Long before I was elected president of the Private Eye Writers of America (God, I love saying that), I was invited to a cocktail party thrown by the English Department of the University of Minnesota. It was ostensibly a reception for the late Carol Bly, the short story writer and essayist, who was the department's honorary chairperson that year.
(I should point out that when the U's English department throws a cocktail party, it doesn't screw around. These guys were serving martinis that could scour the blades on snowplows.)
After presenting Bly, the head of the department went around the room, asking the adjunct professors to introduce themselves. These were the people who were hired to teach just one course for one semester; one-and-done a fellow adjunct told me.
When it was my turn I said, "I'm David Housewright and I'm teaching a course on the modern American detective novel, which we all know is the most important literature being written today."
And then I sat down.
"No, no, no," Bly chanted.
She grabbed the lapels of my jacket and yanked me out of the chair (she was a big woman).
"Sir, you cannot make a blanket statement like that and sit down," she said. "Sir, I demand that you defend your thesis."
My thesis was that I was working on my fourth martini and I was in full-blown smart-ass mode (not to mention wondering how I was going to get home). Still, I was teaching a college course on the topic. I did know a thing or two - kinda.
So, I said "In 1996, Jim Baumohl wrote a well-reasoned novel about homelessness in America that was considered by critics at the time to be very important. It sold about one hundred thousand copies and the author was interviewed on talk shows and featured in Time Magazine. In 1998, John Grisham (admittedly not a writer of PI fiction) wrote a novel also dealing with homelessness called The Street Lawyer, sold three million copies and got a movie deal. Who do you think has the greater impact on the national debate?"
I sat down again.
I expected to take some abuse over my remarks. After all, I was surrounded by English professors and grad students. What I didn't anticipate was the vigor of the argument that ensued concerning the value of books that nobody reads versus the value of books everyone reads.
As proof that I was delusional, one prof dared me to compare William Faulkner's vastly superior As I Lay Dying (his words, not mine) to Dashiell Hammett's pulpy The Maltese Falcon, which was published the same year. Before I could reply, a second reminded came to my defense, reminding Prof One that Hammett outsold Faulkner by leaps and bounds - and continues to do so, today.
I only wish I had brought my trusty notebook along because these guys were tossing around insults that I had never heard before or since.
'Course, suggesting that the modern American detective novel is the most important literature being written today is pretentious - at best. The truth is, good writing is where you find it and you can find it everywhere. The best books have always transcended the shelves on which they're stored.
Think about it.
Is Lord of the Rings literature or fantasy? Is Issac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy literature or SF? How 'bout Gone With the Wind, which won the Pulitzer - literature or historical romance? Lonesome Dove is a terrific western, but is it literature (and remember, it also won a Pulitzer)? Is Mystic River by Dennis Lehane literature or merely the best crime novel written in the past twenty-five years?
As a whole, I believe the PI novel has done pretty well over the past one hundred and seventy-five years. Granted, much of detective fiction concerns itself only with tales of good guys versus bad guys, or the solution to elaborate Agatha Christie-like puzzles (recipes often included) - what Graham Greene once labeled "entertainments."
Yet the best of our work has always concerned itself with much more than who killed Mr. Body in the library with the candlestick.
Detective fiction deals with all of the themes and issues that you find in so-called literary novels. Child abuse, alcoholism, abortion, family dynamics, government corruption, sexual politics, faith - pick a subject and you'll find it explored in the PI novel.
Today you can learn as much about racism in America by reading Walter Mosley as you can by reading Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright. You can learn as much about being a Native American by reading Tony Hillerman as you can by reading Louise Erdrich. Homosexuality? Read Joseph Hansen.
W. S. Hayward introduced a briskly efficient female detective (considered to be a feminist at the time) in 1884. Ernest Bramah had a detective with a disability in 1914. H. C. Bailey wrote about child abuse in 1926. Dashiell Hammett wrote about alcohol abuse in 1928. Rudolph Fisher introduced an African-American detective in 1932. Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep examined moral decadence in 1939. John D. MacDonald dealt with consumerism and the environment starting in the early 50s. Rex Stout, God love him, challenged censorship, racism, Nazism, Fascism, Communism, McCarthyism, and an unfettered FBI in his books. James Lee Burke delivered a powerful account of post-Katrina New Orleans in The Tin Roof Blow Down.
And so on and so on and so on...
Now, couple the fact that detective fiction has always incorporated the big themes with our immense popularity.
Nearly three out of every ten adult fiction books sold today is a crime novel.
So, I ask again, who has the greater impact on the national debate?
I'm going with the PI novel.
And no, that's not just the martinis talking.
e-mail David Housewright