Marketing has a lot to answer for. In much the same way that Herbert Brean a couple of weeks ago found himself the centre of a tussle between competing crime fiction ideologies, and endless crime fiction authors these days end up with “as gripping as Agatha Christie” in their synopses, it’s fashion that determines how to lie to you when selling something.
The publication date and the strapline on the cover (“Hair-raising tales of the ruthless criminal, the untamed lawbreaker who seeks his prey among decent men”) of It’s About Crime (1960), an anthology of short fiction by MacKinlay Kantor, combine the impression of an unvarnished toughness, throwing aside the wimpy approach of those Venetian vase detectives and their in-too-lek-chual puzzles. Hell, it even keeps up the illusion on the first facing page:
In eleven stories of the underworld, MacKinlay Kantor describes the lurking terror, the bestial cruelty of the crime-jungle…
Now, true, he had won a Pultizer Prize four years previously, and so obviously no-one was too keen to admit that this Serious Civil War Writer could ever — imagine! — have stooped to write mere Pulp crime stories. Good heavens, no. He was born clutching his Pulitzer, and no American author ever made money from the Pulps. So I’m not saying I don’t understand where this approach came from, but once again you’re setting up the audience for an experience they’re not going to get, thus increasing their disappointment and, in the long-term, damaging the good name of the author you’re supposedly promoting.
Anyway, to the stories themselves…
Opener ‘Rogues’ Gallery’ (1935) is short, sharp, tragic, and wonderful. Compact in its setup, rich in the argot of a gang who have just carried out a robbery (“Never make a chair date when you don’t have to.”) and stumble upon a witness who could not be less interested in them or their crime, the dialogue heavy middle section compounds the small amount of descriptive prose that concludes it, and really hits home. That there’s a lovely flourish at the end is simply an additional fillip. I shouldn’t be surprised that some marketing idiot gave away the ending on the back cover, but since those people clearly have no souls they can’t be expected to understand magnificence when they see it.
A semi-impossible Christmas crime greets us in ‘Nobody Saw Him Fall’ (1933): an elderly man found dead by his younger wife following the visit of the town’s Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Since ‘Santa’ was the last person seen with the victim before the murder is discovered, and since the family alibi each other, it’s a small matter of clearing himself from suspicion and finding the real culprit. This is about half a complex as it appears, but benefits from some superbly atmospheric writing and organic, personal detection. It withholds a key clue, I’m not sure the closing revelation works (it’d be too heavy, right?), and it’s hardly the “crime-jungle” you were promised, but only a hard heart couldn’t find something to enjoy here.
‘The Shadow Points’ (1933) is equally charming: essentially the story of a crime on top of a crime, and a great thumbnail portrait of the sort of person who could conceive of and commit to such action and yet remain as moral as the situation allows (“[he] applied this knowledge to his trembling conscience, with good results.”). That the narrative then leaps forward 11 years to see the circle closed without being in any way jarring is a testament to Kantor’s smooth writing, and while I’m again not sure the final revelation quite works — surely he’d’ve checked before he got to the jewellery store — Kantor tells it in such a gentle and low-key way that it’s huge fun seeing it play out so unostentatiously.
“Are we going to show up at any point?”
Marking a change in tone, ‘Sparrow Cop’ (1933) is every George P. Pelecanos novel ever written, with two cop brothers (one rookie, one veteran) finding themselves in the middle of a criminal double-cross. From the casual disregard of immigrants, to the fruitless needling of a confrère, to the essential fraternal bonds beneath the skin, this hits every Pelecanos touchstone with the advantage of being only 15 pages long. The fractured telling of the narrative is neatly handled, and the violence brief, unapologetic, and shocking (though, of course, not explicit) and the studied indifference with which it is relayed — “Pete was a hard cookie…and he took a long time about his dying” — a telling counterpoint to what has come before in this collection. Very, very accomplished.
Apologies for more comparisons to other authors, but ‘The Grave Grass Quivers’ (1931) reads like Cornell Woolrich and Herbert Brean pouring out a mix of noir atmospherics and historical whodunnit. There’s nothing terribly groundbreaking about this untangling of a 60 year-old murder, but again Kantor brings a lightness to the inevitability of the conclusions. It could be argued that the roots of this can be found in ‘Thou Art the Man’ (1844) by Edgar Allan Poe with the agrarian coup de grace that closes the whole thing out feeling like something out of Arthur Porges, but whichever way you look at it we again have another expert shift in tone. Not since Stanley Ellin have I seen this done to such a consistently high standard.
Like most people in the GAD community, ‘The Strange Case of Steinkelwintz’ (1929) was where I first encountered Kantor, being sold this as an impossible crime story involving a disappearing grand piano. Coming to it for a second time, I’m less sure: it’s not about the disappearance, our detective Maxwell Grame cottons onto that PDQ, but shares in common with other stories here the glee of holding something back for typically the final line to kick you or suddenly allow clarity to dawn. From that perspective, I’d suggest it offers far more — the intuitive detection is fun, but the real draw here is the whimsy. This is impossible in the way the aforementioned Mr. Brean’s stories are: incidentally, and not as their raison d’etre.
I don’t know what to make of ‘Something Like Salmon’ (1933): it shares that Kantorian conceit of being remarkably hard to pigeonhole and then turning on a dime of often unexpected provenance (or vice versa, I suppose). Here it’s, well, it’s the little oddnesses picked up by lunch counter owner Gus Annas in the run-up to and commission of a bank robbery that unpicks the job for the robbers. True, this requires the stupidest member of the crew to scope out the bank, but there’s again that sort of organic detection that brought to mind the Carstairs children of Home Sweet Homicide (1944). It’s enjoyable enough, and shows a good juggling of different tones within its own length, but it’s undoubtedly a curate’s egg.
“People quite like us, is why I ask.”
The faded old-timer with one last shot at glory can be found in ‘Blue Jay Takes the Trail’ (1933), with Sylvester ‘Blue’ Jay thrown back into his possibly criminous past following a hold-up of the carnival where he’s now basking in as much glory as can be mustered. For all its semi-tough-guy tone, the quiet absence of grandstanding can be adduced for the era in which it was written, with even Blue’s moment of glory at the denouement undercut by a palpable fear as he heads in to distract the toughs he’s helped track down. I’ve always felt that American authors sell this sort of unshowy probity more convincingly than their British counterparts, and this is as good an example as you’d hope to find.
‘The Light at Three O’Clock’ (1930) occupies perfectly that border between crime story and ghost story, with silent calls being made to a switchboard at the given hour from an apartment in which a shooting-and-vanishing had occurred only 24 hours before. With the door being broken in and nothing except blood in evidence, a new lock with only one key has been fitted…so if anyone’s in there, how did they get in? And why do they keep phoning the switchboard? This is a beautifully paced slow burn that’s creepy, cleverly handled, and pleasingly resolves both the horror elements (“You’ve got blood…all over your hand!”) and the rational side of things. Deserves to be far better known.
The impossible shooting of an elderly Chicago millionaire forms the backbone of ‘Wolf, Wolf!’ (1932), but this is also filled with many other points of interest: the Aesop allusion that leads our detectives to believe that the seventh threat of murder they’ve received from the same source is genuine when the previous six were washouts, the response from the obviously guilty party when confronted with their guilt, even the use of “ruffianly” (a new one to me) and “Great-Uncle” (in Mass. a few weeks back it was Grand-Uncle, you may remember…). Kantor writes this sort of compact country house mystery very well, and the James M. Cainish ending merrily sets up the Noir tradition that was to swap US crime writing in the decade ahead.
Finally, with much regret, we have ‘The Watchman’ (1936). “Nine years in the penitentiary can teach one how to do many things”, and Benny Hackett has learned how to make a blade and how to shore up vengeance in his heart for the judge who sent him down. Kantor’s brevity when setting up history, people, and situations really comes into play here, with the six pages this inhabits full of just the right balance of everything. Kantor does another superlative job in giving you a criminal who is both reprehensible in their intent and yet curiously moral in their action (“His hands brushed a swaying web of elastic which hung from something folded across a chair…”). A perfect end to a brilliant collection.
“It’s not like anyone comes here because they like your writing, after all…”
So, what of this sample of MacKinlay Kantor’s short fiction? There’s an unmistakably hard-nosed American sheen to this, but it’s not as slick as the quickly-disposed fodder typically associated with the Pulps, and it’s not as Grimly Real as the description from that first facing page would have you anticipate. Instead, the writing here bridges the streams of puzzle and crime very well indeed, intelligently informing the range of styles chosen and showing Kantor to be an adept and insightful student of psychology and setting. Best of all, they’re fun, easy reads, showing the genre as a versatile way to approach all manner of people and situations, and I’d defy anyone with an interest in any part of 1930s and 1940s crime fiction not to enjoy this. Highly, highly, highly recommended.
The always-wonderful Mystery*File website has this superb overview of Kantor and his work, written by John Apostolou. He, Kantor, is someone I would love to read more by, so watch this space…
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Kantor was a mystery writer who was closer to the hardboiled school than to the ratiocinative detective stories and they’re not always paradigms of fair-play, either. On the other hand, the quality of the writing is excellent and the text scattered with fascinating ideas or imaginative scenes.