Thursday, October 19, 2023

Books: "Crime Novels of the 1960s,” Cultivated By The Library Of America

Crime Novels of the 1960s: Nine Classic Thrillers

Geoffrey O'Brien, editor

Library of America; boxed set; $80.00

This beautiful collection is the latest gem from the Library of America, which helps to preserve our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing.  

There are nine timeless novels from the 1960s, including four that were lost and have been restored in print. It is presented in two volumes, the first one with five novels from 1961-1964, and the second one has four novels that cover 1964-1969.

A reflection of a turbulent decade, these novels are of a fascinating variety and inventiveness from a period in which many gifted writers, at various stages of their careers, reimagined American crime fiction.

The selection of works you will find as you delve into this fascinating collection are the following:

The Murderers by Fredric Brown, published in 1961, is a darkly comic look at a murderous plot that was hatched on the hip fringes of Hollywood.

The Name of the Game Is Death by Dan J. Marlowe, from 1962, is a terrifying story about a nihilistic career criminal on the run. 

Dead Calm by Charles Williams, from 1963, is a masterfully done novel of natural peril and human evil on the high seas.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, also from 1963, is an unsettling tale of racism and wrongful accusation in the American Southwest.

The Score by Richard Stark, from 1964, is a taut novel in which the master thief Parker plots the looting of an entire city with the cool precision of an expert mechanic.

The Fiend by Margaret Millar, also from 1964, is an intricately written novel in which she maps the interlocking anxieties of a seemingly tranquil California suburb through the rippling effects of a child's disappearance. 

Doll is Ed McBain's classic police procedural that was released in 1965, and it is a quick-paced story that mixes murder, drugs, fashion models, and psychotherapy with the everyday professionalism of the 87th Precinct.

Run Man Run by Chester Himes, from 1966, is a nightmarish tale of racism and police violence that follows a desperate young man seeking safe haven in New York City while he's being hunted by the law.

The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith, from 1969, is a novel that's the ultimate meta-thriller, and tells the story of a displaced traveler finds his own personality collapsing as he attempts to write a novel about a man who's coming undone.

This excerpt is from the introduction to the first volume, written by the Editor of this collection, Geoffrey O'Brien: "American crime fiction has always tended to reflect the culture's rougher edges and more unstable elements. In the twentieth century, genteel puzzle mysteries in the Agatha Christie mode had their devotees and imitators, but the native product was more typically characterized by an acute awareness of social fissures and mental borderlines. The pressures and dangers of the Prohibition era, the Depression, World War II and its anxious aftermath are never far away. Likewise, the crime novels of the 1960s are suffused with the outward ills and troubled undercurrents of their time - urban chaos, racist hatreds, proliferating drug use, the suspicions and jangled nerves of suburban enclaves, the nihilistic rejection of established moral codes, the dissolution of personality itself - as perceived by very different writers from multiple angles.

As a genre, crime fiction has always also had a symbiotic relation with emerging media and with evolutionary changes in publishing formats. The pulp magazines of the 1920s and '30s fostered the rise of the hard-boiled style exemplified by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In the 1940s - a decade during which crime stories of all sorts maintained a dominant position in the world of entertainment - the same tropes, and often the same writers, could be found in novels, popular magazines, movies, and radio. It was typical for a successful mystery novel to be serialized in a magazine, adapted for radio and the movies, and eventually reissued as an inexpensive paperback. At this moment of peak popularity, the genre embraced a wide range of approaches, from the tough guy school to the psychological realism of women writers such as Helen Eustis and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. In the 1950s, the success of paperback reissues ushered in the era of paperback originals, driving the remaining pulps toward extinction, just as the conventions of the half-hour radio play migrated to television. Increasingly in evidence was a grittier, more male-oriented vein exemplified by the novels of Mickey Spillane, movies offering violent ripped-from-the-headlines exposes of gangsterism , or televised celebrations of law enforcement such as M Squad or Highway Patrol.

By the 1960s, crime fiction, although still a relatively popular genre, no longer occupied such a commanding cultural position. Even Russ Macdonald, the preeminent literary heir of Hammett and Chandler, did not become a best-selling author until late in the decade. (Macdonald's work, central to any consideration of crime fiction in the 1960s, is available in three Library of America volumes.) Conventions that had flourished for decades seemed to have reached a point of diminishing returns. The era of the private eye and the romantic noir melodrama along the lines of Double Indemnity or Laura tended to inspire parody or evoke nostalgia. Other genres emerged as strong  competitors to traditional crime fiction: science fiction and fantasy as developed by Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and others (including the belatedly popularized J.R.R. Tolkien), and extended by The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits; the fusion of crime story with horror as in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, from a novel by Robert Bloch; the political thriller making drama out of global crisis, exemplified by best-selling novels like Seven Days in May and Fail-Safe, the harsh realism and psychological probing of true crime breaking through to a wider public with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood; and above all the phalanx of secret agents led by James Bond and given more substantial credibility by the clandestine bureaucrats of John Le Carre.

Facing this stiff competition, writers working in a more traditional vein - some of them, like Fredric Brown, Charles Williams, and Dorothy B. Hughes, long-established veterans; others, like Dan J. Marlowe and Richard Stark, relative newcomers - felt the pressure to go beyond the predictable limits of the standard whodunit or police procedural. By widening the breadth of their subject matter, addressing themes that might once have seemed risky, perhaps availing themselves of the audacity allowed by a new permissiveness in a publishing, or experimenting with formal approaches befitting a flashier and speeded-up era, the best crime writers reinvented the genre in strikingly distinctive ways...

Each of these works establishes a very personal connection with a transitional and often chaotic cultural era, while continuing to draw on the strengths of a mature tradition. The novels collected in this volume, along with its companion volume, Crime Novels" Four Classic Thrillers 1964-1969, reveal not so much a period style as a varied and inventive range of approaches. In going beyond earlier templates for crime fiction, these writers continued to redefine its nature and widen its possibilities."

About The Library of America: An independent nonprofit organization, the Library of America was founded in 1979 with seed funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. It helps to preserve our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing. 

Library for America editions will last for generations and withstand the wear of frequent use. They are printed on lightweight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age. Sewn bindings allow the books to open easily and lie flat. Flexible, yet strong binding boards are covered with a closely woven rayon cloth. The page layout has been designed for readability, as well as elegance.

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