Gumshoes: A Partial Lineup of New York Detectives in American Crime Fiction

The word gumshoe can be used as an intransitive verb, meaning to work as a detective, but more commonly gumshoe refers to the investigators themselves. While the etymology is a little murky, the term most likely refers to the new soft-soled gum that replaced leather on some shoes in the late 19th century. The soft rubber shoes, precursors to sneakers, sounded quiet on the pavement, allowing the wearer to sneak (get it?) around. In popular parlance, gumshoes may have originally referred to the perp, like a sneaky thief. By the early 20th century, gumshoes in literature mainly referred to detectives. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the first instance to A. H. Lewis's 1906 Confessions of a detective, a feisty little book full of New York street slang. Here, the word characterizes both a sneaky criminal - "One of Red Bob's gang had crept upon me, gumshoe fashion, and dealt me a blow with a sandbag" (33) and a detective - "Cull, you're d'gum-shoe guy I was waiting' fer, see!" Like gumshoe, a slang term for police officer is "flatfoot."

Great detective fiction thrives on the streets of a big city. Criminal activity unfolds in every nook and cranny, not just in the dark crowded streets and bars of the slums and backroom poker joints, but inside Fifth Avenue mansions, Wall Street boardrooms, luxury apartment buildings, and inside and outside the theaters of the Great White Way. The great detectives know their streets as well as they know the back of their hands and the soles of their gumshoed feet. Many of the great detectives, however, do without the footwear. They may be part-time sleuths, or in cases like Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, they rarely leave the house. Nevertheless, the geography of the streets reflects the interior mental map that detectives use to solve their crimes and, in the case on the winding cobblestone paths of the city's older sections, the mysterious labyrinths of human nature.

A Selected List of Writers and Their New York Detectives

Some of the books quoted below may be found in full or limited previews on Google Books. See my library for more details. Let me know in the comments section who else we need to put in the lineup.

Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935)
The Leavenworth Case: A Lawyer's StoryDetective: Ebenezer Gryce, a lawyer
Quote: "As for his jurymen, they were, as I have intimated, very much like all other bodies of a similar character. Picked up at random from the streets, but from such streets as the Fifth and Sixth Avenues, they presented much the same appearance of average intelligence and refinement as might be seen in the chance occupants of one of our city stages. Indeed, I marked but one amongst them all who seemed to take any interest in the inquiry as an inquiry; all the rest appearing to be actuated in the fulfilment of their duty by the commoner instincts of pity and indignation." - The Leavenworth Case (1878)

Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939)
Pseudonym: S. S. Van Dine
Detective: Philo Vance, an upper-class dilettante in 12 crime novels
Quote: "His apartment in East Thirty-eighth Street--actually the two top floors of an old mansion, beautifully remodeled and in part rebuilt to secure spacious rooms and lofty ceilings--was filled, but not crowded, with rare specimens of oriental and occidental, ancient and modern, art. His paintings ranged from the Italian primitives to C├ęzanne and Matisse; and among his collection of original drawings were works as widely separated as those of Michelangelo and Picasso. Vance's Chinese prints constituted one of the finest private collections in this country. They included beautiful examples of the work of Ririomin, Rianchu, Jinkomin, Kakei, and Mokkei." - The Benson Murder Case (1930), the first novel in the Philo Vance series

Rex Stout (1886-1975)
author of a series of Nero Wolfe mysteries
Detective: Nero Wolfe, overweight armchair private investigator, gourmand and beer drinker who stays at home in his brownstone western 35th Street, with his assistant and narrator, Archie Goodwin, walking the streets for him.
Quote: "It was just another rooming-house. For some reason or other they're all alike, whether it's a high-hat affair in the Fifties or a brownstone west of Central Park full of honest artist girls or an Italian hangout like this one on Sullivan Street." - Fer-de-Lance (1934), the first of the series

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)
The Thin ManDetective: Nick Charles, accompanied by his lovely heiress wife, Nora, and their dog Asta. The Thin Man was Hammett's last novel. Though several movie sequels were produced, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, Hammett did not himself write another Thin Man book. Earlier, Hammett created the influential detective, Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon (1930).
Quote: "I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me." - opening line of The Thin Man (1934)

Chester Himes (1909-1984)
series of Harlem novels, including Real Cool Killers (1959), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), and others
Detectives: “Grave Digger” Jones and “Coffin Ed” Johnson
Cotton Comes to HarlemQuote: " The black Harlem detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones had been cruising south on Eighth Avenue from 125th Street, looking for known pushers, and they were approaching the intersection of 113th Street when the alarm was broadcast. They hadn't seen any known pushers, just the streets filled with addicts." - Plan B (1993), unfinished, last of the series, published posthumously

Carolyn Heilbrun (1926-2003)
Pseudonym: Amanda Cross
Detective: English professor and sleuth, Kate Fansler
Quote: "Later, I dropped Dawn at her home, and took the taxi to Park Slope. I've never understood how people can keep cars in Park Slope; there's never anywhere to put them. A guy I know calls it Double-Park Slope." - Honest Doubt (2001)

Evan Hunter (1926-2005), born and raised as Salvatore Lombino
Pseudonym: Ed McBain
The Big Bad City (87th Precinct Mysteries)Detectives: Steve Carella and Arthur Brown, 87th Precinct (in the books New York is not named, only implied)
Quote: "Now, at ten minutes to eight, Carella and Brown started doing their paperwork. In this city, the tempo in August slowed down to what Lieutenant Byrnes had once described as 'summertime,' not quite the equivalent of 'ragtime,' a slow-motion rhythm that leisurely waltzed the relieving team into the sometimes frantic pace of police work." - The Big Bad City (1999)

Ten Little New Yorkers: A NovelRichard S. "Kinky" Friedman (1944 - )
Detective: Kinky Friedman, oversize real-life Texan singer/songwriter/novelist P.I. living in Greenwich Village, aided by a motley crew, the Village Irregulars.
Quote"What, I wondered, was a blue-buttocked tropical loon doing in the middle of a rainstorm in the West Village? The blue-buttocked tropical loon belonged in a rain forest, not a rainstorm. Of course I could understand it making an occasional appearance in the East Village, but it was highly unusual for this rare bird to migrate to the more civilized West Village." - Ten Little New Yorkers (2005)

Richard Price (1949 - )
Lush Life: A NovelDetective: NYPD Detective Matty Clark (appearance in Lush Life)
Quote: "When he made it to the scene at 4:35, twenty minutes after the call, it was still dark, although the first bird of day could be heard chittering in a low tree somewhere close, and the ancient tenement rooftops of Eldridge Street were beginning to outline themselves against the sky." - Lush Life (2008)

Images accompanying posts in Mystery Month made with WOTBA's super-secret detective iPhone 3G.

Read the related post, A Month of New York Mysteries, Ghosts, Detectives, Gothic Tales and Noir.


Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

I love mysteries. And one of the more pathetic aspects of my New Yorker wannbeisms is that I am particularly drawn to mysteries set in New York. Writer Lee Child's latest, Gone Tomorrow, is largely set there and pretty good. An earlier work of his, The Hard Way, is even better.

Tinky said...

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. and Mrs. North, the married sleuths created by Richard and Frances Lockridge. They lived in Greenwich Village, stumbled across a lot of bodies, and sipped a lot of cocktails....

Teri Tynes said...

I was ready to add the Norths, but I didn't have any of their books handy, and I wanted to include quotes!

Smita said...

Recent Greenwich Village transplant and fan of WOTBA. Will delurk for a minute to say how much I LOVED this list. Many thanks for putting it together.

Thank you!

Teri Tynes said...

Hi Smita, Thanks for being a fan of WOTBA and especially for the use of the word "delurk." So glad you liked the gumshoes.