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January 05, 1986|NICK WILLIAMS SR.

ART IN CRIME WRITING, edited by Bernard Benstock (St. Martin's: $8.95). The histories of crime, perhaps more than the chronicles of any other human aberration except war--the ultimate crime--both thrill and horrify most of us, and the more they horrify the more is our delight. We can, however, always ease our consciences, to some quite marginal extent, by reverencing those among us who strive valiantly to stamp out modern crime, the great private eyes, most of them fictional, the true knights-errant of our sin-ridden modern world. Comes now a fascinating study of these champions and their creators--"Art in Crime Writing." The editor, Bernard Benstock, is author of scholarly estimations of James Joyce and Sean O'Casey, as well as a professor of comparative literature at the University of Tulsa. Who makes this honor roll of private eyes? Among the British horrifiers, Benstock lists Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Americans? He ticks off Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett--and Edgar Allan Poe, light-years ahead of all of them in time, as was the once-revered Wilkie Collins. The point of this summation, I take it, is not so much to choose who rates this Hall of Fame, but to break ground for the contention that crime fiction is indeed an art.

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