Northwestern University Press reissues The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith

Northwestern University Press this month reissued Mark Smith’s The Death of the Detective, a novel considered by some of the readers who’ve discovered it since it went out of print nearly 25 years ago to be one of the greatest works of American fiction of the 20th century. Although nominated for a National Book Award when first published in 1974, its critical reception was, on the whole, mixed. The New York Times Book Review said of it,

[Smith’s] large and eccentric melodrama is marked by lavish skill at doing what novelists always need to do–write scenes, weave narrative threads, hatch and construct characters, see and smell and feel and describe. Good sentence piles upon good sentence until the novel sags and cracks. What it sorely needs is a blue pencil and an artistic point of view.

Its status hasn’t improved much over the years. One of its Amazon reviewers gave it five stars and the tag-line, “Ross MacDonald meets (the american) John Gardner,” and this is as apt a summary as any. Like Gardner’s magnum opus, Nickel Mountain (now out of print), The Death of the Detective is ambitious, grand in scope, and overloaded with atmosphere, moods, and characters. Novelist Wallace Markfield slammed Smith (getting his name wrong) and Gardner in one swat in a 1978 interview available online at the Dalkey Archive Press website:

Markfield: There’s a stench given off by novels written by academics. A point in case is John Gardner. It’s a stench of unreality. There is no contact between Gardner and the real world. He’s fanciful and he has a few pathetic tricks. Another case in point is an academic named Frank Smith; he wrote something called The Death of the Detective

Interviewer: I don’t know it.

Markfield: You’re not missing very much. I read it and why I finished it I don’t know. It was a terribly boring book. You know, clearly modeled upon whomever. But of no interest whatsoever in the world.

The Death of the Detective is one of the books that inspired me to start this site and has been one of my Editor’s Choices since day one. While I can see the point of the New York Times critic who wrote that it could stand some “blue pencil” editing to trim off some of its excess and improve its artistic merit, I don’t think artistic merit is the reason to seek out and read this book. The Death of the Detective is a book about Chicago, and like that city, prone on occasion to extremes of temperature, drama, and violence, which is what makes it such an engrossing and memorable reading experience. It’s the novelistic counterpart to Sandburg’s “Chicago”:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

If it were ever made into a movie, its settings would be dark, its lighting melodramatic, and its score heavy with pipe organ chords, and you’d sit there in the theater, reveling in the sensory overload. But why wait for the movie? Find a copy, crack open its covers, and dive in. You will surface a few days later — perhaps a bit drained, but in awe of Smith’s ability to achieve sensory overload with nothing more than words on a page.

8 thoughts on “Northwestern University Press reissues The Death of the Detective, by Mark Smith

  1. Congratulations on this website. Many forgotten books should very much be remembered. I love your conceptual description of a Death of the Detective movie. Lets have it with unknown actors, well maybe Meryl Streep in the bughouse square sequence as the crazy lady with the oversized flashlight wearing the cheerleaders dress, and perhaps directed by Robert De Niro (he captured the right mood for “The Good Shepherd”–I don’t know.

    One of my favorite reviews for TDOTD is this one: “Remarkable for both its ambition and its accomplishment, [it] reads as though it were written by a resurrected Charles Dickens, one chilled by a hundred years of graveyard brooding . . . every page is a pleasure to read.” –New York Times Book Review

    After I wrote my “Ross MacDonald meets (the American) John Gardner,” blurb for Amazon, I picked up another book by Mark Smith – On the back of the hardcover of The Moon Lamp it states: PRAISE FOR The Death of the Detective. Here is the one that caught my eye:
    “The imagination churns as in Dickens, Dostoievsky….
    Insane, terrible, but very, very good.” – John Gardner

    Which reminds me of another neglected book: John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts which is simply unbelievably good.

  2. Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to get a real person in among the dozens of spam comments I get each day.

    Gardner has fallen into general disregard since his death, which is a bit ironic since his push for “moral fiction” seems to have succeeded over the stylistic experimentation that was critically favored at the time. Equally ironic is the fact that New Directions, perhaps the premier avant garde publishing house since WWII, is responsible for reprinting Gardner’s Sunlight Dialogues and OCtober Light.

  3. Thank you for starting the discussion on “Death of the Detective.” Smith was a teacher of mine at UNH and I found his book an inspiration and agree that it’s unfairly neglected. It bursts with energy and daring and imagination. It is like Dickens on acid. I think it was swimming against the tide of the times, in which smaller stories were more trendy. It has the old, original novelistic ambitions of encompassing an entire society. I must admit I was never a real Gardner fan though.

  4. I’ve been buying used copies of DOTD and mailing them to friends for decades. Those willing to enter at “Bughouse Square” and emerge from a northwoods lake six hundred pages later invariably thank me for a great reading experience. DOTD is truly “Chicago’s novel” and any observant Chicagoan will recognize dozens and dozens of landmarks, characters, and events, accurate to the layout of a bus terminal, neighborhood bait shop and saga of rogue cop Two-Gun Pete (in the novel as Two Gun Washington ). A remarkable book that I re-read every fifteen years or so, finding something new in every reading

  5. In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels. Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers. In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books individually while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

  6. I loved Death of the Detective when I read it about 1974-75. I’m trying to figure out now what happened to my copy since I keep all the books I like, unless they go yellow. I don’t know if I’d have the energy to reread it now. It totally consumed me at the time for a few weeks, as I recall. I don’t think I’d call Nickel Mountain Gardner’s magnum opus–isn’t that The Sunlight Dialogues?–but amazingly my freshman and sophomore college students loved it.

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