Crime-fiction history gets an original and contrarian treatment, centering on the changing role of the detective, from “Pre-Classical” (characters of Poe, Gaboriau, Green, Conrad) to “Sherlock Holmes” to “English Classic” (Christie, Sayers) to “Psycho-Intuitive and Noir” to “Hard-Boiled” to “Neoclassic Revival” to (speculatively) the “Metaphysical Modern.” Many of Charles Brownson’s definitions differ from the standard ones. Noir is usually defined specifically and narrowly (as by Dave Zeltserman in Writing Crime Fiction) or much more broadly in reference to a dark cinematic mood, and most date its ascendency to the end of World War II. To Brownson it is the dominant type of detective story beginning around 1939 but overtaken by the hardboiled in 1949 with the work of Ross Macdonald (The Moving Target is called “the first novel in the hardboiled mode”!) and Mickey Spillane. Can you name two writers as dissimilar as those two, apart from the fact they both wrote about private eyes? Police procedural is usually traced to the 1940s and writers like Hillary Waugh and Lawrence Treat. Here, it starts with R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts decades earlier. If this all sounds outrageous or ignorant, be advised that the author argues his positions carefully and writes very readably, much better than the average English professor, while explaining his complex theories. The book is certainly worth a look from interested enthusiasts.
Unfortunately carelessness about names, dates, and titles, along with some off-the-wall opinions, undermines the book’s authority. That Dashiell Hammett belongs to the classical school is certainly arguable, but is Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade in the first film version of The Maltese Falcon really “a dandy in the mold of Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance”? In an appendix listing films mentioned in the text, character names are misspelled for Chinatown and True Confessions, and in the latter Robert De Niro is listed as playing the cop brother rather than the priest; for Memento, Guy Pearce is listed as a character rather than an actor. Author names misspelled include William Le Queux (listed as LeQuex) and Erle Stanley Gardner (Earle). Dates for The Leavenworth Case and The Mysterious Affair at Styles are both a year off; the date of The Maltese Falcon is moved to 1923 from 1931; and the debut of Elizabeth George is dated 20 years early.