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Making a Case for Crime Stories as a 20th Century Art Form

March 26, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Has the detective short story seen its best years? That's the theory floated by Jon L. Breen in the introduction to "Sleuths of the Century" (Carroll & Graf, $26, 579 pages), his and fellow author-editor Ed Gorman's collection of the shorter adventures of 25 world-class crime solvers. "Given the changing fashions in crime fiction," Breen writes, ". . . the detective story may turn out to be a 20th century art form as surely as silent movies or radio drama."

Breen's claim of the century's superiority is bolstered by his and Gorman's selection of super sleuths who debuted during the last 100 years, ranging from G.K. Chesterton's cerebral cleric Father Brown to Ross Macdonald's considerably tougher philosophizer Lew Archer. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot gives his gray cells a workout, along with Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsy (with a mordant little tale entitled "The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach"), Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason. Raymond Chandler is represented not by his famous knight of the mean streets Philip Marlowe (who appears in only one, oft-reprinted short story), but by hotel dick Steve Grayce ("The King in Yellow").

These detectives will forever be part of the last century's tapestry. But Breen's theory is somewhat undermined by entries featuring contemporary sleuths whose writers are still alive and well and likely to make crime pay in the next century--like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski; Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford; Lawrence Block's unofficial private eye, Matt Scudder; Tony Hillerman's Navajo policeman, Jim Chee; and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins.

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More evidence of the continuing viability of the mini-mystery may be found in "Creme De La Crime" (Carroll & Graf, $24.95, 406 pages), a collection of short stories by prize-winning authors. This panoply of murder and mayhem was selected from the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery magazine by the long-running monthly's editor, Janet Hutchings.

Included are tales about murderers, private eyes, gentle folk, serial killers, smugglers, early Romans, paranoid rock stars and French revolutionaries penned (or at least typed) by the aforementioned Block and Rendell, along with Jeffrey Deaver, Melodie Johnson Howe, Ian Rankin, Simon Brett, Joyce Carol Oates and the amazingly prolific Edward D. Hoch, who for the past 27 years has written a new short story for each issue of the magazine.

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If, like me, you're a sucker for the caper novel, you may want to peruse Larry Karp's "Scamming the Birdman" (Write Way Publishing, $24.95, 277 pages). Karp is a former physician living in Seattle who collects and restores antique music boxes. That same description applies to his hero, except that Thomas Purdue is a New Yorker who stages elaborate scams to ensnare unpleasant marks. One such mark is the thuggish bully Vincent LoPriore, a.k.a. "the Birdman," who seduced the wife of one of Purdue's best friends, used her to steal her husband's priceless music box collection and then apparently murdered her.

Administering his own form of justice, Purdue concocts a con to relieve LoPriore of his collection and send him to prison in the bargain. He assembles a group of grifters with names like Frank the Crank, Broadway Schwartz and Soapy Sandy, and stages a sting so complex it couldn't possibly go off without a hitch.

But it's the hitches that make these exercises worthwhile. Donald Westlake is the reigning master of this type of fiction. Karp isn't quite in his league, but his ending is one that's worthy of Westlake and then some.

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The Times reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman on audio books.

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