Best of DTM (2: Crime Fiction)


Under Newgate Callendar there are long essays about books.

In my twenties, I discovered the wildly prolific Donald E. Westlake and his pen name Richard Stark. When on tour in those years, going to a used bookshop in a new town in the hopes of finding a missing Westlake or Stark was a reason to live. With the advent of online shopping, I quickly completed the canon. (I still kind of regret paying $100 for Up Your Banners, one of the weaker entries.) My future wife told me to write Westlake a fan letter: After all, there couldn’t be that many people who had read every single Westlake novel. I took a missive to Mysterious Books, and they gave me an address. Not long after, Don and Abby came to the Village Vanguard to see the Bad Plus and we struck up a friendship.

It was shocking and sad when Don suddenly died, and I wrote a survey of his complete work in a single day. Later on I expanded the overview on two occasions. Just now I went through and buffed up a few sentences and transitions:

Donald E. Westlake: A Storyteller Who Got the Details Right

I felt something “click” when I first completed the tribute to Don. It’s much easier to make a written critique of words than of sound. I have learned a lot about how to be a critic when taking on non-musical topics.

Thinking about crime fiction is also a practical investigation for my work as a composer and performer. Genre is genre no matter what the art form at hand.

Classic bebop is a frame. Those that love bebop enjoy the way varied instrumentalists fill that container with blues, swing, and a certain kind of abstract and discontinuous logic. You play the head, blow, and play the head again to take it out.

In crime fiction, you know there are going to be tensions and puzzles with guns. In the end, the answers are going to be revealed, and someone is going to pay for their sins.

I suppose I have read Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, and Raymond Chandler the most. This is the baseline, this is Bird and Bud.

The author who might have done the most to upend the expectations of that baseline was Charles Willeford. In my view, he is misunderstood by casual crime fiction fans at large. I have done my best to set the record straight in a massive overview:

I Was Looking for Charles WillefordNothing Is Inchoate, or, “When Did You Get Interested in Abused Children, Helen?” plus two interviews,  Don Herron and Ray Banks.

Ross Thomas and Eric Ambler have long been two of my favorite thriller writers for their wonderful prose and dour politics.

Ah, Treachery! (Ross Thomas)

Come Out of the Darkness Into the Light of Day (Eric Ambler)

I could see myself writing overviews of K.C. Constantine and Patricia Highsmith, and if someone actually assigned me those projects I might do them. I know Rex Stout so well but what could I write that hasn’t been already said? The same but even more so goes for Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. They all have sufficient coverage in our culture.

However, I did write an essay on the scores for the cinematic adaptations of Raymond Chandler:

Marlowe’s Music