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Most Popular 20th Century Fiction

February 24, 2013


Most popular 20th century fiction? Murder mysteries.

Everybody from all walks of life constantly read detective stories. Even avant-garde geniuses like T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Faulkner scandalized literary critics by stuffing their bookcases with private eye novels.

Why this universal popularity? Perhaps because heavy times demand light reading. Two World Wars and a Great Depression had taught people how often history is committed, like murder, in the dead of night. Mystery readers took back a measure of personal control, under the guise of guessing who-done-it, when they spent their hour or two searching mean streets as a wised-up truth-seeker in a cheap suit.

When did the private detective debut in English literature? Who founded this genre?

Our premier mystery story was written, noir-ly enough, in the gas-lit mid-Eighties, by the greatest outlaw among America’s literary masters. Edgar Allen Poe invents the amateur sleuth in 1845 when, for a fat reward, C. Auguste Dupin deduces where The Purloined Letter is hidden.

It took popular fiction forty years to follow-up on and to perfect Poe’s conception of a “consulting detective.” The immortal sway of Sherlock Holmes begins with 1886’s A Study In Scarlet. Meanwhile, twelve months after Arthur Conan Doyle’s coup, E. Philips Oppenheimer publishes the first of more than one hundred books, mostly thrillers, among which he creates the modern spy novel.

The turn-of-the-century ushered in a vogue for gentleman burglars — the very first heroes-as-villains — beginning, in 1893, with France’s long-running good-guy thief Arsene Lupin, soon followed, in 1899 England, by Raffles, celebrated cricketer and, by night, “Amateur Cracksman.”

Also a fad from out of pre-WW I France comes Fantomas, in 1911, the first modern villain-as-hero. Thirty-two volumes feature this faceless sadistic criminal master-mind, a Gallic Dr. Moriarty, or forerunner to Hannibal Lector.

In 1915, Richard Hannay first appears in The 39 Steps by John Buchan, who was also Lord Tweedsmuir, Prime Minister of Canada, a major diplomat who wrote best-selling thrillers until 1941. As captured in Alfred Hitchock’s 1935 film version, Hannay was a veteran of Empire, stolid and resourceful, but, after the First World War, more dangerous men step forward.

Now the magic year for murder mysteries was 1920.

In 1920, The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, debuts with her first Hercule Poirot puzzler. “Sapper” (Herman Cyril McNeile), in that same year, has Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (“Detective, patriot, hero and gentleman!”) advertise himself for-hire  out of sheer post-war British boredom. Meanwhile, back in the States, no less a literary figure of his time than H.L. Mencken helps publish the first issue of Black Mask magazine out of a pressing need to offset losses from his stylish monthly The Smart Set.

In 1928, W. Somerset Maugham collects in one volume his famous spy stories, Ashenden: Or the British Agent, based on the author’s own intelligence experiences during World War I. Cynical and cool, Ashenden is an immediate forerunner of James Bond (so much so, for years herbork assumed — incorrectly — that Ian Fleming’s spy master “M” stood for “Maugham.”)

Above all, in 1928, half-English, half-Chinese Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin took the name Leslie Charteris and introduced Simon Templar, The Saint, in the novel Meet The Tiger. “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime” will prove to be — in novels, short stories, radio and TV serials, a newspaper comic strip, his own monthly magazine, and motion pictures — the 20th century’s longest-running international action detective.

During the Thirties, Black Mask editor “Cap” Joseph Shaw discovers Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, who had been a Pinkerton agent. The hard-boiled detective is born. Legions of newsstand imitators revolutionize pulp mystery fiction with endless knockoffs of wise-cracking Philip Marlow and tricky Sam Spade, low-rent agents who nonetheless stand for justice.

In 1939, British author Geoffrey Household comes up with Rogue Male, where “the hunted man” becomes a new sub-genre and, years later, the direct inspiration for the first Rambo story. As World War II looms, many other memorable crime-fighters are coined, including arcane vigilante Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, with his “power to cloud men’s minds.”

In post-war America, from Ellery Queen to Nero Wolfe, detectives were a dime a dozen. Then, with his scandalous I, The Jury in 1947, Mickey Spillane ignited a national obsession with brutal Mike Hammer. Only Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand (with whom Spillane enjoyed a brief but fond love affair) was more openly and universally despised by journalists and critics. Yet, selling millions upon millions of Spillane thrillers helped make possible the entire paperback book business, even as pulp magazines were dying from a new disease called TV.

Nobody could compete with Spillane in street-toughness, but, starting in 1950, Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott began a fifty year run as a mostly humorous and softly naughty send-up of trench-coated avengers. Then, in 1953, everything changes.

In 1953, James Bond shows up in Casino Royale, based on a true card game with a real Nazi bagman which, unlike his hero, former British spy turned journalist Ian Fleming lost badly — thus, inadvertently funding the German war machine. Bond only becomes an international cult when it is revealed President John F. Kennedy reads his adventures.

By the Sixties, then, all the wannabe Mike Hammers were morphing into spy-guys and lone-wolves. Gold Medal paperbacks — a line created to capture Spillane readers — began successful runs, in 1960, with Donald Hamilton’s counterspy Matt Helm, and in 1963, Philip Atlee’s secret agent Joe Gall. Most triumphant of all, however, were John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels from 1964 to 1984. McGee is, at last, the anti-Hammer, a sympathetic Florida-based Saint-like rogue male who understands and helps women in distress.

The great “lost” action author from the mid-Sixties is John Quirk. He wrote three straight novels — about the rivalries of hot-shot Navy fliers in wartime, big executives scrambling for control of their company, and a novella about a pro footballer’s rookie year — and then, in 1964 and 1965, Quirk published three Peter Trees adventures.

Peter Trees, The Survivor, is a shockingly blase millionaire jet pilot for, and business associate of, pop fiction’s first billionaire, Michael Archangeli. Trees himself is a former Navy combat pilot, a Medal of Honor recipient, and, as a personal friend of the President, “a hidden power in the secret lives of nations.” On the back cover of the Avon editions of his first two novels, Quirk proudly poses, holding a custom-made pilot’s helmet, before a Crusader jet like Trees’.

The three Trees adventures — The Bunnies, The Survivor, and The Tournament — constitute the last stand for the mindset of triumphant World War II veterans who still felt they were hard-chargers like Peter Trees, with “the world at his itchy fingertips.” Of all the talented writers who created action-detective heroes, only Quirk and Spillane actually seem to believe they are their protagonists, and this gives a verve and snap and “hypnotic conviction” to their prose which sets them apart.

But, perhaps because of his awkward name, Trees is not a success. The country’s mood no longer favors super-masculine winners.

After the assassination of President Kennedy, men, who had defined every kind of 20th century writing, began to disappear from print, along with their male readers, as feminism, drugs, a faltering public school system, and mass media changed the entertainment habits of guys. And so the last burst of mass-appeal paperbacks for men came with the launching, in 1969, of Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan series. The Executioner character has recently, rather wistfully, been revived in paperback, to scant notice.

Now let’s tiptoe away altogether from the Seventies literary scene. As women took control of popular fiction, the lowly detective novel became a semi-precious college-educated art form, often effective as fiction but, like university-educated jazz, too self-consciously derivative.

So, if you walk the mystery story back to its origins, the British Empire birthed as many fictional action heroes as the back alleys of American cities coughed up pulp magazine private eyes. The founder in England was James Buchan, who wrote, mostly for men, to reminded us: “No great cause is ever lost or won. The battle must always be renewed, and the creed must always be restated.”


"The" Red State men's novel... gutsy, smart, funny, prophetic
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