Hardboiled Vs. Cozy

November 9th, 2010 by Max Allan Collins

Quarry's CutThis week’s Quarry cover is QUARRY’S CUT, originally THE SLASHER – the final of the first four in the series, published in the mid-‘70s by Berkley Books. It’s the darkest of the first four, the most overtly a dark comedy of any of the novels, and is one of my periodic, probably ill-advised attempts to do an Agatha Christie-style closed environment mystery in the hardboiled style.

I seem to be one of the few mystery writers who likes Christie as much as Hammett, who likes Stout as much as Spillane. Someone recently was putting down cozies, assuming I’d agree, when I had to say, “Uh – I write a cozy series with my wife.” I find things to like in every variation on the fictional sleuth – for example, Barb and I spend much of our leisure time watching British mysteries. We are currently preparing ourselves for withdrawal pangs over the upcoming departure of John Nettles (Inspector Barnaby) from Midsomer Murders (Nettles is leaving after a record number of episodes, though it’s continuing without him). As I mentioned here previously, we recently blew through the wonderful boxed set of Ellery Queen starring Jim Hutton, father of Archie Goodwin, I mean, Tim Hutton.

I don’t understand the hostility between fans of the variations on the detective story – it makes as much sense as the old Marvel Comics/DC Comics rivalry. What I notice most is that people who dislike a writer like Christie or Spillane generally haven’t read them much if at all. Some tried them as kids and had a knee-jerk reaction and never went back and tried again as adults.

The take on Christie is that her characters are cardboard – not true; in fact, the solutions to her mysteries almost always hinge upon psychology. She is also a great dialogue writer – she was, after all, a hugely successful playwright.

Spillane is supposed to be a woman hater, yet his women are remarkably strong with Hammer’s P.I. partner, Velda, a prime, pistol-packing example. The key to enjoying Spillane is understanding that he is not Chandler just as Chandler was not Hammett. Mickey gets dissed over his politics, but there’s nothing really political about that lunatic urban knight Mike Hammer – true, Mickey was a conservative of sorts (as a Jehovah’s Witness, he did not vote), and I am a liberal; but that has had zero impact on the Hammers I’ve co-written.

By the way, if you are unemployed, and you voted for the Republicans – you know, the party that wants to end your unemployment benefits? You are about to get exactly what you deserve.

I read very, very little contemporary crime fiction. I kid on the square that I don’t like to encourage the competition, but the real reasons are (a) my reading time is taken up by research, and (b) the mystery I am “reading” is the one I am writing.

So, instead, Barb and I watch British mysteries on TV, and other mystery series old and new (from Johnny Staccato to Leverage) (Tim Hutton again). And we listen to audio books when we travel. We are heading into our fourth trip through Rex Stout, having listened to Agatha Chritie’s entire body of work twice. If I am doing a Spillane collaboration, I listen to a Spillane audio book.

I can still learn from the classics. I am well aware that some very good people are writing right now. And I do read a handful (chiefly pals like Ed Gorman, John Lutz, Bob Randisi, and a few others). But I doubt anybody’s writing right now who could teach me things I couldn’t learn from Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Spillane, Thompson, Westlake, Stout, Gardner and Christie.

One of these days I am going to discuss the definition of “noir” here. It seems to be a fairly controversial subject. Recently, though, my friend Otto Penzler declared all private eye fiction outside the boundaries of noir. Otto is, of course, one of the most knowledgeable guys in the field. He is also wrong.

But that’s for another update.


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6 Responses to “Hardboiled Vs. Cozy”

  1. Great mini-essay. I don’t believe I’m particularly hostile toward cozies; they’re generally just not my cuppa.

    I’ve been meaning to comment on Terry’s sharp design work on the Quarry re-issues – I may actually have to find some way to scrape up the cash to buy all these books again. Clean, well-balanced layouts with simple, striking images and an admirably restrained type treatment. Good, classy design, which is all too rare these days.

  2. Brad Schwartz says:

    I completely agree with you that there’s something to be learned from all the great practitioners of the mystery genre, although I’d add to your list Conan Doyle and Poe (it’s always remarkable to go back to the Dupin tales and realize just how completely Poe set the parameters of the genre in just a few stories). I hadn’t read that much Christie before this summer, but I read several of her classics and thought they were fantastic. The S.S. Van Dine stereotype just doesn’t fit her work, even if they are “puzzles.” She could teach anybody a lesson in tight, intricate plotting, whether they write “cozies” or “noir” (although calling Murder on the Orient Express a “cozy” doesn’t sound right to me).

  3. Chris, thanks for these great comments on Terry’s covers. Means a lot coming from you, since you know your way around designing such covers.

    Brad, thanks for your comments, too. I don’t consider Christie cozy at all — Poirot is a private eye, the murders are often grisly, and both Poirot and Miss Marple behave at times in extra-legal Mike Hammer-ish ways. I see Stout called cozy, too, which is even more ridiculous. I am guilty, at times, of leaving Doyle out. Poe is excellent, obviously, but Doyle is the greatest mystery writer who ever lived. His work is as crisp and modern and Hammett, his characters and dialogue beyond reproach. It all flows from him.

  4. fldrmaus says:

    The first two Quarry reprints just showed up at Amazon, they don’t have all five books yet though…

  5. mike doran says:

    “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”

    Where did that old saw originate, anyway?
    But it’s nothing but the truth.

    With mysteries, I started out as a teenager, watching Charlie Chan on Saturday afternoons.
    Then realizing that Perry Mason was working the same side of the street in first-run prime-time.
    Then really watching those BURKE’S LAW reruns in off-hours.
    Then the tipping point – discovering ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, the July 1965 issue, price 50 cents.
    All those different stories, serious and funny, twisters and foolers, straightforward or surreal or occasionally scary – al under the same roof.

    That’s what attracted me to the genre in the first place – that so many different and unique things could happen within the mystery framework. This was a combination of the expected and the unexpected: You could read a different story or novel every day and always find something new.

    Later on, when I started reading the critics, I learned of the divides that were set up between the differing types of stories; each side claiming that they were the True Voice Of Mystery.
    It struck me as silly and arbitrary then, and still does today.

    All I’m looking for is a good read – or a good view, as the case may be.

    Those who limit themselves to hard-and-fast categories – well, that’s the word isn’t it – LIMIT.
    Even if you have a format or a formula, there’s no law that says you can’t shake it up a bit – maybe funny this time, maybe sad next time, maybe some commentary the time after that. The only one who can put a limit on you is YOU.
    Some writers never seem to learn that.
    Some people never do, either.

    Just thought of another cliche – “The same, only different.”
    That one is as true as anyone wants to make it.

    Keep mixing it up, guys.