Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s

Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s
Edited by Leslie S. Klinger
Pegasus Books, 2018

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Outstanding editor Leslie Klinger’s latest production is an 1100-page cinder block of a thing called Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s, and it isn’t what it first seems: it’s not a big fat anthology of 1920s crime fiction short stories, carefully selected and annotated by Klinger with the near-obligatory Introduction by Otto Penzler. True, there are extensive and careful annotations, and true, Penzler is on hand to write a few pages about the subject. But what Klinger has assembled here in this vast pile of pages is not 30 short stories but rather, intriguingly, five novels: The House without a Key by Earl Biggers, The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen, Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, and Little Caesar by W. R. Burnett.

Each novel is presented in the round: broad white pages, original publisher’s notes, plenty of archival photos and the original artwork that originally accompanied each book, and annotations running alongside the text throughout. Since none of those texts is exactly The Anatomy of Melancholy, the book’s margins tend to be open and snowy white spaces, and the relatively few annotations that appear tend to be on the droning side, querulously taking readers aside in order to tell them things they could easily Google if they were interested. Which they wouldn’t be:

Founded in 1915, Kiwanis was an organization of business and professional men. Although its original motto was “We Trade,” by 1920, it was changed to “We Build,” and later to “Serving the Children of the World.” Although conceived as a networking organization fostering business, delegates voted to change the mission to service.

All of this combines to create an irony we can hope was unintended: Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s can only be enjoyed in 1920s style, spread flat across two knees for a leisurely read at home. The volume can only very briefly be lifted or moved, and since it weighs as much as a complete set of Harry Potter novels, it certainly can’t be taken on vacation or commutes to and from work. Klinger’s choice of such a deliciously pulpy quintet of book (such an unmixed joy to see Little Caesar back in print, and in so ritzy a setting) is clearly meant to underscore how inviting 1920s pulp fiction is, plotted and written by battle-tested hacks who knew precisely how to hook and entertain readers. But there’s almost nothing inviting about the format that was chosen for all these labors of love, which is rendered all the more wistful by how immediately obvious the better alternatives are. Print a single volume with all five novels, for instance, but acknowledge the skimpy number of truly helpful annotations and turn them into a far smaller number of footnotes at the bottom of the page, thus dispensing with the need for double columns and presto, shrinking the book to a portable size. Or dispense with two-thirds of the photos. Or, for that matter, assemble 30 short stories.

As it is, Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s is perfect entertainment for a quiet evening of reading at home, Tom Collins in hand, while the mantlepiece clock loudly ticks and the neighborhood beat-cop saunters by outside, whistling his signature off-key tune. The juxtaposition of the grand arrangement and the tawdry, addictively readable pap it contains feels like burying your dead childhood parakeet in a 10-acre marble mausoleum. Here’s hoping the paperback reprint next year takes the form of five separate thin floppy paperbacks.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is