Wednesday, April 24, 2019


CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):
majikwoids

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post concludes the biographies of those writers.


Raymond Chandler
(1888 - 1959)

"Chandler wrote like a slumming angel ..."
The New Yorker

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888. At seven, his divorced mother took him to live in England. He attended prep schools early on, then went to university in France and Germany. Like Rex Stout before him, Chandler cobbled together a career in business before failure there pushed him into a writing career. He developed a distinctive prose voice and a knack for pungent metaphor. Often quoted is this: It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

On his return to England after his European studies, he set out on a writing career with mixed results. By 1912, frustration moved him to the United States. A variety of jobs followed: tennis racket stringer, creamery book keeper and others of that sort. In 1917, he joined the Canadian army and fought in France. After his discharge, Chandler returned to Los Angeles.

At 36 he married Pearl "Cissy" Pascal who was 18 years senior to Chandler, and already twice divorced. He worked as a bookkeeper for an Southern California oil syndicate despite what he believed to be a corrupt industry with disreputable executives. With the depression, the oil business, too, slumped. Cissy's health began to fail and Chandler began drinking and carousing with company secretaries. He was fired in 1932.

Unlike Stout, necessity pushed Chandler to writing. A growing market for detective fiction seemed the path to take. His first story was published in 1933, sold to Black Mask Magazine. The demands of the pulp fiction market---tight plots, word length, subject matter---gave him a template to work within and he soon mastered the medium. He excelled at creating an emotional climate through apt description and original dialogue.

His first novel was published in 1939. The Big Sleep introduced a tough, cynical, sharp tongued Los Angeles gumshoe named Philip Marlowe. Chandler's prose was an artful combination of English prep school grammar and the rough street talk of 1930s. More lucrative work followed. As a scriptwriter, he earned Oscar nominations for Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia.

Amidst this success, his wife Cissy struggled with fibrosis of the lungs. She died in 1956. Her death devastated Chandler. His self-described 'long mourning' produced bouts of destructive drinking and at least one suicide attempt. His biographer, Frank McShane, remarked that " ... the emotional sensitivity that made [Chandler's] literary achievement possible also made him miserable as a human being."

Despite his 'long mourning' Chandler managed to write six more Marlowe novels as well as a number of short stories. Two of the books, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, are regarded as classics of the genre.

His legacy as an artist contributed to the careers of many writers. Those that followed --- Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Timothy Harris, Arthur Lyons, Max Allan Collins, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky and many others --- all built the edifice of their work on Chandler's foundation.





Saturday, March 30, 2019


CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):


majikwoids

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.



Dashiell Hammett
(1894 - 1961)



Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born near Baltimore, Maryland, on May 27,1894. His family was plagued with poverty. At 14 he left school and began working to help support the household. At 18 he wrangled a job with Pinkerton's Detective Agency. Eventually, he was sent to Montana to help mine owners suppress striking workers. He found his sympathies were with the miners. He had served briefly in the ambulance corps during the first world war, but was discharged due to tuberculosis. This disease and his childhood poverty would haunt the remainder of his life.

He wrote only four novels, the last in 1936. The Glass Key was considered his best work, though The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man were more successful commercially. Hollywood purchased the rights to both of the latter novels, and Hammett moved to Los Angeles to work on the scripts.

The remainder of his life until his death in 1961 was a matter of drunkenness, bouts of tuberculosis, irresponsibility, some serious efforts to effect political change, and a spell in prison for his support of left wing and communist organizations. He contributed to the plays of his partner Lillian Hellman, did some movie and radio work, but no more books were forthcoming despite a consistent nagging from his publishers.

Sam Spade, the main character in The Maltese Falcon, would serve as the model for the hard boiled detective for decades to come. Hammett's journalistic style also became de rigueur. The protagonist in The Thin Man became associated autobiographically with Hammett himself. Ironically, the title referred to the murdered victim in the novel, not Nick Charles, the detective; but a series of films based on the novel fixed the notion that the thin man was the detective. The lifestyle of Nick and Nora Charles was taken wholesale from the lifestyle of Hammett and playwright Lillian Hellman.

In the end, Hammett came to regret his creation of Sam Spade. Writers of various abilities were churning out copy after copy. Few were as compelling as the original.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):


majikwoids

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.



Rex Stout
(1886 - 1975)

Rex Todhunter Stout, born in 1886 and a published writer by 1920, was best known for creating what are generally considered the most refined and sophisticated detective fiction of his time. Nero Wolfe, his reclusive sleuth, worked as hard on cultivating orchids and his palate as he did at solving murders. His foil, Archie Goodwin, served as Wolfe's factotum and more. No longer the somewhat obtuse friend as Conan Doyle and Christie had portrayed Watson and Hastings, Goodwin became an equal with the fat man.

And it is with Archie Goodwin that some first steps are taken towards the creation of the hard boiled detective to come. When Wolfe needs to circumvent the law, it is Goodwin who beaks and enters. It is Goodwin who carries the gun. It is Goodwin who throws the punch. He may be suave and witty, but the veneer is thin and beneath lurks the tough guy who doesn't hesitate to do what needs to be done.

Like Doyle and Collins, Stout worked a variety of jobs in order to support himself while he wrote. He stopped writing for several years as he found earning a living and writing too daunting. His decision was to work and save until he could support himself as a writer. Fortunately, he sold a banking system designed primarily for schools to various institutions, and the income from the sale freed him to resume his writing.

Stouts first four novels, not mysteries, found publishers and moderate sales. He had written several short detective stories, and in the early 1930s made the decision to concentrate on that genre. Fer-de-Lance, published in 1934, brought Nero Wolfe to the reading public. Stout, though not exactly a model for Wolfe---always rather thin and outgoing himself --- did imbue the detective with his passion for fine food and gardening. The top floor of Wolfe's fictional brownstone in New York City had been converted to a potting room, work room, and green house. Besides Goodman, the household consisted of Theodore, who looked after the 10,000 orchids, and Fritz Brenner, the master chef, who catered to Wolfe's appetite.



Fer-de-Lance sold well and Stout began churning out a new Wolfe story every year. He also found time for political activism, supporting various democratic organizations. He was a past president of the Mystery Writers of America and won numerous awards including a nomination by an international panel as the foremost writer of the genre.

He died at his home in Danbury, Connecticut.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):


majikwoids

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.





Agatha Christie
(1890 - 1976)




Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller is arguably the best selling author of all time. Estimates of the sales of her 83 books stands at about 2 billion books. She created two detectives who are as recognized as most top film stars: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Poirot is a Belgian dandy whose methods were taken from Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Poirot relies on 'his little grey cells' and deductions follow. Marple is an observant elderly lady who is most often underestimated. She, too, relies on deduction.

Christie was the daughter of an American father and a British mother. Born in England in September of 1890, she was taught at home, learned to read at five, and grew up surrounded by a family that thoroughly enjoyed telling stories. At 24, she married a Colonel Archibald Christie.

Unfortunately, the marriage failed badly. The Colonel was a philanderer. Christie drove off one day in December of 1926 and disappeared. Stress induced amnesia of one sort or another was the diagnosis. She had checked herself into a resort hotel under her husband's mistress' name, and claimed to remember nothing of the intervening days.

Regaining her health --- divorcing the Colonel no doubt helped --- she resumed writing. She had already published five novels with some success. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, earlier in 1926, became a best seller, and launched the public acclaim for both Christie and her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. In her autobiography, Christie acknowledges that she was " ... still writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition --- eccentric detective, stooge assistant, and a stolid police man ..."


By 1934, Christie had found a new niche. Her novels began to feature unlikely scenarios in which her characters acted in the most likely manner. Miss Jane Marple, one of the author's favorites, first appears in Murder In The Vicarage. Marple, no doubt speaking Christie's mind as well, often remarks in the calm manner of your favorite grandmother, that all human beings are prey to their weaknesses and that some few are completely immoral. And it is the books of this period that Christie espouses the philosophy that to kill a killer is only justice.

For her exemplary career as a writer, Agatha Christie, age 81, was named a Dame of the British Empire, a woman's equivalent of knighthood.





Saturday, February 2, 2019


CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):

majikwoids

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(1859 - 1930)


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh on May 22, 1859, just a year after Wilkie Collins published The Woman In White. His family was impoverished largely due to an profligate father who gambled and drank. Nevertheless, Conan Doyle managed to receive a good education at a Jesuit school despite the sometimes brutal physical punishment that was meted out to the school's students. With an absent, errant father, mother and son formed a strong bond. From her he learned to appreciate the art of story telling, and managed to publish his first story while still a student.

Though he studied to be doctor, his medical practice was never on solid footing. While in London, writing stories rather than prescriptions, he managed to sell 'An American Tale'. "It was in this year," he later wrote, "that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials."

Well educated, well read, and soon to be well traveled, Doyle became a man of many interests. At twenty, he made a voyage to the arctic as a ship's doctor. While repulsed by the slaughter of seals, he relished the shipboard camaraderie. That voyage " ... awakened the soul of a born wanderer ... "

In 1886, he began a novel which would make him famous. Originally entitled A Tangled Skein, his protagonist was named Sheridan Hope. His crony was named Ormand Sacker. The book would be renamed A Study In Scarlet, and the characters would become Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

With the immediate success and celebrity of Holmes, Doyle faced a dilemma. The detective stories, as a genre, even then were considered "commercial" works; and Doyle wished to be considered a 'serious' writer, a literary man. So in spite of the financial rewards of the Holmes' stories and a now flourishing medical practice, Conan Doyle was restless.

He moved to Vienna with his wife and daughter and set up a practice, which failed rather badly. The inactivity, however, gave him a good deal of idle time to think. He made the decision to write a series of stories with the same characters. The Strand magazine agreed to publish, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson became the obvious protagonists for the stories. The collaboration between Doyle and The Strand became an immediate success, lasting for many decades.


In May, 1891, he suffered a severe bout of influenza; and Conan Doyle came to the realization that attempting to combine a medical career with a literary career was too daunting a task. His choice was easy: he gave up medicine and concentrated on writing.

Despite the success of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle began to feel oppressed by his character. By 1893, the demands to write more stories were constant. His solution to the problem was to kill the golden goose. In what was entitled 'The Final Problem', Holmes and his arch enemy Moriarty fight and both fall to their deaths into the Reichenbach Falls. Subsequently, 20,000 subscribers to The Strand magazine cancelled their subscriptions.

Relieved to be rid of this burden, Conan Doyle traveled and concentrated on his 'serious' writing. The death of his wife and son led him to the occult. As he grew older, more and more of his time and energy were spent delving into the mysteries of the afterlife and going off on what he termed 'psychic crusades.' It was estimated that he spent a million pounds ($30 million in today's money) on his esoteric studies.

Curiously, Holmes, too, had his 'afterlife.' Whenever Conan Doyle ran short of funds he would trot out another Holmes' story and replenish the coffers. Four novels were published as well as six short story collections. His 'science of deduction' became the standard for all other detectives until the 1930s when detection and detectives took on a darker cast.


sketch of Holmes by Sydney Paget



Sunday, January 20, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):


majikwoids


Last week I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post begins the biographies of those writers.



William Wilkie Collins
(1824 - 1889)

William Collins was born and raised in the fashionable London district of Marylebourne. Wilkie, as he was affectionately known, then spent the remainder of his life within the same few blocks. Curiously, the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes also was located in the district at 221B Baker Street.

By any standard, Collins led an unconventional life. Early on he became a story-teller. At boarding school, the short, stout boy with the disproportionately large head and shoulders with a lump on his forehead, and with small hands and feet, began spinning tales to appease a bully. His ungainly physical attributes, however, seemed no burden to Collins. He seems to have used himself for the model of Count Fosco, one of the principle characters in The Woman In White.

Initially a journalist, at 24 he entered law school and passed the bar in 1851; but he never practiced. He had begun writing fiction in 1843 and his first story appeared in a popular illustrated magazine. His first novel, inspired by the death of his father, was The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. The book was published in 1848, receiving good reviews. Wilkie never looked back.


Writing afforded him the financial wherewithal and the freedom to cultivate his bohemian preferences. He remained a lifetime bachelor, though he did live with several women. He indulged in good food, good drink, often to excess. Wilkie wore flamboyant clothes, frequently traveled to France and Italy, was widely read, and maintained a vigorous sense of humor. Despite his apparent joie de vivre, his health was often poor. To relieve the symptoms of his many ailments, he took larger and larger doses of laudanum, a tincture of opium, which was a common medication of the 19th century.

His wide circle of friends included Charles Dickens; and for many years Collins provided material for Dickens' magazines. The Woman In White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone were his best known works. During his lifetime he wrote over thirty major books, hundreds of articles, short stories and essays, and a dozen plays. He was noted for his cynical regard for the Victorian establishment, and for championing the many victims of the prevalent social injustices.

As we shall see, that cynical regard for establishment would become a major theme in all subsequent detective fiction.




Sunday, January 13, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):

majikwoids


What follows is a discussion of the six most influential author's of detective stories. In subsequent posts, brief biographies of those writers will make their appearance.




Top Ten

Top ten lists are ubiquitous. Any subject one cares to name probably has its list. Groups of ten are numerically satisfying. The metric system is a case in point. Such lists are brief, but still manage to capture the essence of the subject. Top ten novelists, top ten baseball players, top ten dogs, top ten automobiles: peruse the lists and one is immediately immersed in the subject. Which is not to mention the initial letter alliteration.

As my current project involves the equally ubiquitous detective novel, I thought it appropriate to list the most influential writers of this genre, and provide a brief biography of each. My list is not a top ten, nor a 'best' compilation. The list is comprised simply of six individuals who became benchmarks for all writers in this genre. The six will be listed in chronological order.

Wilkie Collins must certainly begin any such scheme. Two of his novels---The Woman In White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868) --- are still read and rank among the best written. Arthur Conan Doyle (A Study In Scarlet, 1886) next in line, is arguably the most influential of the group with his creation, Mr Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie (The Mysterious Affair At Styles, 1920) the most prolific of the group, has sold millions of books and her man, Hercule Poirot, is almost as well known as Holmes. Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, 1930) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, 1939) come up next. These two created what amounts to a sub-genre of detective fiction. No more Mr Nice Guy. With Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, the hard boiled detective takes center stage, and would set the tone for the next fifty years. Last on the list is Rex Stout (Fer-de-Lance, 1934). Stout, like Christie, was a word machine. He created Nero Wolfe in the 1930s; and took the concept of the locked room, a common motif throughout detective fiction, and turned it on its ear. Wolfe solves all his cases from the custom built chair in his office in the New York city brownstone where he resides.

Others beside these six might well have made the list. My time frame, however, is roughly 1850 to 1950. Many more minor --- they would not appreciate the label, I am sure --- writers have penned stories during this time frame: Philo Vance, Mickey Spillane and Charlie Chan's creator Earl Derr Biggers to name but three. But if 'influential' is the governing descriptor, I will stick with my 'big six.'