Studies in Extinction


PERFECT anthologies do not exist. Very good ones are extremely rare. I have a shelf full of them, as who has not who buys books, and most of them are tired stuff. You read two or three stories or two or three articles, then put the book aside and forget it. These books have no private life, no structure, no unifying emotion. Some are put together by seedy peddlers of threadbare literary material long since worn past useful service; some by panhandlers, who parley the permissions of careless or unwary authors into a package of merchandise to which they contribute nothing but an empty foreword and a price tag; still others by decent careful intelligent men who over the years have accumulated a collection of personal favorites, and delude themselves into thinking these acquire some additional value by being put together in one volume. Some of the best collections, such as the various Oxford anthologies, Dorothy Sayers’s Omnibus of Crime, and Francis Yeats-Brown’s Escape, are not so much anthologies as one-volume libraries. They give you a lot for your money, but only an iron man can hold them up without getting a sprained wrist. If this is the way I must read, I shall stick to Webster s Unabridged. There isn’t a dull page in it.
The problems of the anthologist are severe. Most of the good things have had the gloss worn off them long ago. Much of what is left is not available. The author wants too much money, or he plans to anthologize himself later on, as the crown of his career. In some cases the anthologist cannot even find out to whom he should apply for the right to material. When found, the rights have to be paid for, and publishers are not heavy spenders in this connection. If James Sandoe’s collection Murder Plain and Fanciful (Sheridan House, $3.50) has faults, you would be kind to attribute them to no lack of taste or industry, but rather to the work of the countless busy termites who got into the woodwork long before him.
His book is divided into three sections, called MURDER: Plain, MURDER: Fancy from Fact, and MURDER: Fanciful (With some lesser crimes). The first section consists of more or less straight accounts of more or less famous cases. It includes some curiously adolescent dialogue in the death house, set down by Robert Blake a short time before his own execution. Mr. Sandoe calls it grim, but the grimness is in the circumstance, not in the content. The talk itself suggests that murderers (those that reach the death house anyhow) are rather childish people. Not all of the items in this section are new, but all of them have quality of a sort.
The stand-outs, for me, are Felix Frankfurter’s deadly cool survey of the Sacco-Vanzetti case; F. Tennyson Jesse’s analysis of the Rattenbury and Stoner case, a wonderfully detached and acid English item which points up how much the quality of English criminal justice resides in the power of a nonpolitical and nonremovable judge: a power often calm, clear, and beneficent, but sometimes also a rather poisonous determination to convict people for the wrong things; and lastly William Roughead’s account of the Drumsheugh case, in which that turgid but always dynamic writer lays bare the entire plot used by Lillian Hellman in The Children’s Hour. There is a piece on the dual identity of Charles Peace by Raymond Postgate which is not nearly good enough. This sort of thing needs the Edmund Pearson or bored clubman touch. At the end of the section is an item entitled Hannah Dustin by Thoreau which may possibly knock you out of your chair, if you are the sort of fellow who admires to see a note to the milkman filtered through a stained-glass window.
The second and shortest section contains a fictional reconstruction of a celebrated San Jose lynching, done in the faux naïf or literate half-wit style which I, personally, have never learned to love; also a one-act summing up of the Lizzie Borden case, by Lillian de la Torre, which might be quite good theater, but as reading matter is hardly more than competent; and lastly one of those neat little legal twists that Melville Davisson Post liked to write about, even though he often wrote them as though he thought he was playing Macbeth.
The last section is all fiction. There is a French item by Pierre Audemars, which is as French as all get out, and quite good; an impish bit of Bemelmans from the Hotel Splendide; a fantastic experiment by Anthony Boucher; an adventure of Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carrados; a businesslike affair by Freeman Wills Crofts; and other worthy chronicles written variously in polite English, polite American, the kind of English that seems to be a cascade of dropped “h’s,” and a couple of samples of the impolite, or Black Mask, style of American.
The last are good enough in their way, but rather brittle and imitative. I should judge Mr. Sandoe took them because they had not previously been taken, rather than because he regarded them as the best of the type. There was a time when this stuff socked me right between the eyes. If the charm has faded a little, who am I to act superior? There was a time when the novels of Mrs. Henry Wood socked people between the eyes, and in my schooldays, God help us, Hall Cine was considered to be a thinker.
The important thing about Mr. Sandoe’s anthology is not the contents, item by item, but his own clean, hard respect for his subject, and his prodigious knowledge of its literature. I share his vulgar delight in a neatly cut throat — a sort of emotion which comes as near as anything to being a homeopathic remedy for this age of violence. He likes murder, its motives and consequences, its weird struggles with the law, and the weird law it sometimes provokes, and the inevitable dance of imbeciles that follows it on its way to whatever retribution it receives. I have a suspicion, although he has not expressed it, that he regards the chronicles of this irrevocable art as the only really significant literature of our time, in the special sense that an intelligent preoccupation with the subject — macabre to some, delicious to others, attractive in some manner to almost all—is the frame for almost the only kind of writing we do better than it was ever done before.
Mr. Sandoe is the least showy, least egotistical, and most thoroughly learned bibliographer of crime literature in the United States, and please don’t toss Mr. Ellery and Mr. Queen at me. I have heard about their massive library, but the massiveness of their critical intelligence has not been revealed to me. The scholar in murder, as in other things, has a quality of his own. At the end of Mr. Sandoe’s book, to make up for anything it may happen to lack, is a strange dossier called the Criminal Clef, such a thing as only a Taine or Sainte-Beuve of criminal literature could have known enough to put together. It is a sort of bibliography or card index of the origins in recorded fact of far too many famous or near-famous fictional stories of murder. To a fiction writer it is a fascinating but also a very humbling document.