Gilbert Seldes: 'Anatomy of a Murder' Has the Consistency of Kleenex
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 16, 1958, Vol. III, No. 38
The Lively Arts
By Gilbert Seldes
For over six months now a book called "Anatomy of a Murder" has been on the best-seller list -- during the past eight weeks or so it has led the list. The book has the quality, consistency, and attractiveness of a wad of Kleenex which has inadvertently dropped into the bathtub. It was a selection of the Book of the Month Club.
When I first read this book I thought Eric Stanley Gardner ought to sue the BOMC. Not because the book is in any sense a plagiarism -- there isn't a line in it that has the brisk clean style of a Perry Mason story. It's just that the BOMC has passed over 50 Perry Masons and has given its accolade to a third-rate imitation.
The BOMC called it "a wickedly quizzical novel" and says "it's a melodrama of the law "raised to the level of adult narrative." I've been an adult longer than most people and have found ESG pretty good. I found the Club's choice sub-adolescent. Writing the justification which accompanies a BOMC selection, Clifton Fadiman, who knows better and who does know a piece of cheese when he smells it, said the book "may remind some readers of Smollett and Defoe." If may remind them of authors they've never read. It reminded me of Eric Stanley Gardner—and the comparison is all oin his favor.
The book is published under a pseudonym (I was about to say an alias) and the author really is a judge (gee whiz!) and the rape-and-murder case it describes and dulls up to an unbelievable extent really took place (jiminy crickets! isn't that wonderful?).
Now I put it to you dear reader, if you wanted to do a novel centering on a scene in court and had no talent whatsoever for writing and couldn't tell a live character from a store-dummy—I ask you, what would you do? You'd go to a master—to that same ESG mentioned above. If you were clever, you'd avoid the obvious and (not how judicious I am) alias Robert Traver has done this. He doesn't bring in Perry Mason. No.
But who does come in? The weakest of all ESG's characters—the prosecutor who's hoping to run for governor, the character ESG (anything for a laugh) named Hamilton Burger. It's a joke, son, Ham-Burger. I wonder whether ESG has regretted that name as much as the late Dorothy Sayers must have regretted Lord Peter Wimsey.
In any case, there he is, in the middle of a book which purports to be—actually is—telling about a real event. It is so palpably managed that you have to sit back and think for a minute. Maybe ESG got this character from life, and, maybe, in this case life imitated art.
And for the record, another character comes in. That sad, drunken, but incomparable sleuth, from the works of Craig Rice. Maybe he/she ought to sue the BOMC.
The book is a best-seller. Virtually any book chosen by the Club becomes one. The publisher gets a wad of dough he can spend on advertising -- the publicity is great in any case. The book has been moderately well received. The best thing anyone, outside Mr. Fadiman and his associates, has found to suggest is that because it's badly written it has the accent of truth. Some say it's easy to read. It's easy if you can slog through wet Kleenex.
The BOMC has often explained that its choice is not presented as the one eternal god-given classic published that month. It does however imply that the book is a good one—and good of its kind. And the BOMC, which prospers only if the habit of reading continues and spreads, owes some deference to the republic of letters. It owes some respect to the art by which it lives. It has singularly abused its position in this case.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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