Their names ring out like gunshots in the dark of a back alley, crime fighters of a lost era whose heroic deeds will never be forgotten. They are men like Lew Archer, Pierre Chambrun, Flash Casey, and the Shadow. They are women like Mrs. North and the immortal Nancy Drew. These are detectives, and they are some of the only true heroes the twentieth century ever knew. In this classic volume, Otto Penzler presents essays written by the authors who created these famous characters. We learn how Ed McBain killed—and resurrected—the hero of the 87th Precinct, how international agent Quiller wrote his will, and how Dick Tracy first announced that “crime does not pay.” Some of these heroes may be more famous than others, but there is not one whom you wouldn’t like on your side in a courtroom, a shootout, or an old-fashioned barroom brawl.
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The Great Detectives
By Otto Penzler
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Otto Penzler
All rights reserved.
Handsome socialite detectives are a mainstay of "Golden Age" British mystery novels of the 1920s and 1930s, and are not unknown to the American writers who affected Britishisms for their prose style and the language mannerisms of their detectives. Lord Peter Wimsey is a notable example of the former, and Philo Vance and the early Ellery Queen are examples of the latter.
Dame Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn is one of the few aristocrats officially connected with Scotland Yard, rising quickly from inspector to superintendent, and he has found his familial connections of invaluable assistance on cases that might have proved a trifle sensitive to police officers of a different social stratum. He is also one of the few who have survived into the 1970s.
The supporting cast in Alleyn's exploits includes Inspector Fox, whom he persists in calling "Br'er Fox" or "Foxkin," and Nigel Bathgate, a reporter for the London Clarion, who sometimes chronicles the cases of Scotland Yard's most attractive detective.
Dame Ngaio Marsh (she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966) was born in New Zealand in 1899 and has divided most of her adult life between that country and England. Her unusual first name (it is, actually, her middle name, since she was born Edith Ngaio Marsh) is the Maori word for a regional flower; it is pronounced NY-o. Much of her time has been devoted to the theater: first writing plays, then acting in them, and finally directing and producing them.
by Ngaio Marsh
He was born with the rank of Detective-Inspector, C.I.D., on a very wet Saturday afternoon in a. basement flat off Sloane Square, in London. The year was 1931.
All day, rain splashed up from the feet of passersby going to and fro, at eye-level, outside my water-streaked windows. It fanned out from under the tires of cars, cascaded down the steps to my door and flooded the area: "remorseless" was the word for it and its sound was, beyond all expression, dreary. In view of what was about to take place, the setting was, in fact, almost too good to be true.
I read a detective story borrowed from a dim little lending library in a stationer's shop across the way. Either a Christie or a Sayers, I think it was. By four o'clock, when the afternoon was already darkening, I had finished it and still the rain came down. I remember that I made up the London coal-fire of those days and looked down at it, idly wondering if I had it in me to write something in the genre. That was the season, in England, when the Murder Game was popular at weekend parties. Someone was slipped a card saying he or she was the "murderer." He or she then chose a moment to select a "victim" and there was a subsequent "trial." I thought it might be an idea for a whodunit—they were already called that—if a real corpse was found instead of a phony one. Luckily for me, as it turned out, I wasn't aware until much later that a French practitioner had been struck with the same notion.
I played about with this idea. I tinkered with the fire and with an emergent character who might have been engendered in its sulky entrails: a solver of crimes.
The room had grown quite dark when I pulled on a mackintosh, took an umbrella, plunged up the basement steps, and beat my way through rain-fractured lamplight to the stationer's shop. It smelled of damp newsprint, cheap magazines, and wet people. I bought six twopenny exercise books, a pencil and pencil-sharpener and splashed back to the flat.
Then with an odd sensation of giving myself some sort of treat, I thought more specifically about the character who already had begun to take shape.
In the crime fiction of that time the solver was often a person of more-or-less eccentric habit with a collection of easily identifiable mannerisms. This, of course, was in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. The splendid M. Poirot had his mustaches, his passion for orderly arrangements, his frequent references to "grey matter." Lord Peter Wimsey could be, as one now inclines to think, excruciatingly facetious. Nice Reggie Fortune said—and he said it very often—"My dear chap! Oh, my dear chap!" and across the Atlantic there was Philo Vance, who spoke a strange language that his author, I think I remember, had the nerve to attribute, in part, to Balliol College, Oxford.
Faced with this assembly of celebrated eccentrics, it seemed to me, on that long-distant wet afternoon, that my best chance lay in comparative normality—in the invention of a man with a background resembling that of the friends I had made in England—and that I had better not tie mannerisms, like labels, round his neck. (I can see now that with my earlier books I did not altogether succeed in this respect.)
I thought that my detective would be a professional policeman but, in some ways, atypical: an attractive, civilized man with whom it would be pleasant to talk but much less pleasant to fall out.
He began to solidify.
From the beginning I discovered that I knew quite a lot about him. Indeed I rather think that, even if I had not fallen so casually into the practice of crime-writing and had taken to a more serious form, he would still have arrived and found himself in an altogether different setting.
He was tall and thin with an accidental elegance about him, and fastidious enough to make one wonder at his choice of profession. He was a compassionate man. He had a cockeyed sense of humor, dependent largely upon understatement, but for all his unemphatic, rather apologetic ways, he could be a formidable person of considerable authority. As for his background, that settled itself there and then: he was a younger son of a Buckinghamshire family and had his schooling at Eton. His elder brother, whom he regarded as a bit of an ass, was a diplomatist and his mother, whom he liked, a lady of character.
I remember how pleased I was, early in his career, when one of the reviews called him "that nice chap, Alleyn," because that was how I liked to think of him: a nice chap with more edge to him than met the eye—a good deal more, as I hope it has turned out. The popular press of his early days would refer to him as "The Handsome Inspector," a practice that caused him acute embarrassment.
On this day of his inception I fiddled about with the idea of writing a tale that would explain why he left the diplomatic service for the police force but somehow the idea has never jelled.
His age? Here I must digress. His age would defy the investigation of an Einstein, and he is not alone in this respect. Hercule Poirot, I have been told, was, by ordinary reckoning, going on 122 when he died. Truth to tell, fictional investigations move in an exclusive space-time continuum where Mr. Bucket ("of The Detective") may be seen to go about his lawful occasions, cheek-by-jowl with the most recent of fledglings. It is enough to say that on the afternoon of my man's arrival I did not concern myself with his age and am still of the same mind in this respect.
His arrival had been unexpected and occurred, you might say, out of nothing. One of the questions writers are most often asked about characters in their books is whether they are based upon people in the workaday world—"real people." Some of mine certainly are but they have gone through various mutations and in doing so have moved away from their original begetters. But not this one. He, as far as I can tell, had no begetter apart from his author. He came in without introduction and if, for this reason, there is an element of unreality about him, I can only say that for me, at least, he was and is very real indeed.
Dorothy Sayers has been castigated, with some justification perhaps, for falling in love with her Wimsey. To have done so may have been an error in taste and of judgment, though her ardent fans would never have admitted as much. I can't say I have ever succumbed in this way to my own investigator, but I have grown to like him as an old friend. I even dare to think he has developed third-dimensionally in my company. We have traveled widely: in a night express through the North Island of New Zealand, and among the geysers, boiling mud, and snow-clad mountains of that country. We have cruised along English canals and walked through the streets and monuments of Rome. His duties have taken us to an island off the coast of Normandy and the backstage regions of several theaters. He has sailed with a psychopathic homicide from Tilbury to Cape Town and has made arrests in at least three country houses, one hospital, a church, a canal boat, and a pub. Small wonder, perhaps, that we have both broadened our outlook under the pressure of these undertakings, none of which was anticipated on that wet afternoon in London.
At his first appearance he was a bachelor and, although responsive to the opposite sex, did not bounce in and out of irresponsible beds when going about his job. Or, if he did, I knew nothing about it. He was, to all intents and purposes, fancy-free and would remain so until, sailing out of Suva in Fiji, he came across Agatha Troy, painting in oils, on the deck of a liner. And that was still some half-dozen books in the future.
There would be consternation shown by agents and publishers when, after another couple of jobs, the lady accepted him, but the acceptance would be a fait accompli and from then on I would be dealing with a married investigator, his celebrated wife, and later on, their son.
By a series of coincidences and much against his inclination, it would come about that these two would occasionally get themselves embroiled in his professional duties, but generally speaking he would keep his job out of his family life and set about his cases with his regular associate who is one of his closest friends. Inspector Fox, massive, calm, and plain-thinking, would tramp sedately in. They have been working together for a considerable time and still allow me to accompany them.
But "on the afternoon in question" all this, as lady crime-novelists used to say, "lay in the future." The fire had burned clear and sent leaping patterns up the walls of my London flat when I turned on the light, opened a two-penny exercise book, sharpened my pencil, and began to write. There he was, waiting quietly in the background ready to make his entrance at Chapter IV, page 58 in the first edition.
I had company. It became necessary to give my visitor a name.
Earlier in that week I had visited Dulwich College. This is an English public school, which in any other country would mean a private school. It was founded and very richly endowed by a famous actor in the days of the first Elizabeth. It possesses a splendid picture gallery and a fabulous collection of relics from the Shakespearean-Marlovian theater: enthralling to me who have a passion for that scene.
My father was an old boy of Dulwich College—an "old Alleynian" as it is called, the name of the Elizabethan actor being Alleyn.
Detective-Inspector Alleyn, C.I.D.? Yes.
His first name was in doubt for some time but another visit, this time to friends in the Highlands of Scotland, had familiarized me with some resoundingly christened characters, among them one Roderick (or Rory) MacDonald.
Roderick Alleyn, Detective-Inspector, C.I.D.?
The name, by the way, is pronounced "Allen."
As one of the most erudite of all detectives, particularly of those officially connected with a police department, John Appleby of Scotland Yard was uniquely suited to handle his first recorded case, a murder at Oxford University. And, although many of his subsequent cases have also involved academic settings—with their inevitable academicians—he is never intimidated. To the contrary. Appleby's education has apparently been so extensive (if less formal than that of the professors with whom he deals so competently) that he amuses himself by quoting appropriate lines from the classics at opportune moments.
Appleby is not an effete amateur, dabbling in detective work because he thinks it good sport. He began his police career as a uniformed bobby and rapidly progressed through the ranks of inspector, assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard and ultimately, commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police. He was knighted just before retiring to a not very serene life punctuated with frequent criminal encounters.
Michael Innes began writing detective fiction as an escape from a more sober professorial life. Recently retired, he was known to students of literature at Christ Church College of Oxford University as Professor J. I. M. Stewart, Reader in English Literature, under which name he has produced numerous scholarly studies and biographies. Curiously, the 71-year-old creator of one of mystery fiction's most memorable detectives believes that in-depth characterization is inimical to crime fiction. Professor Stewart also considers the reading of detective novels addictive and decided to fight the disease by writing his own.
by Michael Innes
John Appleby came into being during a sea voyage from Liverpool to Adelaide. Ocean travel was a leisured affair in those days, and the route by the Cape of Good Hope took six weeks to cover. By that time I had completed a novel called Death at the President's Lodging (Seven Suspects in the U.S.A.) in which a youngish inspector from Scotland Yard solves the mystery of the murder of Dr. Umpleby, the president of one of the constituent colleges of Oxford University. It is an immensely complicated murder, and Appleby is kept so busy getting it straight that he has very little leisure to exhibit himself to us in any point of character or origins. But these, in so far as they are apparent, derive, I am sure, from other people's detective stories. I was simply writing a yarn to beguile a somewhat tedious experience—and in a popular literary kind at that time allowable as an occasional diversion even to quite serious and even learned persons, including university professors, (It was to become a rather juvenile university professor that I was making this trek to the Antipodes.)
Appleby arrives in Oxford in a "great yellow Bentley"—which suggests one sort of thriller writing, not of the most sophisticated sort. But "Appleby's personality seemed at first thin, part effaced by some long discipline of study, like a surgeon whose individuality has concentrated itself within the channels of a unique operative technique." This is altogether more highbrow, although again not exactly original. And Appleby goes on to show himself quite formidably educated, particularly in the way of classical literature. "The fourteen bulky volumes of the Argentorati Athenaeus" (and for that matter Schweighaüser's edition of the Deipnosophists) he takes quite in his stride when he encounters them in Dr. Umpleby's study. This must be regarded as a little out of the way in a London bobby lately off the beat. And there is no sign that Appleby is other than this; he is not the newfangled sort of policeman (if indeed such then existed) recruited from a university. Research in this volume will show that he is definitely not himself an Oxford man. This has frequently been a contentious issue, and I fear that the evidence becomes a shade confused in some later chronicles.
What Appleby does possess in this early phase of his career is (I am inclined to think) a fairly notable power of orderly analysis. Had he been a professor himself, he would have made a capital expository lecturer. But I am far from claiming that he long retains this power; later on he is hazardously given to flashes of intuition, and to picking up clues on the strength of his mysteriously acquired familiarity with recondite artistic and literary matters. He also becomes rather fond of talking, or at least of frequenting the society of persons who prefer amusing conversation to going through the motions of being highly suspicious characters, much involved with low life and criminal practice.
What I am claiming here (the reader will readily perceive) is that Appleby is as much concerned to provide miscellaneous and unassuming "civilized" entertainment as he is to hunt down baddies wherever they may lurk. And I think this must be why he has proved fairly long-lived: and by this I mean primarily long-lived in his creator's imagination. In forty years I have never quite got tired of John Appleby as a pivot round which farce and mild comedy and parody and freakish fantasy revolve.
Excerpted from The Great Detectives by Otto Penzler. Copyright © 1978 Otto Penzler. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Otto Penzler,
Roderick Alleyn by Ngaio Marsh,
John Appleby by Michael Innes,
Lew Archer by Ross Macdonald,
Father Bredder by Leonard Holton,
Flash Casey by George Harmon Coxe,
Pierre Chambrun by Hugh Pentecost,
Inspector Cockrill by Christianna Brand,
Captain José Da Silva by Robert L. Fish,
Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene,
The 87th Precinct by Ed McBain,
Fred Fellows by Hillary Waugh,
Inspector Ghote by H. R. F. Keating,
Matt Helm by Donald Hamilton,
Duncan Maclain by Baynard H. Kendrick,
Mark McPherson by Vera Caspary,
Lieutenant Luis Mendoza by Dell Shannon,
Mr. and Mrs. North by Richard Lockridge,
Patrick Petrella by Michael Gilbert,
Superintendent Pibble by Peter Dickinson,
Quiller by Adam Hall,
Inspector Schmidt by George Bagby,
The Shadow by Maxwell Grant,
Michael Shayne by Brett Halliday,
Virgil Tibbs by John Ball,
Dick Tracy by Chester Gould,
Inspector Van der Valk by Nicolas Freeling,
Bibliography and Filmography,