Archer, whose name came from Sam Spade’s partner Miles Archer, and Lew Wallace the author of Ben-Hur.
We also get insights about Adam Hall’s British sercret agent Quiller, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, Maxwell Grant’s wildly popular The Shadow, and Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, one of the most famous comic strip characters of all time. To my delight, Carolyn Keene, one of many pseudonym’s of Edward Stratemeyer, discusses the creation of teenage amateur detective Nancy Drew, and the ups and downs of having a character remain forever 18, but who served as a role model for young girls everywhere and solved over 50 cases.
The Great Detectives isn’t just about male authors either. New Zealander Dame Ngaio Marsh, creator of Roderick Alleyn gentleman detective of the Metropolitan Police in London, talks of how Alleyn was born on a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1931, in her basement flat. He went on to star in 32 novels. Christianna Brand discusses her kind, gentle, and diminutive Inspector Cockrill – AKA ‘Cockie’ – of the Kent County Police, who was the focus of eight mysteries published in the 50s. Dell Shannon profiles her Lieutenant Luis Mendoza, an independently wealthy Los Angeles policeman, and Vera Caspary discusses her hero Mark McPherson, who did not actually appear in a series, unlike the other detectives profiled. McPherson’s only outing was in Caspary’s classic 1942 novel, Laura.
We’ve only touched on the many authors and characters featured in The Great Detectives. In fact, the book covers over 20 sleuths, including George Harmon Coxe’s Jack ‘Flashgun’ Casey, Hillary Waugh’s Fred Fellows, Richard Lockridge’s Mr and Mrs North, Peter Dickenson’s Superintendent Pibble, and many more. A wide range of personalities are showcased to wonderful effect, and the short vignettes by the author’s themselves are a wonderful way to get to know, or re-acquaint yourself with these wonderful creations. Don’t be too surprised if you read The Great Detectives and begin making a shopping list for your next visit to the bookshop (or Amazon for that matter). There’s also a very comprehensive bibliography and filmography included at the end of the text.
The Great Detectives is a fascinating, very accessible look into some of the best detectives in 20th century crime writing, told by the singular and unique voices of their authors, and should appeal to mystery fans old and new. Very highly recommended!
CFL Rating: 5 Stars
US readers click here to purchase.