Crime fiction legend and Orion author Lawrence Block looks at the books we keep going back to, and why – books, like The Maltese Falcon, that never go out of print.
Detective stories aren’t supposed to last. They’re genre fiction, like horror and science fiction and Westerns, and everyone knows that the chief characteristic of those genres is impermanence. Oh, they’re entertaining, and they’ll fill an idle hour, or provide relaxation at a hard day’s end, but you read them and toss them aside, and you forget them, and so does the rest of the world.
Guess what? It doesn’t work that way.
The world does indeed forget most books, generally in short order. The most forgettable, it turns out, are the mainstream bestsellers, those works of popular fiction that ride the zeitgeist until it bucks them off. In terms of sales, they flare brightly but soon burn themselves out.
The next to be forgotten, curiously enough, are serious works of fiction, capital L Literature, perhaps written in the hope of achieving immortality. Some do indeed survive, largely as assigned reading for college students, and now and then are actually read for enjoyment. Most, however, vanish as utterly as the pop bestsellers.
On the other hand, Rex Stout died in 1975 and Agatha Christie the following year, and all of their work is readily available – and eagerly read. Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett – I could go on, and so could you. No end of genre writers, with no higher ambition than that of putting food on their tables while entertaining their readers, have, essentially, gained literary immortality. Not just on library shelves, not just in academic halls, but on the night tables of actual human beings. People read them – avidly, and for pleasure.
A corner was turned a few years ago in the literary world’s consciousness when the Library of America, a high-minded and not-for-profit enterprise, took a deep breath and brought out a volume of Raymond Chandler’s novels. Chandler, of course, was the perfect choice for such an experiment, having long enjoyed a special position in intellectual circles; donnish types liked his writing and world view so much that they were willing to overlook the fact that his books actually had stories in them, stories that gave one a reason to (shudder!) turn the pages.
A daring move, no? Well, no one sneered, or cancelled a subscription. In fact, the book turned out to be the LoA’s sales leader, and by a wide margin. And Chandler is no longer the only genre writer in their catalogue. He’s got plenty of company.
A word, before I leave you, about The Maltese Falcon. Three films were made from it, though the one you know – the third, with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor and Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, and more names which you or I could reel out at a moment’s notice – quite rightly eclipsed the others. As you may also know, John Huston’s shooting script is a line-for-line copy of Dashiell Hammett’s novel.
What you may not know is that this was very much Hammett’s intention. When he sat down to write it, he’d concluded that film was the medium of the future, and that a novel ought to be written so as to be readily adaptable for the screen. Accordingly, he produced a screenplay in prose form, with not a word in it that a camera could not capture.
And, while so doing, he wrote a perfect novel that is every bit as praiseworthy – and as gripping – today. If you’re reading it for the first time, you have a treat in store for you. And if you’ve read it before, yours will be no less of a treat. This is, after all, the best sort of genre fiction, to be read and tossed aside – and picked up and read again and again.
Have you enjoyed a book so much you’ve read it more than once? Maybe several times? We’d love to know which book, and why!
Lawrence Block was awarded the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2004. He is also a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America. He is the author of many novels and short stories and has won numerous awards for his mystery writing. He lives and works in New York City. To find out more, visit www.lawrenceblock.com.