The Strand Magazine is a huge fan of Leslie Klinger, in this exclusive interview we got the opportunity to speak to one of the most notable authorities of the Sherlock Holmes novels. An expert of classic genre fiction, Leslie Klinger tells us all about his start in the world of the crime genre and his day-to-day life in this exclusive interview.
AFG: You are one of the renascence men of the world of crime without being a professor, how did you get into the world of crime fiction and have such encyclopedic knowledge?
LK: After I discovered Sherlock Holmes, I decided that I needed to read more in the mystery genre and took it upon myself to read the classics—Sayers, Christie, Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and more. I didn’t really begin to study the genre until many years later when I began writing about Holmes. In order to appreciate Doyle’s genius, I wanted to understand what he was starting with—what he’d read, what he might have read, and what was out there. Of course, I knew about Poe and Gaboriau and Wilkie Collins, but that was about it. There are many books about early crime fiction that discuss Holmes (which I owned because I collect everything critical written about Holmes), and I began looking into them. When I wrote New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, I wrote a foreword that tried to place the stories into a literary context
I got even more serious when I began work on [the Edgar-winning] Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s. I did a lot of research about specifically the origins of American crime fiction so that I could write a comprehensive foreword to the book.
AFG: Tell us about the project at the Library of Congress?
LK: All credit for the origination of the project goes to Barbara Peters, proprietor of the Poisoned Pen bookshop and the Poisoned Pen Press. PPP is the American distributor for the British Library’s series of Golden Age mysteries, and Barbara thought that the LOC should do the same for American crime fiction. So Barbara, her husband Robert Rosenwald, the publisher of PPP, and I hopped on a plane to DC (in 2019) to pitch the LOC’s publishing office on the project. They loved it! By then, PPP had been sold to SourceBooks, who was equally enthusiastic about the project, so now we had a strong partnership in place.
The idea was to publish great American crime fiction (from the period 1866 to the 1960s) that had sadly slipped out of view or out of print. These volumes are aimed at a general readership and schools in particular. We determined to include (a) a foreword by me, contextualizing the book and explaining its significance, (b) a biography of the author, (c) suggested further reading, (d) discussion group questions, and (e) of course, notes—though not nearly as many as one of my “annotated” volumes—typically, 30 to 60 per book. The notes would focus mainly on vocabulary (words and phrases no longer in common usage) and cultural and historical references. (Our “competition,” Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics, sadly has none of these extras though each volume does include a short intro by a well-known contemporary mystery writer.) Each volume features a beautiful appropriate image from the LOC’s immense collection of images.
AFG: These writers aren’t household names, but they knew how to spin a year. How deep is that well of talent?
LK: It’s amazingly deep. American crime writing began in earnest in 1866 (after Poe’s “one-shot” trio of stories, he sadly lost interest in the genre) and never languished afterward. Despite a reader bias toward British crime fiction in the early 20th century, there was a vast amount of truly American crime fiction produced. One need only look at the Queen’s Quorum or Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones lists to see how many American writers were putting out high-quality books in those early years. Of course, after the “Golden Age,” Americans dominated the scene.
AFG: During your research what surprised you the most?
LK: I was a bit surprised at how big an influence the Holmes stories had on the books appearing in the 1890s and 1900s. Those stories were not nearly as influential after the Great War, when “realism” was the word of the day, but they shaped the styles of many early American writers as well as English. On the other hand, we can take great pride in the success of Anna Katharine Green, the “mother” of American crime fiction, whose brilliant work takes nothing from Holmes and inspired Agatha Christie.
AFG: What are some of the forthcoming books?
LK: [The first eight are listed on https://lesliesklinger.com/books/library-of-congress-crime-classics/ ] Next up is The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher (1932), the first mystery novel with an all-Black cast written by a Black writer. This will be followed by The Metropolitan Opera Murders, by Helen Traubel, the great diva of the 1940s and 1950s, which has a charming insider’s view of the Met and a mystery that’s terrific. After that, we turn back to the 1910s, with Average Jones by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Adams is better known as one of the great “muckrakers” of the day but he penned a series of clever and amusing tales featuring a wealthy detective who styles himself an “Ad-visor.” I think the next title is Room to Swing, Ed Lacy’s Edgar-winning 1957 novel about a Black “tough guy” private eye. These titles won’t appear until 2022.
AFG: I’d love to go to the Library of Congress one of these days, to those like me who have not been what is it like?
LK: It’s like the genie’s cave in Aladdin or Smaug’s horde—a vast treasure chest in a beautiful building!
AFG: The books we chatted about are from a very diverse group of people, has it been satisfying to bring out these authors into the mainstream?
LK: I hope that one of the benefits of these books will be to redirect readers to other works by these authors. For example, C. W. Grafton (Sue’s father) wrote several other worthy mysteries, and of course Elizabeth Linnington (Del Shannon) was a pioneer of the “police procedural” and wrote dozens of books. Hillary Waugh, a former MWA President and Grand Master, has also slipped into relative obscurity. For the older books, I hope that they will dispel the notion that old = musty!
AFG: How do you choose what book gets released?
LK: This is a complex process (it is the government, after all). I nominate titles, Barbara Peters chimes in, and then the LOC has a process of beta readers who look at the books. We try to go with those that the readers actually enjoy reading!
AFG: What has the response been so far?
LK: The critical response has been terrific, and while it’s early to look at overall sales, I hope that these titles will stay in print for many, many years. I love seeing the SERIES on a bookshelf!
AFG: It must be a huge project to annotate the books, how long does it take to annotate each book and what does the research entail?
LK: Actually it takes less time than you might expect. I already have a large (too large, if you ask my wife) library of critical and reference materials, and the Internet is an amazing tool for sleuthing out historical and cultural references. I probably spend only 20-30 hours annotating the books (as I said, it’s “annotations-lite”) and an equal amount of time researching and summarizing critical responses to the book and bios of the authors. Each volume, therefore, takes me two to three months, working mainly at night and on weekends (because I continue to work full-time as a lawyer during the day)! I generally get going on gathering material before I even get an electronic version of the text, so once that is in hand, I can turn in the product quickly. The LOC is keeping us on a strict quarterly timetable!
AFG: The big question, what is your favorite Sherlock Holmes story—I know you won’t name one, top three?
LK: Surprise! I will name just one. My longtime favorite is “The Blue Carbuncle”—a perfect blend of detection, friendship, and goodwill.