"The thing is to squeeze the last drop out of the medium you have learned to use. The aim is not essentially different from the aim of Greek tragedy, but we are dealing with a public that is only semi-literate and we have to make an art out of a language they can understand."
These two volumes of crime novels, bound and printed as classics, challenge our notion of the American canon. Or perhaps they simply remind us of what we were actually reading when we were supposed to be reading something else. If reading is good for you, bad reading is even better.
To put it another way, our Pleiade has become a Serie Noire. It was ever thus. In the British tradition, of course, there was that scandalous background extending from Robert Greene's pamphlets on coney-catching to Defoe's Moll Flanders and Fielding's Jonathan Wilde, and on to the Gothic novel, the Newgate novel, Oliver Twist and The Moonstone, and the early Greene. The French tradition, meantime, offers an extended parallel in criminal fiction. In Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and Camus, we ratchet the guillotine. Dostoyevsky's ax murderer was possibly redeemed, but not before he was a very bad boy indeed. Here in Hicksville, we have our own distinctive tradition of rough stuff. Poe, Hawthorne,...