Monday, January 20, 2014

What separates the superlatively great from the merely very good? Nebel is like a great hamburger or pepperoni pizza; Dashiell Hammett is steak au poivre that melts in your mouth, followed by a fine aged tawny port. Raoul Whitfield is a Lexus, Raymond Chandler a Bugatti (though given Whitfield's output of aviation stories, maybe he's the Spirit of St. Louis and Chandler a Concorde). Hammett is Giotto and Chandler, Babe Ruth; George Harmon Coxe and Erle Stanley Gardner are—  But you get the idea.

I'm reading one of the superlatively great Black Mask writers, one who would be right up there if he'd written more, and one of the mere very goods. (The superlatively great is Hammett, the would-have-been is Paul Cain, and the very good is Frederick Nebel, in the form of Crimes of Richmond City, five loosely connected stories that appeared in Black Mask in 1928 and 1929.) 

The Nebel has great moments of tension and even psychological insight, and one of the great comic crime fiction foils in Kennedy, of the Free Press. It also has archaisms that induce a smile in today's readers:
"`The skunks!' exclaimed Kerr. `Can't we run the pups down?'"
"`Drive to that old brewery,' he clipped."
It won't do simply to chalk up the first example to its era's greater reticence than our own with respect to swearing. Chandler in The Big Sleep and Hammett in "The Girl With the Silver Eyes" devised entertaining, evocative ways to suggest swearing without the archaically comical touch of "The skunks!" Perhaps one definition of greatness in a writer is the ability to solve narrative problems in ways that would not occur to lesser authors, and to turn those problems to his or her advantage. So here is your philosophical question, readers: What distinguishes a great author from one who is merely good, even very good? Examples welcome.

(Granted Nebel was near the start of what would be a prolific career that lasted into the 1960s. He may have lacked the confidence or the juice to blaze creative trails early on. But Hammett was still in his twenties when "Arson Plus" appeared and barely 30 when he wrote "The Secret Emperor.")

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A friend who knows crime fiction and art suggests Chandler is a Maserati and Rembrandt. I'll buy that, provided Chandler is not, in fact, a big, old Rolls Royce touring car.

January 20, 2014  
OpenID identitytheseries said...

I suspect it's the timelessness you've hinted at here. I'm a big old movie buff, and what always strikes me about the great pre-Code films is how current they feel. The human condition, which all writers strive to write about in some form or another, doesn't change much, so the writers that succeed in capturing it never age.

January 21, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

This may lower the level of discourse, but, to me, the mark of greatness is when a writer can consistently give me moments or entire novels where, after reading, I shake my head and think/say, "Damn, I wish I'd written this." Anyone can do it once in a while, but some do it so often I expect it. Those are, to me, the greats

January 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

id series, interesting you should single out pre-Code films. They feel current, especially in their dealings with sex, yet they don't show nudity or contain strings of four-letter words. They were still operating under unwritten social and artistic constraints, and were probably better for that (with the caveat that the movies we see today are probably the best of the lot).

January 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, the question then becomes: What defines that writing that makes you thing, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"? It's elusive, isn't it, and each writer who achieves it probably does it in his or her own way, revealing new possibilities. If we could nail it down, we'd be doing it ourselves.

January 21, 2014  

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