CORNUCOPIA OF CRIME

 

Memories and Summations by Francis M. Nevins

 

 

A Section of the INTRODUCTION

 

If you leave out the accident of having been born, the first step that led to this book happened when, at around age four, I somehow learned to read. In one of the last conversations I had with my mother before her death she insisted she hadnít taught me. Her best guess was that somehow I had taught myself by playing with a set of alphabet blocks. I have no recollection of the process but I was reading before I first set my little feet in the kindergarten class of Sherman School in Roselle Park, New Jersey.

I never saw my father reading much except the New York Daily News but he must have been an avid reader when he was young. One of the books on his shelves was The Benson Murder Case  (1926), first of S.S. Van Dine XE "Van Dine, S.S." ís once hugely popular Philo Vance detective novels. At age nine or ten I had no idea what detective fiction was but I remember trying to read that book and giving up after one or two chapters, skunked by Van Dineís sesquipedalian ponderosity. But when I turned 13 and was given access to the adult sections of the Roselle Park Public Library, chance or fate brought me to the mystery fiction shelves where I discovered Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan and was hooked for life.

Throughout my high school and college years I kept discovering new mystery writers and characters and worlds: Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner. I can still see myself sitting in a creaky old green-painted rocking chair in front of my grandmotherís house during the heat of the 1957 summer, lost in ecstasy as I wandered with Ellery through the labyrinths of The Greek Coffin Mystery. I remember the all but orgasmic excitement that shot through me when I reached the last chapter of Christieís Murder in the Calais Coach. Back in the Fifties the academic consensus was that mystery fiction was escapist trash; there was no secondary literature about the genre and one discovered interesting authors by trial and error or not at all. The best help I had came from a secondhand bookstore I had to pass every afternoon on the way home from school, a dusty old place with bare floorboards and naked light bulbs and books and magazines piled to the rafters, owned by a nasty old man and his kindly wife. Most afternoons I would look in the window as I passed that store. If the man was there Iíd move on but if his wife was in charge Iíd step in and buy some mysteries. Hardcovers cost a quarter, paperbacks a nickel or a dime. Even on a high-school kidís allowance one could build up quite a nice library of crime fiction at those prices. I knew nothing about most of the stuff I bought but by the law of averages I picked up lots of books that later came to prove quite valuable, like the paperback originals by David Goodis and Jim Thompsonand John D. MacDonald. I can still see in my mindís eye some treasures that I found in that store but in my ignorance passed up, like that first edition of Graham Greeneís 1931 Rumour at Nightfall, one of the two novels Greene would never allow to be reprinted after heíd become rich and famous. That copy is probably worth a mint today. If only I had invested a quarter in it back in 1958! But at age fifteen who knew from Graham Greene?

In college I got into the habit of buying the New York Times every Sunday just for the pleasure of reading Anthony Boucherís Criminals at Large column. Between classes I haunted the college libraryís microfilm room, poring over Boucherís columns from years before in back issues of the Times. Every few weeks I would hop across the Hudson River to Manhattan and make the rounds of the secondhand bookstores that in the early Sixties filled Fourth Avenue between Ninth and Fourteenth Streets. Once I picked up a first edition of the earliest Cornell Woolrich story collection (I Wouldnít Be in Your Shoes, 1943) for a dollar. One Saturday morning my father drove me into New York so I could pick up twenty or thirty Rex Stouts (book club editions, but I didnít know the difference back then) at threeóor was it four?ófor a buck.

In college I concentrated on what I recently heard someone call literature-philosophy-and-do-you-want-fries-with-that. I was a bookish nerd but in senior year a little voice began whispering to me that it was time I learned something practical. I took the Graduate Record Examination in philosophy and, if memory serves, wound up with two points short of a perfect score so that I could have gone anywhere in the country, I suppose, and spent a few years studying Hume or Hegel  or whoever. But I also took the Law School Admission Test, and did well enough to get scholarship offers from some prestigious institutions. The one I accepted was from NYU.

Going to law school was a blind leap in the dark. There were no attorneys in my family, I didnít know a single person with a law degree, and all I knew about the subject came from having read most of the Perry Mason novels three or four times apiece in high school and college. Thatís why I like to say that law school disappointed me because I thought I was going to learn how to solve murders. But diving into the sea of legal education turned out to be a smart move. Keeping up with the work took me every waking moment and I literally had to stop reading mysteries, although I still bought the Sunday Times each week and saved the Book Review sections with Boucherís columns. Even with that sacrifice I didnít excel at legal studies to quite the degree I had in high school and college but I did manage to graduate in the top ten percent of my class.

With law school and the bar examination and two decades of life as a student behind me I began feeling the urge to write. Since I didnít believe I had the talent to write mysteries, I began writing about them. The periodical that published my stuff most often was The Armchair Detective, a quarterly founded in 1967 by Allen J. Hubin, who soon became a close friend and who took over the Criminals at Large column for the Times after Tony Boucherís death of cancer at the unbearably early age of 56.

I first heard about TAD shortly after taking the New Jersey bar examination. The results were still a few months away and I was marking time with a job as assistant to the editor in chief at a law publishing house. I lived in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment furnished along the lines of the Kramdensí dump on The Honeymooners, slept in a Murphy bed, often found a roach or three in the bathroom or micro-kitchen. But the place was close to school and my job and just a few blocks from the Hudson Tubes that connected New York with New Jersey, and the rent was cheap. Somehow I heard about a fellow named Hubin  in White Bear Lake, Minnesota who was planning to launch a journal devoted to the entire field of mystery fiction. I wrote asking for more information and soon got back a much longer letter, the first exchange in a correspondence whose total wordage eventually surpassed War and Peace. Not only did I subscribe, which cost the lordly sum of $2.00 a year in those mesozoic days, but I soon got into the habit of offering material for publication: letters of comment, essays on favorite authors like Harry Stephen Keeler and Cornell Woolrich, whatever I felt like tackling. Much of this was published in TAD. Other small journals devoted to mystery fiction began appearing, and I did some writing for most of them too. Eventually I was asked to write entries for reference books on the genre, to edit and write introductions to collections of stories by various mystery writers, to review for newspapers and magazines, to serve on the boards of various crime-fiction publishing projects and as a consultant to the estates of the some of the authors I had most admired, notably to the trustees handling the estate of Cornell Woolrich, which, as I like to tell my students, raises every problem known in copyright law plus some others.

By the end of the turbulent Sixties, academic and other journals were regularly publishing commentary on mystery fiction and a growing number of colleges were offering courses on the genre. There was need for a book of readings that could be used in such courses, and Ray Browne of Bowling Green University Popular Press asked me to put together that book. The result was The Mystery Writerís Art (1970), a hodgepodge that somehow stayed in print for more than twenty years, long after I thought it had outlived its usefulness.

While I was working on that anthology and other projects I came to meet the author who more than any other single individual changed my life. His name was Frederic Dannay but he was much better known as Ellery Queen, the byline under which he and his first cousin Manfred B. Lee had been collaborating on brilliant detective novels and stories since 1929. Forty years after the publication of the first Queen novel, I stepped off a New Haven Railroad commuter train at Larchmont, about forty-five minutes from midtown Manhattan, and was shaking hands for the first time with Fred and his then wife Hilda and riding in their car to the Dannay home. One of the long-term projects I had been considering was a book-length study of the Queen novels and stories. Fred, it turned out, was not only willing to cooperate but flattered that someone was writing a book about Queen, and over the next few years he helped me with that book in countless ways. By the time it was published (in 1974, as Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective), he had made a mystery writer out of me.

In the fall of 1941 Fred had founded Ellery Queenís Mystery Magazine, which he continued to edit actively for almost forty years. One of Fredís abiding concerns was bringing new blood into the genre, and every month he would publish at least one short story by an author who had never written a mystery before. He must have encouraged almost everyone he met to try writing for him. After we had come to know each other he certainly encouraged me. I slaved over a story for more than two months and finally mailed it to him. Another few months of rethinking and rewriting and that hunk of junk became my first published story, ďOpen Letter to SurvivorsĒ (Ellery Queenís Mystery Magazine, May 1972).

At the time Fred bought that tale I was working at Middlesex County Legal Services Corporation, practicing law by the seat of my pants on behalf of that New Jersey countyís poor. I and several other young lawyers shared a disorganized office above a downtown New Brunswick storefront, its waiting room overflowing with clients whose problems we had no time to research as we made an endless round of appearances before various judges and bureaucrats. We were expected to be able to handle any type of legal situation that was thrown at us. I might be arguing an appeal in the New Jersey Supreme Court one day and trying to get some penniless family on welfare the next morning. In rapid order I was storing up a huge variety of experiences that wouldnít have come to me in five years of private practice, but it was a hectic way to live and I had virtually no time to do any writing of my own. By the time my first story was published I had exchanged that pressure-cooker environment for another lifestyle entirelyófar less tension, much higher salary, much lower cost of living, summers free, plenty of time for writingóby migrating to the Midwest and becoming a professor at St. Louis University School of Law.

I also became something of a writing fool. Since the move to St. Louis Iíve turned out 40-odd more stories, a thick cross-section of them recently collected in Night Forms (2010). Plus six mystery novels. Plus two Edgar-winning biographical-critical books. Plus a pile of articles for law journals. Plus a mountain of nonfiction writing about some of my fellow mystery writers and their work. A thick cross-section of that material, written over five decades, is collected here.

{The rest of the introduction can be found in the book.}

Francis M. Nevins

St. Louis, Missouri

March 20, 2010