Today I welcome award winning crime fiction critic Charles Rzepka. Charles Rzepka is Professor of English at Boston University, where he teaches courses and seminars in British Romantic writers and crime and detective fiction. He’s the author of two books on the first topic and two on the second, as well as numerous articles on both. His most recent book was Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard (2013).
As a graduate student at U. C. Berkeley in the 1970s I was trained in British Romanticism—Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, that lot—and during my first fifteen years as a professor at Boston University, this was my area of specialization. When a colleague opted out of continuing to teach the course on detective fiction in 1995, I was asked to take over for no other reason, I suspect, than my reputation (or notoriety) as a fan of the genre. It’s been a steep learning curve ever since.
My mother was an avid detective fiction reader when I was growing up, and I got the reading bug from her. But she considered her Book-of-the-Month Club thrillers a bit too racy for me and forbade me to read them to the point where I outgrew any interest in doing so—which is to say, I became a teenager, with a teenager’s aversion to anything so “square” as the books my mom liked. I did, however, read Sherlock Holmes. Every boy I knew who enjoyed reading (and there were one or two of us in East Detroit in 1962) read Sherlock Holmes, at least until they were told (on what evidence I still can’t say) that he was just for kids.
It wasn’t until my wife and I spent a few weeks camping and hitchhiking around Hawaii in 1976 (she was several months pregnant with our first child, which helped with the hitchhiking) that I discovered just what I’d been missing. Jane and I were (and are) voracious readers, but we weren’t about to lug several pounds of books around in our backpacks. So we started frequenting community libraries. The librarians were surprisingly generous, considering that our local address was invariably a campsite. But again, Jane’s pregnancy may have helped: how far could two absconding borrowers get without a car, especially when one of them could only waddle?
Since we had just a couple of days to read our selections on the beach before hitting the road, we had to choose carefully: nothing too long (Proust was out), nothing too deep (Sartre was out), nothing too high (Faulkner was out), but something intellectually challenging nonetheless. In short, we discovered the joys of detective fiction. We were particularly taken by the works of Ross Macdonald, who is famous for his literariness: his symbolism, his interest in psychology, the intricacy of his plots and allusions. But you don’t have to pore over his prose. The books move right along.
Our tour of Hawaiian libraries made us life-long Macdonald fans, but it also made us fans of detective and crime fiction in general, and not just noir or hard-boiled, either. Christie, Sayers, and P. D. James soon became companions as tried and true as Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Highsmith. Thus, when the offer came to teach BU’s detective fiction course, I jumped at the chance.
To my surprise, I landed in a vast sea of writers, critics, languages, and traditions.
It may not come as news to most readers of Mystery Fanfare that crime fiction is a sprawling topic, spanning eras and nations and overlapping many other genres, both “high” and “low.” Batman and Kojak are in there along with Sophocles and Dostoevsky. But it certainly did surprise me in 1995. How difficult to master could beach reading be?
It took me five years to publish my first article on crime fiction, an essay on chivalric motifs in Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and another seven before the next appeared, on Biggers’s Charlie Chan and Asian American identity. By that time, I had written a cultural history of detective fiction—helpfully entitled, by my publisher, Detective Fiction (2005)—and along with Lee Horsley had begun to line up contributors to a collection of essays for Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to Crime Fiction (2010). I learned much more from these projects than I thought I knew going into them.
For the Wiley-Blackwell volume I wrote a chapter on Elmore Leonard. I’d been reading him off and on for about three decades, and was drawn to his writing in part because I found it compelling and unique, and in part because his settings evoked vivid memories of growing up in Detroit, where most of his early crime novels take place. The chapter led to plans for a book, which led to more than a dozen hours of interviews, in person and by phone. These are available in edited form at http://www.crimeculture.com/?page_id=3435. Leonard’s generosity and personal interest in the project left me forever grateful and in his debt. Being Cool: the Work of Elmore Leonard was published by Johns Hopkins in August 2013, just days before the author’s death at the age of 87. The book won the House of Crime & Mysteries Reader’s Choice Award for Non-Fiction in 2014, and was a Macavity finalist.
I have an article on Leonard’s first crime novel, The Big Bounce, coming out in Clues early this year and another, about the influence of the Odyssey on Leonard’s early crime fiction, in a collection of essays to be published by the University of Georgia Press. I’ve also contributed a chapter on the oldest Sherlock Holmes fan club in the world, the Baker Street Irregulars, to Oxford University Press’s forthcoming anthology, Transatlantic Author-Love: Inventing ‘English Literature’ in the Nineteenth Century. Currently, I’m researching non-white detectives and crime fiction authors of color between the two world wars, and have been asked to write an essay on Todd Downing, a best-selling Choctaw writer of the 1930s, for a volume on gay crime writers edited by Curtis Evans.
In 2006 my mother died and left her detective books to me. They are all lined up in a glass case in my study. I keep them there because I have a granddaughter just learning to read, and while they aren’t for children (Mom was right), I hope that someday—much sooner than I did—she’ll come to appreciate them.