Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Telegraph's top-fifty crime-author list: Who belongs? Who doesn't?

It's nice to see a newspaper acknowledge the existence and popularity of crime fiction. The Telegraph offered a list a couple of weeks ago called "50 crime writers to read before you die." The list contains the usual suspects (Poe, Conan Doyle, Hammett and so on), a surprise or two (notably – and commendably – Jonathan Latimer) and a few writers who may be of special interest to readers of Detectives Beyond Borders. I have one complaint: A list of crime writers (and not of crime novels) should recommend more than one book by each writer.

Well, two complaints: Like James Fallows on the Atlantic's Web site late last year, the Telegraph misspells Janwillem van de Wetering's name, though the Telegraph misspells it differently. It's van de Wetering, not der.

Here are some excerpts from the list, with an occasional comment from me:

Janwillem van de(!!) Wetering (1931- ): "The capers of Grijpstra and de Gier, aka The Amsterdam Cops, are oddly appealing. One plays the drums; the other the flute. They frequent canals. There's a cat. Unique and very Dutch. Read: Outsider in Amsterdam (1975)" (Detectives Beyond Borders says: Outsider in Amsterdam may exemplify the "very Dutch" side of van de Wetering. Hard Rain highlights the "unique" side, delightfully reflecting the author's experience with Zen Buddhism and my favorite in the series.)

Georges Simenon (1903-1989): "His greatest creation was Maigret, an unassuming detective with a brain like a sponge and the quiet moral determination of a true hero. Other detectives deduce; Maigret absorbs. The best of the novels drop Simenon’s detective into a social environment in which, by doing very little, he unravels a whole world of secrets and interconnections. So it is in The Yellow Dog, in which a small town in the gloomy off-season gives up its private passions one by one to the detective’s patient observation. A whole school of modern detectives still walks in Maigret’s large footprints."

Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983): "Admired for his William Crane novels of the 1930s, which parodied hard-boiled crime fiction. Where most private eyes drink like fish with little effect, boozy Crane is more often found sleeping it off than detecting. JK Read: The Fifth Grave (1941)" (DBB says: The Fifth Grave is known in the U.S. as Solomon's Vineyard and was for years available only in a bowdlerized edition. It still hits hard almost seventy years after its publication. Among the lighter-hearted but still occasionally very hard-boiled William Crane books, try The Lady in the Morgue, The Dead Don't Care or Headed for a Hearse.)

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990): "The most famous of this Swiss author's chilling novellas is The Pledge, in which a policeman finds his Holmes-like powers are useless for dealing with the real world's random brutality." (DBB says: I suspect this writer earns respect among those who would not normally read crime fiction because he showed no sense of humor. Try his older compatriot Friedrich Glauser. Glauser, said to have influenced Dürrenmatt, could be just as chilling but also mordantly and sometimes puckishly funny.)
Andrea Camilleri (1925- ): "Camilleri's writing suits his hero Inspector Montalbano, a Sicilian with a broad sense of humour. Camilleri's real subject is the state of Sicily, but his characters are vivid and their dilemmas eternal."

Henning Mankell (1948- ): "Each book finishes with fatty Wallander crashing about the bushes in a tracksuit, but the Swede's existential misery is delightful and every novel is absorbing and satisfying."

Now I'll ask you the same question the Telegraph asked its readers: Who should have been on the list? Who should have been omitted?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

Labels:

29 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

They spelt Stieg Larsson incorrectly as well.
I have a comment on my recent post about this list from one of the contributors. He or she expresses an interesting opinion to which I will be posting a reply.
But any list of great crime writers that fails to include Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout, and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo cannot be regarded as a serious piece of research.
I noted they included some of your favourites [Donald Westlake, and Janwillem van de Wetering] and crimeficreader's John Lawton. But have to admit I have never heard of James Grady, Colin Bateman, Ronald Knox, Kyril Bonfiglioli or Dan Kavanagh.
Who could or should have been included P.D.James, Colin Dexter, Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, John D MacDonald,Dennis Lehane, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, James M.Cain for starters.
I have a feeling this discussion could go on and on.

February 24, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I thought on the whole it was a pretty good list - most of the essentials in there (though I agree with Uriah's view of the obvious omissions, and I'd have included Christopher Brookmyre before Colin Bateman) and a nice sprinkling of deserving lesser knowns. I was particular pleased by the inclusion of personal favourite, Dan 'Julian Barnes' Kavanagh (maybe this will help persuade someone to reissue the Duffy books). I'd like to have seen John Harvey and Peter Temple in there, and maybe Michael Dibdin. And I wouldn't personally have included Benjamin Black - though it was nice to be reminded of the excellent William McIllvanney, another 'literary' novelist who dabbled in crime to (I think) rather better effect.

I was also intrigued by the tag on Agatha Christie's entry: 'Christie did not have the purest prose style and she played hard and fast with the genre's rules'. Apart from wondering what a 'pure' prose style might be, I was left wondering whether Christie treated the genre's rules as 'hard and fast' or whether she perhaps played 'fast and loose' with them.

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

It's very, very short on women - if I'm counting correctly, 42 of 50 authors are male. While they make no apologies for their choices (hmm, so why exactly do you choose if the choices don't mean anything?) but I find it hard to believe that women writers offer less than one-fifth of what a person should read in this genre.

One black author. No Latino authors. Was this just a lark, while drinking a beer across the street? Hey, let's draw up a mystery list. Sure, I've read two or three.

I want to see the Guardian's list!

And saying Parker may be the best crime writer you've "never read"???

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, I hadn't noticed the misspelling of Stieg Larsson's name. I guess British newspapers, like their American counterparts, know that the best way to save money is to let a few copy editors (or sub-editors) go.

As far as "serious research," the list is obviously nothing of the kind. Everybody loves lists, and everybody has read crime fiction. What could be easier than putting together a list of crime writers? Readers like us are arguing about the list, which demonstrates the project's success.

I would agree that any list that does not include Rex Stout and Sjowall and Wahloo has no claim to being a list of crime writers one should read before one dies.

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Michael, I'd agree it was a good list. There are lots of good writers on it, including a surprise or two. Barbara, I'd agree it seemed like a lark because their seemed to be no guiding principle except throwing in one or two representatives of every school or sub-genre that anyone could think of.

I haven't read Benjamin Black, but it's easy to assume someone thought he belonged there because, of course, he's literary. And Michael, just as you were pleased to see Dan Kavanagh on the list, I was pleased to see Donald Westlake.

I wonder if the "played hard and fast comment" was wordplay on the writer's part (if so, it was too clever), or whether it is simply more sloppiness. The list was obviously published without serious editing.

Peter Temple very clearly belongs on any list of the best crime writers. Barbara, who would you have liked to see on the list? And yes, the Parker comment was odd ... at least to readers in the U.S. Perhaps in the the U.K., he is less widely read.

February 24, 2008  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

I think Benjamin Black was a mistake; it's too early to establish whether he'll be writing great crime novels.

I've just posted about this. (I spent most of the day reading, so I've come late to the party.) But my glaring omissions are: Robert Wilson; Michael Connelly (ye gods, had the panel taken too many Mogadons?); Ian Rankin; John Harvey; Harlan Coben; John Sandford; Andrew Taylor; Minette Walters; Patricia Cornwell (for her early work) and lastly, someone no one has suggested in the comments there, Ridley Pearson (his Boldt/Matthews novels were excellent and I miss them).

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

Me, I'd like to see more women. Oh, right, that's not an answer. Well... off the top of my head...

For earlier notable writers, Dorothy Hughes and Margaret Millar come to mind. For the first wave of feminist detectives, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton deserve a nod; I'm not sure who in the UK would be in that category, though possibly Sarah Dunnant. For the "sun never sets" award, P.D. James; her early feminist ventures (e.g. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman) were abandoned for something that more resembles Dickens-meets-Dorothy Sayers and votes Tory, but she's certainly as worthy as some of the old boys on the list.

More recent writers: Liza Cody, Laura Lippman, Karin Fossum, and Minette Walters all deserve a nod in my book. For originality and panache, I'd pick Fred Vargas, Carol O'Connell, and Laurie King.

Chester Himes should be on the list, and I daresay there are Latin American writers who I don't know who should be there, too.

James Sallis, too - he's well enough known in the UK, and is certainly . What about John Harvey and Reginald Hill and Ian Rankin? These are all, without a doubt, "crime writers who can actually write."

I won't tell you what I think of that snide use of "actually," because this is a family blog.

And Benjamin Black - oh, please. He can turn a sentence, but he doesn't know how to plot a work of crime fiction. Maybe he'll learn, but I'm with crimeficreader, it's way too soon.

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

oops, sentence fragment. I started to say of Sallis "certainly a crime writer who can 'actually' write, then I realized how may others fit that category and started to have an editorial meltdown. sorry.

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I have a certain sympathy for anyone who tries to compile a list covering a field as vast as crime fiction. Then again, my sympathy is mitigated by the list's presumptuous title. Peter Temple and Bill James are certainly better writers than some of the folks on the list, but of the names that readers have suggested here, I'd say P.D. James and Ian Rankin are the most surprising omissions.

I'm with crimeficreader in calling Benjamin Black's inclusion a mistake. The list purports to be of great crime writers, not of great crime novels, and Black/Banville has yet to prove himself a great crime writer. But, again, he's just on the list for literary window dressing. Fred Vargas has certainly done more to prove herself a great crime novelist than Black/Banville has.

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I am perversely pleased to report that the Telegraph has refused to publish my comment pointing out that the list misspelled the names of at least two authors — and has also failed to correct the misspellings. Such editorial slopiness is especially ironic from the authors of a remark as snide as that about "crime writers who can actually write."

Chester Himes would certainly not have been out of place on the list, and there have been notable crime writers from Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and Argentina, to name a few countries off the top of my head. How well known some of these authors are outside their own countries, I don't know.

Japan's Seicho Matsumoto would not have been out of place on the list, either. As for Karin Fossum, one might suggest that not enough of her work has appeared in English to warrant her inclusion, but Black/Banville has written just two. Fossum's He Who Fears th Wolf is certainly one of the outstanding crime novels to appear in English in recent years.

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Such a grandiose title for such an incomplete list!

Quoting someone who should be on there: "Pfui."

February 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Perhaps Nero Wolfe's reaction is the appropriate one. I'd have liked to see the list's authors explain their choices instead of lamely declaring that they make no apologies. At the very least, anyone omitting P.D. James, Sjowall and Wahloo, and Rex Stout owes it to readers to explain why. Who knows? The reasons may have been persuasive or at least interesting.

The list did include some interesting names that I'd been meaning to look into, though.

February 24, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Your comment about the misspelling does eventually seem to have made it on to the Telegraph website, Peter. The comments section there makes fascinating reading and I guess, in the sheer diversity of alternative suggestions, demonstrates the futility of trying to compile a list of this kind. A correspondent with the intriguing name of Mary Westmacott-Curren (do we think that's a pseudomyn?) suggests that it's all just a ruse to attract traffic to the Telegraph website - in which case, it seems to have worked. Certainly, it's difficult to imagine that the exclusion of Ian Rankin and P.D.James was anything other than an act of deliberate provocation, particularly to Daily Telegraph readers. US readers may not be aware that the Telegraph has a reputation as the organ of conservatism (with an upper- or a lower-case 'C') - as Barbara implies, somewhat the opposite of The Guardian. I think its characteristic flavour is reflected in the comments of one Stephen Parkinson on the website, who says of the crime writer list: 'It is heavily biased towards American writers, most of whom are barely literate and their works barely readable'. I'll leave you out there in the Colonies to take up that 'argument'...

On the subject of Robert B Parker, in fairness he probably is much less read in the UK, though it's well over 20 years since I brought my first Parker book from some long defunct bookshop in London's glamorous Stoke Newington. Even so, he's hardly an unknown quantity.

February 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the heads-up on my comment, Michael. Next, I'll check to see if the Telegraph corrects the misspellings. Some time ago, the usually excellent Crime Time published online an article by Natasha Cooper that referred to Arturo Perez Reverte as Antonio Perez Reverte and Jose Carlos Somoza as Juan Carlos Somoza. As far as I know, the mistakes are still there.

I've suggested elsewhere that the Telegraph list may have been an act of provocation of the sort you suggest. A correspondent who used the name Westmacott certainly is meeting provocation head on with a bit of fun.

If the Telegraph is the organ of conservatism, it's interesting that the list should omit P.D. James but include Ruth Rendell. I have seen those two offered as right-left mirror images. Oh, now I see that you specify the provocation might have been directed at Telegraph readers in particular. Would such readers have a special fondness for Rankin? I'd assume that his popularity transcends politics, but if anything, I'd have guessed he was somewhat leftish -- skepticism about North Sea oil and G8 summits, and all that.

February 25, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I'm not sure how far to push this particular thesis... I think Rankin's own politics are almost certainly leftish, but he's still (I think) the best-selling crime writer in the UK while also being generally acknowledged as one who can, ahem, 'actually write'. As such, I suspect that, to the stereotypical Telegraph reader, he would represent one of the acceptable faces of crime fiction, alongside P D James, Alexander McCall Smith (another missing bestseller), Colin Dexter et al. I suppose I just detect a whiff of 'epater les bourgeois' in the Telegraph's list. I even wonder whether the inclusion of Dan Kavanagh might have been a small piece of mischief-making - those accustomed to Barnes's more decorous recent work might be a little surprised by the Duffy books.

February 25, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Lots of good comments have been made here. I particularly like Uriah Robinson's remarks.

Speaking of women, Faye Kellerman comes to mind, as does late Israeli author Batya Gur (just finished her last one, so two down).

James Ellroy should be there for his earlier work. I can't read his later work so I can't comment on that much.

Paretsky, of course. Robert Wilson has emerged as a giant in my own mind. Arguments? Many more are missing.

It is important to remember one of my axioms (axia?): there are at least 100 in the top 50, of anything- songs, novelists, train rides, Universities, soccer goals,... The world of pretty much anything is too big to be scrunched into a small pigeonhole, large pigeonholes are needed (sort of turkeyholes but without all the negative connotations, perhaps).

Best wishes!

February 25, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Also deserving mention, Philip Kerr and his brilliant books like "A Philosophical Investigation" and the Berlin Noir series. How about Arkady Renko's investigations, penned by Martin Cruz Smith.

February 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Michael, epater les bourgeois certainly may have crept in. I am reminded that one year, a magazine or newspaper asked prominent individuals who they thought should win the Nobel Prize for literature. A prominent American conservative commentator, one of the Podhoretzes or Kristols, suggested Donald Westlake. Now, I love Donald Westlake, and I've read more of his work than of any other author's. But this conservative had obviously picked Westlake as a jocular poke at the alleged leftish snobbism of the Nobel committee.

Jim, at least if someone picked a list of soccer goals, the criteria for the list would be clear. Or maybe not. Someone would criticize the list for including spectacular goals at the expense of important ones, or vice versa.

February 25, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Um, Peter, in citing Podhoretz or Kristol I think you may be ascribing a sense of humor to people who are essentially humorless. It wouldn't at all surprise me that either of those two meant the suggestion seriously.

These people are spokesmen for a movement which sees politics in everything, including movies like Knocked Up.

February 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Well, William F. Buckley's kid is supposed to be pretty funny.

February 25, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

About Friedrich Dürrenmatt, you said, "I suspect this writer earns respect among those who would not normally read crime fiction because he showed no sense of humor," and I suspect you're right.

But I bet Dürrenmatt read plenty of crime fiction, though, because he sure turned a lot of the cliches and conventions on their head in The Pledge.

Of course, if it's too soon for Benjamin Black, then maybe one novel from Dürrenmatt isn't really enough.

February 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment, John. I may have been too hard on Dürrenmatt. I've read only The Pledge and part of one other story, but none of his Inspector Barlach mysteries, about which I learned only recently. My comment probably reflected more on readers of Dürrenmatt than on the author himself. Same with Benjamin Black. I can offer no verdict on him, only guesses about the motives of people who include him on lists of great crime writers.

February 25, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

A long comment I made was chewed up by blogger last night.
So I will just thank Jim's words and music for his comment.
Philip in BC did a search of the Telegraph panel members and apparently Mr Mckie is the obituary editor and usually reviews science fiction.
I think those who have made comments here and on other blogs are probably more qualified to draw up a list of greatest crime writers, and would actually stick to the parameters.

February 26, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Uriah, I'm sorry you lost your comments. I would have enjoyed them, and I know how frustrating it is to write thoughtfully and have everything disappear.

Thanks for the kind remarks. Please call me Jim. I created a Blogger name (and a Wordpress.com name) before I knew what I was doing, or at least when I knew less than I do now, so these names are rather unwieldy.

I agree that Peter and his readership would come up with truly excellent lists that would be valuable.

I think that, in order to avoid some problems, it would probably be best to divide crime fiction into some subgroups, perhaps "classic" (maybe pre-1950), hard-boiled, and soft boiled (though we'd need a better name). Some of the hard-boiled, edgy crime fiction is not palatable to certain readers, and the same could be said for "soft-boiled" work, but both sub-groups have giants in the field.

The level of graphic violence in the books is the main distinguishing characteristic, perhaps, though realism is also a big part of this equation. The deaths in Agatha Christie's novels are murder in every sense, but they don't come close to evoking the visceral response that one can readily find elsewhere. I don't pretend to be stating anything original here, I'm just trying to justify my suggestion to subdivide.

All the best, Jim
http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com/ non-Blogger blog:
http://greenchemistry.wordpress.com/

February 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

To avoid Blogger or anything else eating my comments, I sometimes prepare a comment as a text file first, then transfer it to Blogger when I'm ready to submit it. I do this especially if the comment is long, if I am likely to be interrupted while writing, or if I have other programs open.

The trouble with lists is that most fail to make clear the compilers' rationale for their choices or exaggerate their own authority with dopey titles like "50 /100 / essential must-read crime novels to read before you die" or try to cover up their own sense of inadequacy with bravado like "we make no apologies."

If one must make lists, I like the approach in The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Crime Fiction. Sure the book contains a few errors and omissions, and its unfortunately prissy title may turn some readers off, but it is commendably open-ended and marvelously efficient. It gives short biographies and selected bibliographies of about 225 writers, it lists books by theme, and, most useful, it each entry refers the reader to other, similar books -- even books not otherwise listed in the guide.

In addition to the subdivisions Mr. 's Words Music and Science proposes, a comprehensive guide would have to include lists for, say, character-driven stories and sub-lists for stories driven by eccentric characters. Of course, this would rapidly spin out of control and into absurdity. Rather than lists proclaiming the best of this, that, or the other, I would rather see carefully thought out lists that explain the list-giver's reasons for his or her preference and demonstrate familiarity with and appreciation for the author or title under discussion rather mere boosterism.

February 26, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Thanks for that thoughtful response. As to "... would rapidly spin out of control and into absurdity...," it appears that you know me better than I realized. Cheers!

February 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Ha! All I meant is that lists are dangerous territory. I wouldn't mind seeing anyone's list of favorite crime novels -- as long as that person explained why each novel was on the list.

February 26, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

They were supposed to be collecting 50 great crime writers, and the books they mentioned might or might not be the best the writer had to offer.
For instance I don't believe Patience of the Spider is the strongest of the Montalbano stories by a long way.
I think it would be much easier to justify a writer's inclusion in a couple of sentences, than to justify a particular book.

February 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I defer to you in all matters concering Camilleri, but I have a particular affection for Patience of the Spider. With respect to the single book cited for each author, I also found it odd that the Jonathan Latimer comment concerned his William Crane novels, but the recommended novel was a non-Crane book. It's all part of the pitfalls of making lists.

February 27, 2008  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home