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Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s

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American crime writing was reborn in the 1920s. After years of dominance by British authors, new American writers—with fresh ideas about the detective and the mystery—appeared on the scene and rose to heights of popularity not witnessed since the success of the Sherlock Holmes tales in America.   Classic American Crime Writing of the 1920s—including House Without a Key, The American crime writing was reborn in the 1920s. After years of dominance by British authors, new American writers—with fresh ideas about the detective and the mystery—appeared on the scene and rose to heights of popularity not witnessed since the success of the Sherlock Holmes tales in America.   Classic American Crime Writing of the 1920s—including House Without a Key, The Benson Murder Case, The Roman Hat Mystery, Red Harvest, and Little Caesar—offers some of the very best of that decade’s writing. Earl Derr Biggers wrote about Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective, at a time when racism was rampant. S. S. Van Dine invented Philo Vance, an effete, rich amateur psychologist who flourished while America danced and the stock market rose. The quintessential American detective Ellery Queen leapt onto the stage, to remain popular for fifty years. Dashiell Hammett brings readers another mystery narrated by the Continental Op. W. R. Burnett, created the indelible character of Rico, the first gangster antihero.  Each of the five novels included is presented in its original published form, with extensive historical and cultural annotations and illustrations added by Edgar-winning editor Leslie S. Klinger, allowing the reader to experience the story to its fullest. Klinger's detailed foreword gives an overview of the history of American crime writing from its beginnings in the early years of America to the twentieth century. This gorgeously illustrated volume includes over 100 color and black and white images as well as an introduction by the eminent mystery publisher Otto Penzler.


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American crime writing was reborn in the 1920s. After years of dominance by British authors, new American writers—with fresh ideas about the detective and the mystery—appeared on the scene and rose to heights of popularity not witnessed since the success of the Sherlock Holmes tales in America.   Classic American Crime Writing of the 1920s—including House Without a Key, The American crime writing was reborn in the 1920s. After years of dominance by British authors, new American writers—with fresh ideas about the detective and the mystery—appeared on the scene and rose to heights of popularity not witnessed since the success of the Sherlock Holmes tales in America.   Classic American Crime Writing of the 1920s—including House Without a Key, The Benson Murder Case, The Roman Hat Mystery, Red Harvest, and Little Caesar—offers some of the very best of that decade’s writing. Earl Derr Biggers wrote about Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective, at a time when racism was rampant. S. S. Van Dine invented Philo Vance, an effete, rich amateur psychologist who flourished while America danced and the stock market rose. The quintessential American detective Ellery Queen leapt onto the stage, to remain popular for fifty years. Dashiell Hammett brings readers another mystery narrated by the Continental Op. W. R. Burnett, created the indelible character of Rico, the first gangster antihero.  Each of the five novels included is presented in its original published form, with extensive historical and cultural annotations and illustrations added by Edgar-winning editor Leslie S. Klinger, allowing the reader to experience the story to its fullest. Klinger's detailed foreword gives an overview of the history of American crime writing from its beginnings in the early years of America to the twentieth century. This gorgeously illustrated volume includes over 100 color and black and white images as well as an introduction by the eminent mystery publisher Otto Penzler.

49 review for Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s

  1. 5 out of 5

    Beth Cato

    This book is massive. 1100 pages, hardbound. This is the kind of book you want to use to wallop burglars. That'd be an especially appropriate use of this anthology, too, since it covers a full range of 1920s crime novels. Overall, it's a fascinating read. You get the first books of several major detective series, like Charlie Chan and Ellery Queen. Even the book with an almost unbearable protagonist, Philo Vance, gave me oodles of useful research notes and an interesting mystery as the backbone This book is massive. 1100 pages, hardbound. This is the kind of book you want to use to wallop burglars. That'd be an especially appropriate use of this anthology, too, since it covers a full range of 1920s crime novels. Overall, it's a fascinating read. You get the first books of several major detective series, like Charlie Chan and Ellery Queen. Even the book with an almost unbearable protagonist, Philo Vance, gave me oodles of useful research notes and an interesting mystery as the backbone of the piece. Dashiell Hammet's first book is a veritable blood bath, but a masterfully done one at that. Reading Little Caesar, I can well understand how this established the gangster novel--and movie--genres. There is a lengthy introduction at the start, giving context for each book. The annotations throughout were very useful (indeed, for the gangster novel Little Caesar, the lingo would've been a challenge to parse otherwise) but I also found myself wanting more annotations. If you love classic mysteries and want a showcase book, this is worth the hefty price. (I bought my signed edition from Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.) But do be aware it is a difficult read because of the sheer size of the book. Not only is this book impossible to tuck away in a purse to read on the go, it's awkward to read wherever you may be. Still, I found the challenge to be more than worthwhile in the end. My reviews for each included book are found below, and are also posted under the individual book listings on Goodreads and LibraryThing. --- The House Without a Key: Charlie Chan #1 by by Earl Derr Biggers Charlie Chan is an iconic character, and it was interesting to see him within the context of his first novel, published with its original text. The book surprised me in many ways. First of all, the settings within the book are masterfully portrayed. I've never seen a book so vividly describe Hawaii in the 1920s. The annotations remarked a few times on inaccuracies or fictionalized bits, but many of the details felt spot-on (I say that, having extensively read on early 20th century Hawaii for my own novel). While I expected issues with racism and caricatures because of the era, this was not as bad as I expected it would be (how's that for an endorsement?). Charlie Chan is regarded as something of a mockery now, but as the notes observed, he does not speak pidgin Chinese, but talks as a very highly educated man. The text of the book demonstrated that well. The way white characters reacted to Chan felt realistic (though sad), but I also understood well why the original text had Chan racist against the Japanese. Within the context of the time, that made perfect sense; it's worth noting that these racist snippets were toned down or removed in later editions of the book. This does not develop as a modern murder mystery does--often with a corpse in chapter one. Instead, the start is slow as the reader gets to know the Winterslip family of both Boston and Honolulu. The dead body doesn't show up until almost a hundred pages in, with Charlie Chan's arrival immediately after. I think my biggest surprise about the book was that Chan was a minor character with a pivotal role. Instead, most of the novel followed the stuffy scion of the Winterslip family. His was not a bad perspective--it was enjoyable to watch him grow across the book--but I expected a Charlie Chan book to, well, be more about Charlie Chan. The murderer was fairly obvious to be from early on, though there were some nice twists and turns leading up to the big reveal at the end. I feel no urge to read onward in the series, but if I need to do more research on 1920s Hawaii, I just might. The book was not a bad read at all. Intriguing, I'd say. --- The Benson Murder Case (Philo Vance #1) by S.S. Van Dine I must say, the first chapter of this book convinced me that it was going to be absolutely dreadful. It probably didn't help that preceding information in the book had pointed out that the Philo Vance series eventually withered and died because the insufferable, rambling nature of the lead character became too aggravating to bear. But once I made it past that initial introductory chapter and to the actual murder, the story was much more engaging. The positives: It's a good murder mystery. The set-up is complex and intriguing, and it nicely utilizes New York City. Alvin Benson is found dead, shot in the head, and the clues in his house are myriad, from the handbag and gloves left on the mantle to the car parked out front during the night. The district attorney invites his friend Philo Vance to see the crime, and on a whim, the insufferable art collector digs into the mystery, and digs in deep. The way Philo Vance psychologically examines people is fascinating. I liked that I guessed the murderer quite early on. The negatives: Philo Vance. He's aggravating. He boasts throughout that he's known who the murderer is from the time he first viewed the corpse at the crime scene, but he strings along his DA friend for days, relentlessly teasing him and shredding apart his reliance on circumstantial evidence. While the latter is necessary (the DA was ready to convict several people on tenuous evidence), the whole know-it-all aspect gets old really fast. The choice of narrator felt utterly useless, too. Another of Vance's friends is the observer of everything, and he contributes nothing to the story. He's no Watson, there to offer occasional advice or act as a foil or do medical examinations. No, this guy is just there, a shadow. I can't even remember his name; it only came up at the very beginning, I think. The annotations probably helped my reading experience a lot, too, providing translations or context for the French and Latin Vance often employs, explaining Vance's commentary on art, and noting what NYC locations were real and fictional. Interestingly, the author muddled a lot of period details himself. By the calendar within the book, the murder should be set in 1918, but various details on geographical locations or police technology didn't exist until the early 1920s. Writers these days can check those kinds of things through Google... I wouldn't read onward in this series, I think, because the very idea of Philo Vance becoming even more annoying is a big turn off. That said, this book offered me a tremendous boon in terms of research, with fantastic period details and cultural references. --- The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen Thus far in this collection, I've read the first books about Charlie Chan and Philo Vance. Both had issues, from my modern perspective--a painfully slow start and barely any Charlie Chan in the first, and the rambling, annoying presence of Philo Vance in the second. But in this, the first Ellery Queen novel, I finally encountered a 1920s mystery I absolutely loved. The writing is fantastic from page one, the mystery utterly intriguing, and the cast of characters diverse and amusing. I could see myself reading and enjoying more Ellery Queen novels. --- Red Harvest (The Continental Op #1) by Dashiell Hammett Red Harvest is aptly named, a bloodbath of a 1920s noir novel. When the unnamed private detective rolls into Personville to meet a new client, the client is found murdered. The Op goes about solving that murder, and becomes embroiled in pretty intense gang warfare that gets far nastier after the original murder is solved. This is a fast read, with knife-sharp language and wit. The Op is a character with virtually no background or personality, but he has a brutal edge and a will to survive. It's no wonder this character helped to establish the very trope of the hard-boiled PI, complete with steady applications of scotch. --- Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett Little Caesar is the first major gangster novel, published in 1929. It was made into a famous 1931 movie--and essentially created the gangster stereotype (one I became most familiar with through Bugs Bunny cartoons). The book itself is an interesting study on the 'voice' of a book, as the author goes deep into gangster lingo. At the end of my edition, the editor included a foreword that the author wrote in the 1950s about the writing and rejection process behind the book. He made a conscious choice to strip away adjectives to make the prose bloody and blunt. It works. The book doesn't try to make you like its characters--it just shows them as they are. I was grateful to have the annotations to help me parse the lingo and explain details about Chicago and guns of the period. I never would have expected to like the book this much, but it fascinated me. It shows the era with all its ugliness and racism and dames and plates of spaghetti with wine. Now I want to watch the movie to compare. ---

  2. 5 out of 5

    Arista

    An amazing all-in-one book featuring the best selling crime books of the 1920's. It was certainly interesting to compare the crime today to nearly 100 yrs ago since a lot has changed. Even though this book is fiction, I wonder if some of it may be based on real events? The bonus for me were the photos and illustrations. A great volume and bang for the buck!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bill Kelly

    In addition to the five cornerstone crime fiction novels, an introduction by Otto Penzler and a forward by Leslie S. Klinger provide valuable American crime fiction history and perceptive insight for the social context and background in which these books were written. A mighty effort has gone into the annotations which include profuse period illustrations. I had always avoided reading Van Dine due the critical hammering he has taken, both in his own time and currently. Klinger’s annotations enab In addition to the five cornerstone crime fiction novels, an introduction by Otto Penzler and a forward by Leslie S. Klinger provide valuable American crime fiction history and perceptive insight for the social context and background in which these books were written. A mighty effort has gone into the annotations which include profuse period illustrations. I had always avoided reading Van Dine due the critical hammering he has taken, both in his own time and currently. Klinger’s annotations enabled me to form a perspective I certainly would not have had if I tackled only the book itself. I find it sometimes difficult to ignore preconceptions, especially those resulting from the nearly universal lambasting of the Philo Vance novels. THE BENSON MURDER CASE is easy to write off as “dated”, a term used by those who can’t imagine their own work being labeled dated sometime in the future, but while reading the book it occurred to me that this mystery can be very enjoyable if I didn’t take it too seriously. THE BENSON MURDER CASE as a Through-the-Looking-Glass mystery is the closest I can come to describing the experience of reading it. Almost everything: characters, plot, detection seems absurd at times and I chose to read this book as almost pure satire. Visualizing other actual human beings actually sitting through one of Vance’s cultural soliloquies (he might as well have been speaking in tongues) is one example of an altered perspective; if I chose to be annoyed I would have chucked the book and missed a very enjoyable read. If Eugène Ionesco had ever written a mystery, it might have looked like THE BENSON MURDER CASE. I also enjoyed the historical perspective provided by many of the annotations and the definitions of jargon and period slang were much appreciated. The illustrations, including postcards, photos and drawings of long-gone architecture and street scenes, amplify and enrich the reading experience, particularly for RED HARVEST and LITTLE CAESER. I have read RED HARVEST several times, and this was the first time I “saw” Personville. Previously, the characters seemed to move against a grey cardboard background. Mercifully the books are presented as they were originally published and the reader does not have to endure the sanitized atrocities inflicted in the face of the public by Harlequin a few years ago when they reprinted several of their early 1950s crime fiction. There will always be controversy about the choices made by an anthology editor regarding the titles that are included, but I believe Klinger fulfilled his stated purpose by including those books that have proven themselves to be seminal works. THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY may not be anyone’s favorite Ellery Queen title, but it does lay important groundwork for the series, and for the device, at least in the US, of featuring crime solving partners as twin protagonists.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Robert Muller

    I found the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen novels nearly unreadable in this volume. Hammett's Red Harvest is far and away the best, though I was pleasantly surprised by Little Caesar, and the Charlie Chan novel is very decent reading. There are several problems with the book, though. First, too many typos--did anyone proofread? More substantively, there are so many missed opportunities for annotations that it feels like Klinger only put in a half-hearted effort on this one. The introduction provid I found the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen novels nearly unreadable in this volume. Hammett's Red Harvest is far and away the best, though I was pleasantly surprised by Little Caesar, and the Charlie Chan novel is very decent reading. There are several problems with the book, though. First, too many typos--did anyone proofread? More substantively, there are so many missed opportunities for annotations that it feels like Klinger only put in a half-hearted effort on this one. The introduction provides a decent history of mystery fiction, though with less emphasis on the 20s than on earlier fiction. I am not a scholar of 20s fiction, so I can't say whether the choice of novels resulted in the best of the 20s, but I came away with less than I expected from this tome. The Ellery Queen novel in particular was unreadable and took up a seemingly enormous amount of undeserved space! It must also be mentioned that, to his credit, Klinger provides the original, unedited texts. The result, however, is so racist, homophobic, and jarringly bigoted that it may offend the sensibilities of many modern readers. That said, reading these novels tells you what America was like in the 20s as only undiluted and unedited popular fiction can.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Le Ann

    This book was not what I expected; I didn't realize that it was only 5 "crime" novels from the 1920's. I thought there would be a plethora of stories. And 3 of these novels were really mysteries, not what I consider crime novels. But over all, worth reading; really great examples of 1920's fiction.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Gary Shapiro

    The ebook does not have the Hammet novel Red Harvest, so you might want the print edition. The annotations are fascinating.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Amy

  8. 4 out of 5

    Paula Malady

    Great volume. The book is huge but the comments on every page explaining the culture, the times, the idioms, language use, political and personal references is amazing. I took this book from the library but I think it is one I would love to have at home.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Lawrence

  10. 4 out of 5

    ROBERT M GUNTHER

  11. 5 out of 5

    Carol

  12. 4 out of 5

    Carol Pound

  13. 5 out of 5

    Darken

  14. 5 out of 5

    Melissa Cheresnick

  15. 4 out of 5

    Leslie

  16. 5 out of 5

    Diane

  17. 4 out of 5

    Julia

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cyber

  19. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Ivan

  20. 5 out of 5

    Zsa Zsa

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nat

  22. 5 out of 5

    Erica Thomas

  23. 4 out of 5

    Maddie

  24. 5 out of 5

    Fleet Sparrow

  25. 4 out of 5

    Trica Johnson

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tom Donaghey

  27. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  28. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  29. 5 out of 5

    Frederick Rotzien

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kim Ellis

  31. 4 out of 5

    Cherie'

  32. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

  33. 5 out of 5

    Nucleah

  34. 4 out of 5

    Valerie Padilla

  35. 4 out of 5

    Mickey

  36. 5 out of 5

    Margo

  37. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

  38. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer beck

  39. 4 out of 5

    Haley

  40. 5 out of 5

    Cory

  41. 5 out of 5

    Kellie

  42. 5 out of 5

    graveyardgremlin

  43. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

  44. 5 out of 5

    Captain

  45. 4 out of 5

    Micielle

  46. 4 out of 5

    Mariel

  47. 5 out of 5

    Rhonda Green

  48. 4 out of 5

    Jo

  49. 4 out of 5

    Damon Miller

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