Friday, January 21, 2011

Biographies of crime writers: Who deserves to get a life?

I cross a new border this week, into literary biography, with Richard Layman's Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett.

What makes someone a fit subject for biography? Towering achievement, for one, and Hammett has that in spades. But he also appears to have been entertaining and elusive quarry. Here's the beginning of Layman's short preface:

"Dashiell Hammett seemed, for most of his life to crave privacy."
Standard celebrity stuff so far. But the paragraph goes on:

"Unlike many literary celebrities, he never took his fame seriously. He never relied on it, never expected it, and he was always contemptuous of those who treated him with deference because of his literary reputation. When he was in certain moods, he delighted in fooling interviewers, interested listeners, and sycophants with fabricated tales about his past and his future plans."

And here's the 1924 extract from Black Mask, in Hammett's own words, with which Layman heads the first chapter:

"I was born in Maryland, between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, on May 27, 1894, and was raised in Baltimore.

"After a fraction of a year in high school ... I became the unsatisfactory and unsatisfied employee of various railroads, stock brokers, machine manufacturers, canners, and the like. Usually I was fired."
One can tell Hammett had fun writing that — no surprise to readers who delight in the wit of his fiction.
***
In November I heard Joan M. Schenkar talk about her biography of Patricia Highsmith. And the British crime fiction and film critic Barry Forshaw has written a life of Stieg Larsson.

What other crime writers have been subjects of a biography? What crime writers should be? Whom would you like to read about — and why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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48 Comments:

Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Ngaio Marsh has been the subject of many biographies, none of which really shed any light on her private life, which she was notoriously protective of. She was a pyromaniac of some renoun when it came to her personal correspondence, so the poor biographers had their work cut out for them trying to find anything new about her which wasn't already in the public domain! All the same they are interesting reads because she was such a multi-faceted woman.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting that someone involved with the theater should have been such a private person.

I can imagine the theater and its relationship with Dame Ngaio's fiction ought to make grist for a biographical mill, or for a critical study, at least.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

James Lee Burke

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I haven't read James Lee Burke, but I have heard one bit of critical/biographical information about him that I found interesting: that he apparently had not read much crime fiction when he started writing his own -- that his literary background is different from that of many other crime writers, in other words. That strikes me as a fruitful subject for a chapter in a biography -- or maybe, as with my remark above on Ngaio Marsh, for a critical study.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

and I gather he has had an interesting life.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

THere is a bio of Elmore Leonard, but it isn't very good. Too bad, after 40-some books I bet he's got some interesting things to say.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, other than his reading preferences, that he has lived both in Louisiana and Montana (I think), and that his daughter has become a crime novelist, I know nothing about him. But I'm tempted now to remedy that. Thanks.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

There have been numerous bios of Christie and Sayers, and at least two books about Allingham and Dickson Carr. Others include Dick Francis, Cornell Woolrich , Craig Rice and S.S. Van Dine.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, that Leonard book gets off to an unpromisingly clownish start. Layman, on the other hand, seems to slip easily into tune with his subject. Of course, it helps that I've read lots of Hammett recently.

... after 40-some books I bet he's got some interesting things to say.

I wonder it it's realistic to imagine an author of notable achievement whose life was so uneventful that he or she would make a bad biographical subject. Or would the work itself make a sufficently interesting object of study?

January 21, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Good question, Peter. But I think Elmore Leonard has chronicled the character of Detroit for many decades and there might be something of the American character in that. The events might not be of the headline variety but they could add up to an interesting story.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Martin: A life of Cornell Woolrich suggests that unhappy circumstances are attractive subjects for a biographer. A Woolrich biography is hardly likely to make light reading.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: A man and his city. That's certainly one approach. And must a literary biography's interest be rooted in the subject's own work? Cornell Woorich's name just came up. From what I know of him, his life was about as dark and lonely as his books -- which brings to mind Philadelphia's own David Goodis.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

there might be something of the American character in that.

Hmm, I wonder if writers in a young culture such as the American are likelier to be said to represent something of their nation's character than, say, European authors would be. Hammett was not so many generations removed from his family's origins in America and was closer to their mercantile pioneer roots. His great-grandfather's Maryland store and the area around it were called Hammettville, for instance.

January 21, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

On the contemporary front, Craig Cabell has written Ian Rankin and Inspector Rebus: the story of the best-selling author and his complex detective, 2010, (I haven’t read it; don’t plan to).

Frank MacShane’s biography of Raymond Chandler, The Life of Raymond Chandler, 1976, remains the best RTC bio to date. Diane Johnson’s Dashiell Hammett: A Life, 1983 is the second-best SDH bio; she had quite a bit of cooperation from Hellman (which Layman did not) but Hellman still vetted the final bio.

There have been several bios of James M. Cain, Paul Skenazy’s 1989 one is perhaps the best one (from what I’ve heard).

Tom Nolan’s bio Ross Macdonald: A Biography, 1999, is supposed to be quite good. (I have it; haven’t read it yet.)

I’d love to read bios of some of my favorite 1920s-30s Black Mask writers like Paul Cain, Frederick Nebel, Horace McCoy, etc. Raoul Whitfield’s real life was the stuff of fiction; I think he’d make a great subject for a bio.

American Hard Boiled Crime Writers volume, 2000, in the “Dictionary of Literary Biography” has been a gold mine for a least some bio material on many authors as well as a checklist of TBR books.

The contemporary crime fiction author whose bio I’d most like to read is that of Andrea Camilleri. What a rich life he’s had! He’s written a bio of Luigi Pirandello, now somebody write one of Camilleri!

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul Cain might present a challenge, since I understand he worked under any number of names and, it is said, it was years before anyone even knew what his real name was. All I know about him other than that (and that Fast One was one of the very best crime novels of the hard-boiled era) is that he probably fond of poker. And Whitfield has lots of money and then pissed it away, I think, which always makes for good reading.

Hammett's early stuggles are interesting, but only as background to his fiction, at least to this point in my reading of Layman. So, I wonder again, who deserves a biography? My tendency -- and I've read very little biography -- is to suggest that the subject ought to have been of towering achievement or to have lived a life of extraordinary experiences. I wonder how many crime writers fall into that category. Maybe someone could write a group biography of the Black Mask writers, which could also include the short, sad life of Norbert Davis.

A Rankin biography feels too much like a celebrity cash-in. Of course, one might say the same about a Stieg Larsson book, but at least Larsson has the good grace to be dead.

Layman is succinct about Hellman's stance on Hammett biographies, that no piece on Hammett could be written without her help. He concludes, as you'll know, that he wrote his without help or hindrance from her.

Massimo Carlotto qualifies for biographical treatment in the extraordinary-circumstances department, and I think he has written a memoir. And Friedrich Glauser's life, with its drugs and confinement and service in the French Foreign Legion, probably would make good reading in the hands of a capable biographer.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Kiwicraig said...

James Lee Burke would make an excellent subject - he has lead a very interesting life, having worked in several industries (oil industry, with strugglers on Skid Row, as a teacher/lecturer etc) as well as being a writer. He is highly intelligent, well-read, and has many interesting things to say about life. He is passionate about people and the land, and cogniscent of world events, politics etc.

I had the immense pleasure of chatting to him for an hour last year for an article for the NZ Herald (I called it "Philosopher of Crime"). There is some biographical info etc there for those who want to read more: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=10663017

If our interview was anything to go by, whoever ended up getting to be the biographer would be very lucky indeed (in terms of getting to talk to JLB about so many things).

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the link, Craig. Here it is in handy clickable form. I didn't know Burke's occupational back background. I'd like to hear him tell some of his own stories.

A varied job history is hallmark of crime writers' cover biographies, to the point where some make a joke out of them. Hammett's remarks are the earliest example I can think of of the tyoe.

January 21, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

John McAleer wrote an authorized bio of Rex Stout. I own and have read it. It's good.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good god, did you see who wrote the foreword to that book?

Stout is another writer whose life is full of interesting biographical details, from the politics, to the school banking system, to the spelling-bee championships. Thanks.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Peter, I just reread Trevanian's The Main and realized I don't know anything about the man behind the pen name. Except that he sold a ton of books and never seemed to repeat himself. As far as I can see he wrote the two 'sanction' books but no series and possibly no two books set in the same place.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

re Trevanian - my fave book is Shibumi and I have just read an arc of Don Winslow's soon to be published prequel. Exciting stuff!

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, all I've read by Trevanian is the opening of The Loo Sanction. I picked this up because I wondered why someone would write a thriller about a British toilet. But the opening chapter has nothing to do with loos as we know them, I will never look at church bells the same way again.

Michael beat to the bunch on the Winslow book, but I wonder if that might revive interest in Trevanian.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

I hope so, Peter. I think I read somewhere in the blurb that Shibumi would be re-released as part of the whole promo thing.

FTR - Trevanian was the pen name of Dr Rodney William Whitaker. He was a New Yorker - he taught - he fought in the Korean War. He wrote under several pseudonyms and ended up living in the French Basque region and died in 2005. Methinks there is an interesting life to read about.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I'm impressed that you like the prequel. It's a dicey proposition for readers when another author steps into a beloved series. I was undecided about Joe Gore's Spade & Archer, for example. Maybe I should read it again now that I've read so much Hammett in the meantime.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You anticipated my question about why Trevanian might make an interesting subject or biography. I knew Trevanian was a pseudonym, but I thought (or assumed) he was British.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

It was a brave move on the part of Winslow and the publishers, but he pulled it off. To be honest, I think Winslow could write out the phone book and make it readable - so I wanted to love it and he didn't let me down.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

And for a New Yorker (Albany, I think) Trevanian did a great job with the Montreal setting of The Main. That's one for which I'd like to see a prequel or sequel.

(my v word is "shmat" and there's a joke in The Main about a pizzeria becoming a dress shop and the locals calling it the Schmatteria...)

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, my brief experience with Winslow ("The Death and Life of Bobby Z," which I liked a lot, and "Dawn Patrol," which I could not get through because the mimicing of surfers' speech drove me nuts) contained nothing to make me suspect he'd be drafted to write a thriller. So the man obviously has writign chops down.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, that sounds very much worth a look. Italian Americans, at least in some cities, will drop a final vowel, thus stronz for stronzo. So shmat is a highly effective sign of the ethnic and social brew that makes for a great city.

I had an even better v-word -- one could even call it a suggestion -- for one of my comments on my Swedish sex post, which appears just above this one: mouth

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

The Power of the Dog was excellent. Savages was brilliant. Each time he seems to be able to give his books a different flavour.

Oh, and John that was spooky about the v. word.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Winter of Frankie Machine seems to be the one that gets mentioned most.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Dorothy L Sayers.

I read about her life years ago and have little memory of it.

In keeping with the discussion about racism in Joseph Conrad, which has got me thinking furiously, Sayers was often accused of attacking Jewish people in her books. People who knew her claimed that this was not so, but her books were much criticized at the time for the sentiments some characters are allowed to express.

This all begs the question about how much of themselves a writer puts into their work. When characters are coarse or misogynistic I don't tend to think that the writer is also like this.

Holding the mirror up to nature is the corrective that makes literature such a very consoling art.

By shocking the reader, a good writer can often show how prejudice and violence, either in word or deed, are futile.

The site Biographybase is excellent for finding writers and the piece on Sayers is to the point.

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Vince said...

You are right, Craig Cabell's bio of Ian Rankin is a lightweight book.

If you read Diane Johnson's bio of Hammett, be sure to read her article in Vanity Fair telling how Lillian Hellman made her change the book to suit Hellman's opinions. Hellman even rewrote one section to replace Johnson's facts with Hellman's fictional version of what happened.

Tom Nolan's Ross MacDonald is quite good.

For Black Mask writers, try William Nolan's The Black Mask Boys, an informative and very fun read.

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P à D, I’ll likely have a thing or two to say about Lord Jim once I get back to reading Conrad.

What little I know about Sayers suggests she might indeed make an interesting biographical subject. That little comes from Murder Must Advertise, which seemed to me astonishingly forward-looking for a novel published in 1933. Much its jabs at advertising seemed like the sort of humor that would become popular in the 1960s.

For anti-semitism and other social attitudes among English crime writers, take a look at Colin Watson’s highly entertaining Snobbery With Violence

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vince, I’ll wait for Elisabeth to weigh on those books; I’m a newcomer to biography. I know that she respects Layman highly as Hammett’s best biographer.

Thanks for recommending The Black Mask Boys. I think Layman has some nice things to say about William Nolan. And I found some of Layman’s observations about Joseph Shaw interesting.

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

“My tendency -- and I've read very little biography -- is to suggest that the subject ought to have been of towering achievement or to have lived a life of extraordinary experiences.” I pretty much agree, with a possible quibble with the word “towering”. Anything else is little more than celebrity gossip.

A couple of people have tried to do the research on the life of Paul Cain—he’s probably the most popular Black Mask writer after Hammett and Chandler—but, at least at present, the source material just doesn’t appear to exist/hasn’t been found. And not only because of his name variants.

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I’ll wait for Elisabeth to weigh on those books"

Peter, I wrote this in an earlier comment above: Diane Johnson’s Dashiell Hammett: A Life, 1983 is the second-best SDH bio; she had quite a bit of cooperation from Hellman (which Layman did not) but Hellman still vetted the final bio.

And, yes, The Black Mask Boys by William Nolan, is very useful. I have it.

I also have the Macdonald bio. I'll read it after I've finished reading his novels. (I read everything I could by Hammett and Chandler before I began reading bios/letters/criticism and I'll do the same for Macdonald.)

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose I did with Hammett what you did with him and Chandler -- read lots before I started reading biography. And Layman's amusing observations about Joseph T. Shaw would add extra interest to the Black Mask book,

I have noticed in collections that reprint what purport to be the introductions to the original stories that said introductions seemed tailored toward an audience that probably did not read much. The words, the ideas, and the sentences were very basic -- more so than in most of the stories that follow, much less in Hammett's stories. This makes me curious about the magazine's audience and the assumptions the publishers and authors made about that audience.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

We had a joke among hacks that any sentence longer than 8 words was too taxing for the average reader.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, the reader is supreme and never to be made fun of. Nor is writing style a permissible topic of conversation in certain circles.

I may reproduce one of those Black Mask introductions to illustrate what I mean. They read like efforts by literate efforts to reproduce how "real" people talk.

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...curious about [Black Mask's] audience and the assumptions the publishers and authors made about that audience."

I've read a bit about the popular and critical reception (sorry) of pulp fiction of the 1920s-40s but I think this is a topic that really deserves some more thorough research. Research beyond the stories and authors and into the readers. No preset sociopolitical agendas on the part of would-be researchers, please! From what I've read, the audience for the pulps was wider than contemporary critics (the snobs) once thought. I'm reminded of the Julian Symons 1981 essay: "Raymond Chandler: An Aesthete Discovers the Pulps."

Re Hammett / "Black Mask"... is it Layman who makes reference to a letter in BM from a teenage girl asking when are they going to publish another story by that fine writer Mr. Hammett?

I've looked at a few BMs on microfilm and the text around the stories can be fascinating. Educated, informed, inquiring-minds-want-to-know letters to the editor among this "extraneous" material. (I don't think anyone believes these were all faked by the mag's editors/publishers.) The letters and other tidbits reflect a diverse readership. Sure, mostly male and probably most of them had no more than a high school education. But I think it's fair to say that public HS reading requirements were tougher nationwide than they are today. And, surely, better to grab "Black Mask" at the newsstand on the way home from work at one's working class/lower middle class job than to flop down in front of the TV.

Sure, a lot of the ads are pretty cheesy but the stuff they push was cheap, just like the mag. In cost, that is.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I'd agree that more research is needed before one can make firm pronouncements about Black Mask's audience. Forced to make a tentative guess -- and a guess is all it is -- I'd say the introductions read as if the editors were writing down to the audience. This is odd, because I don't get such a feeling from the stories.

Of course, my impression could be due simply to the different fashions in prose style of the Black Mask days. (Among these fashions, noted occasionally here, is freer use of adverbs -- faces glowing yellowly in a lamp's light, and that sort of thing.)

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Writing down to the audience," not writing to be thought one of them? In the way an awkward youth tries to be "just one of the guys"?

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd probably be safest refraining from too much more comment at least until I can go back and read a few more of the introductions to verify my impressions. The Black Lizard Black Mask book reprints them. I don't remember if the Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps does.

January 25, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I've just posted about the hack's life. The last laugh was on us as we tried to pare copy down to fit neatly on the page.

I would love to find a good biography about Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the Spanish master of crime writing.

Is it possible that Camilleri named his main character, Montalbano, in deference to him?

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Montalbano is, indeed, an homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, by all accounts. This from Wikipedia, for example:

"The name Montalbano is an homage to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán; the similarities between Montalban's Pepe Carvalho and Camilleri's fictional detective are remarkable. Both writers make great play of their protagonists' gastronomic preferences."

Camilleri has also said in interviews that he and Vázquez Montalbán (Jean-Claude Izzo, too) were friends.

Until someone write that biography of Vázquez Montalbán, this article/review offers some hints of why he deserves one.

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I have been preoccupied recently and have not had time to write more about Conrad.


The following reading list is so good I decided to link it in its entirity.

The book about
Joseph Conrad in the 21st Century looks promising.

February 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I've been too preoccupied to read any more Conrad.

A book about his critical reception in our day could be worth reading. Your link brought me to a page that listed a number of academic books. That's probably not what you intended, but one of them, about beginnings in fiction, could be worth a look, so thanks.

February 07, 2011  

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