Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s

  • By Leslie S. Klinger
  • Pegasus Books
  • 1,152 pp.
  • Reviewed by Art Taylor
  • November 15, 2018

This expansive new volume will please genre enthusiasts and fair-weather fans alike.

Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is one of my all-time favorite crime novels and one that I’ve taught regularly in my literature courses at George Mason University. In fact, it’s on the syllabus for my “Five Killer Crime Novels” class, and we finished studying it in mid-October.

The timing made me particularly excited for Leslie S. Klinger’s annotated Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s, which includes Red Harvest, as well as four other novels by pivotal figures in the genre: Earl Derr Biggers’ The House Without a Key, featuring Charlie Chan for the first time; S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case, the first Philo Vance mystery; Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, introducing Queen — the pseudonym of writing team and cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee — himself; and W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar, a gangster classic better known for the film adaptation featuring Edward G. Robinson.

How would gathering these novels in one volume provide insight into the crime fiction of the era? How would the annotations open up the texts and invite modern readers in? And specific to my own goals, would this new edition enrich my lesson prep for discussions of Red Harvest?

Klinger is one of the world’s leading authorities on the mystery genre, and this volume follows much of the approach and format of his landmark three-volume The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, published just over a decade ago.

Klinger’s foreword to this new collection offers a concise but comprehensive history of crime writing — both fiction and nonfiction — in the U.S., England, and beyond. He discusses the evolution of the genre from early true-crime writings, Gothic novels, and more through Poe’s pivotal role and into the 20th century.

Along the way, he spotlights leading figures in the tradition — Arthur Conan Doyle, Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and others — and discusses the emphasis on puzzle mysteries as well as the intersections of crime writing and social documentary.

For each of the works featured in the collection, Klinger offers mini essays mixing biography, critical appraisal, and publication history — and he puts his role as historian and critic above simply being an enthusiast for these titles.

For example, while examining S.S. Van Dine’s significant place in this history — including a gesture toward the high-brow/low-brow division that regularly creeps into discussions of genre fiction — Klinger also explains why the Philo Vance novels have fallen out of favor today: their “pretentiousness and lack of humor,” and the deteriorating “snob appeal” of Van Dine’s upper-class protagonist.

The first three novels fall more squarely into the traditional mystery category — a crime, an array of clues, and a detective figure ferreting out the truth. Though The House Without a Key is the first novel to feature Sergeant Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police, Chan himself isn’t the central figure. Instead, the protagonist is a young Bostonian who visits Hawaii and is immediately drawn into investigating a relative's murder — confronting otherness at every turn along the way.

The Benson Murder Case has socialite and art collector Philo Vance lending the New York district attorney a hand in solving the murder of a Wall Street stockbroker, and The Roman Hat Mystery, also set in Manhattan, finds police detective Richard Queen — assisted by his son, Ellery — on a case in which a lawyer is poisoned during a theatrical performance.

The final two novels represent more of a break with tradition: Red Harvest as a milestone in the development of the hard-boiled detective novel, and Little Caesar as a pioneer, to borrow Klinger’s phrase, of the crime drama embedded in the criminal’s perspective.  

(Small note: The ordering of the works in the collection may suggest a more programmatic evolution for the genre than actually occurred. In fact, both Red Harvest and Little Caesar were published months before Ellery Queen made his debut.)

As with his foreword, Klinger’s annotations serve as worthy guides for the books. The text is generous with photographs and rich with explanations about historical allusions and geographical locations.

For the Charlie Chan novel, for example, Klinger discusses Yellow Peril and the era’s growing anti-Asian prejudices, immigration numbers, and legislation enacted to combat that influx of outsiders. Elsewhere, commentary proves lighter — as with Klinger’s search to determine which New York theater was the actual location of the Roman Theater in the Ellery Queen novel.

In doing so, Klinger plays what Sherlockians call “the Game,” writing as if the characters and events of the novel were real, a move which, in turn, pays tribute to how Ellery Queen (Dannay and Lee) explicitly built on Holmesian traditions themselves.

For Little Caesar, readers get information on the rise of organized crime, on various firearms, and on the slang of the times. Similarly, the first chapters of the Philo Vance mystery sort through its dense references to art and art history. (Readers might revisit the quote above about “snob appeal” to understand why it might be tough going without that guidance.)

And what about Red Harvest?

Photos of Butte, Montana — the inspiration for the novel’s Personville — and commentary on the state’s political landscape supply valuable context. Notes on Hammett’s own (supposed) time in Montana as a Pinkerton operative give a glimpse at where real life can inspire fiction — and where an author might create fictions about his own life.

At the same time, however, I was surprised that Klinger didn’t include a note about Dinah Brand, the novel’s leading female character, being called a “soiled dove”— a phrase central to a famous speech defending an accused prostitute, a bit of historical context which might help to illuminate Red Harvest’s depiction of women and its themes of corruption and individual responsibility.

And I wished — so much! — for some educated commentary about two dream sequences that have always intrigued me and have generally left my students perplexed. Alas, the marginal notes to those latter passages include only postcards of the hotel and train station mentioned in one of the dreams.

Omissions are better than errors, of course, but even a small mistake can make its own push toward a reader’s deeper engagement. Early in Red Harvest, Hammett has a character comment that town leader “Old Elihu didn’t know his Italian history,” and Klinger’s sidenote discusses a workers’ strike in Italy in 1922, one that helped bring Mussolini to power — potentially a telling parallel to the novel’s own focus on class, power, and violence.

But Red Harvest originally appeared as four stories in Black Mask magazine, stories at times significantly different from the final novel, and the same line appears in the magazine this way: “old Elihu didn’t know his Machiavelli” — obviously a whole ’nother era of Italian history.

So was Hammett thinking of that 1922 strike at all? Or does such an annotation layer on meanings substantially different from what the author intended? Depending on how you answer those questions, the annotations might illuminate or obscure the text.

These may seem minor quibbles, of course — not just minor, but maybe even negligible. Ultimately, I learned, I was engaged, I enjoyed.

Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s is a treasure of information and a joy to study or simply read. By gathering these texts together and diving into them with insight and research, Leslie S. Klinger brings them to today’s readers in an accessible, enlightening, and entertaining way.

Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. His fiction has won four Agatha Awards, the Anthony Award, two Macavity Awards, and three Derringer Awards in the mystery field. He teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.

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