“Crime Fiction. A Reader’s Guide” by Barry Forshaw (published by Oldcastle Books)

The usual suspects plus various hoods, dicks, molls and stoolies

There came a time a few years back when I was reading so many crime novels – Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, Conan Doyle, James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler, Kinky Friedman, etc – that colleagues in the newsroom asked why I had started mumbling semi-incoherently out the side of my mouth, instead of speaking nice and clearly like good sober journalists do.
14. February 2021 13:42

And did the bulge that had appeared in my jacket under the left armpit have any connection with the small handgun that now was suddenly being printed in the bottom-left corner of my business cards? (This was a nod to Philip Marlowe that these straight types failed to recognise.)

Further, I had to continually explain that the book I was reading called “Pulp Fiction” had nothing to do with the Quentin Tarantino film that was hugely popular at the time, but was in fact a collection of hardboiled crime yarns from the original pulp magazines that had actually inspired Tarantino, those cheap, mass-produced publications of the 1920s and onwards with stirring titles such as  “Manhunt”, “Thrilling Detective Magazine”, “Black Mask”, “Shock”, “Spicy Stories” and “Thrilling Mystery Magazine”.

I still remember a couple of the  wonderfully colourful expressions from the “Pulp Fiction” book: “If she was a ranch they’d call her the Bar Nothing”, and (describing a car chase) “They burned a hole in the night that the night would never repair” are two great examples that were once-read, never-forgotten. Call it a trash aesthetic with a lot of writing talent.

I realised I had to take a step back from the gore when reading Carl Hiaasen’s “Native Tongue”, from 1991, in which a sub-moronic goon on his way to kill someone is stopped from doing so by being run down by a car, leaving him with his foot trapped under a wheel. While the goodie goes to get help, the crim makes his escape by gnawing his foot off, like an animal in the wild.

Hiaasen, a Florida investigative journalist, was truly inspired in “Native Tongue”, getting weirder and weirder by the page, and at this point I had to stop reading, hold the book out at arm’s length and take a few long breaths before plunging back in. The one-footed, would-be assassin limped his way through the rest of the bizarre novel. Addicted to steroids, he had them in a permanent drip-feed in his arm hanging from a frame on wheels that he pushed around everywhere with him.

How to resist, then, snapping up Barry Forshaw’s new book “Crime Fiction. A Reader’s Guide” as soon as I became aware of it? Here they all are in this 400-page encyclopedic offering: Leonard, Block, Ellroy, Conan Doyle, Burke, Chandler, the Kinkster and dozens and dozens of other wrong-side writers. Who can ignore Charles Willeford, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, Patricia Highsmith and all the rest, and Forshaw doesn’t, with a stiff or two on every page, so to speak.

This writer, broadcaster and journalist, as an expert in this field, has what we might call a record as long as his arm. His earlier publications include “Nordic Noir”, “Euro Noir”, “Brit Noir”, “American Noir”, Historical Noir” and the two-volume, 900-page “British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia”. If there’s one thing that gets the blood pumping at The Budapest Times, it’s a good bit of heavy-duty noir.

Forshaw’s “sheet” also includes editing the Crime Time website, he frequently appears on television and is responsible for a variety of documentaries on crime fiction and film for BBC TV and radio. Throw in his penning of CD booklets, former vice-chairmanship of the Crime Writers’ Association and emceeing of the annual Dagger awards presentations for the UK’s top crime writing, and here is a man so up to his neck in villainy he might best be kept behind bars, sharpening a shiv.

He notes that while there is a case for tracing the roots of crime fiction to the 19th century, we can actually go back further, to the Bible in fact when Cain did away with Abel, thus the third human ever created managing to slay the fourth. Then come the psychological mystery of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex”, Shakespeare’s assassination drama “Julius Caesar” and the femme fatal that is Lady Macbeth.

Next we have the cops, secret agents and villains of Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo’s dogged detective Javert, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (is it strictly crime fiction?) and Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. Augustine Dupin who was “massively influential” on Conan Doyle and his immortal Sherlock Holmes. Then there are Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket in “Bleak House” and Mr Nadgett in “Martin Chuzzlewit”, and on to Wilkie Collins’ never-out-of-print “The Woman in White” (1859) and “The Moonstone” (1868).

The rise in popularity of crime fiction as a genre was particularly evident in the 1920s, partly as a result of World War I, with people wanting an escape, but also prompted by changes in the publishing industry and the arrival of the paperback. Those popular magazines named above and many others were the “pulps”, printed on cheap wood-pulp paper.

Forshaw has given us an encyclopaedic-style book with separate sections and categories for the various authors and genres, plus little bits on films if the particular book made it to the big screen. This applies to such efforts as “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald from 1957 (filmed twice as “Cape Fear” in 1962 and 1991), Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (book in 1939, film in 1946 with Humphrey Bogart), Leonard’s “Rum Punch” (book in 1992, filmed by Tarantino in 1997 as “Jackie Brown”), James M. Cain’s 1943 novella “Double Indemnity” (filmed in 1944 from a Chandler/Bily Wilder script and often cited as the greatest film noir), Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” (published in 1929-30 and filmed three times, in 1931, 1936 and 1941) and so on.

Focusing on more recent fiction, the guide provides a selection of the best crime writing over the past century, organised by sub-genre, subject and era. There are chapters on the Golden Age, as well as hardboiled detective novels and pulp, private eyes, cops, professional and amateur investigators, psychopaths and serial killers, organised crime, espionage and even cosy and comedic crime.

Appendixes cover six key Scandinavian thrillers, top political thrillers and five favourites of Forshaw that he re-reads: “The Mask of Dimitrios” by Eric Ambler (1939), “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939), “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927), “The Ministry of Fear” by Graham Greene (1943) and “Mystic River” by Dennis Lehane (2001).

It’s all a bit like that Kinks’ song “Celluloid Heroes” about the stars on Hollywood Boulevard: “Some that you recognise, some that you’ve hardly even heard of.”

Readers will agree and disagree with Forshaw, mostly agree, we feel. We’re happy to see that in discussing Hiaasen’s “Sick Puppy” (2000) Forshaw refers to “plotting whose crazy ingenuity leaves the reader reeling”. Shades of “Tourist Season”, indeed. But he says of Ellroy’s “The Cold Six Thousand” that “many find the prose (short sentences, minimal punctuation) mannered and irritating”. That happened to us two books earlier with “White Jazz”, and we gave him up.

And it must be mentioned that of the singular Charles Willeford’s excellent books Forshaw features “Sideswipe”, absolutely an all-time favourite of any genre, any era, here at The Budapest Times. Totally amazing and enjoyable if you have a bit of a twisted mind.

Leave a Reply