In Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s (Pegasus Crime, Oct.), Klinger analyzes and annotates five seminal American crime novels.
What 1920s social realities changed American crime fiction?
The booming economy created great rifts between the rich and the poor, and literature that depicted the rich as corrupt must have been satisfying to many who yearned to be wealthy. Furthermore, isolationism was growing, to the marked detriment of people of foreign descent, and in particular Asians. This bigotry is not the main theme of House Without a Key or Little Caesar, but the position of foreigners—the Chinese and Japanese in the former, the Italians in the latter—is a stark reality clearly on the minds of the authors and to which readers could relate.
Which author has had the most lasting impact, and why?
Hammett spawned a legion of admirers and imitators as the hard-boiled school of writing and later, noir films, caught on. These stories were about men struggling to work out life in accord with a code of honor that was practical, yet lofty—an American self-sufficiency. This is very different from the underlying theme of European fiction, which was largely about returning to normalcy after the horrors of the war.
Are the Charlie Chan novels readable today?
I don’t think the novels have suffered as we become more “woke.” Chan is never depicted disparagingly. He is a loving husband and father, admired by his colleagues, always polite, and certainly mindful of the guarded, even bigoted attitudes around him. Some may be disappointed that he doesn’t rage at the discrimination he sees, but his dignity ought to be an example for every member of a minority. In fact, I think the books are important lessons for us, reminding us of the pervasive anti-Asian discrimination that infected our country for a long time.
How does annotating improve the reading experience?
I’m amused that some award-givers now class books published before 1950 as “historical mysteries”—yet it’s true that older books depict alien worlds. We don’t speak 1920s English anymore, and many of the social customs and the names and places so well-known to everyone then are now forgotten or obscure. Certainly none of these books need my help to achieve their place in literature. However, I aim to enhance the reader’s experience by helping with glossary, explanations, and even images. It’s also fun for me to examine these texts so minutely and point out “problems” that the authors may have missed or dealt with casually—after all, it is what Sherlock Holmes would do!