Wednesday, January 22, 2014

OK, now WHO's great, and WHO is just very good?

Monday's post here at Detectives Beyond Borders speculated on what separates the greatest of crime writers from the merely very good. I cited, naturally, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as the greatest, with a suggestion that Paul Cain might have made it if he'd written more.

A couple of readers provided a couple of replies, but now come the hard part: WHO are the very greatest crime writers, musicians, artists, or what have you (and why?), and the even harder part: WHO are the very good, (and why?).

I nominated some of the top second-rank Black Mask writers, particularly Frederick Nebel, as very good, illustrating the discussion with some examples from Nebel's work and contrasting these with citations of how Hammett and Chandler had solved similar problems. Novelist and gauntlet-flinger Dana King provides a fine example (from the history of music). Now it's your turn.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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37 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Well, this does not focus on crime fiction, but I cannot pass up an opportunity to say Shakespeare is the best of the best among playwrights. In fact, his representations of human beings may make him the best of the best among all writers of all time.

Then, if I were to try staying with the rules of your question, I would say Arthur Conan Doyle is the best of the best among short story detective fiction writers. Who else has even come close?

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So if Shakespeare was Hammett, what was Christopher Marlowe? Was he Chandler (right up there with the best), or was he Paul Cain (could have been right up there with the best if he had written more)?

Who else has ever come close? Why, you tell me. It's easy to choose the best, and easy to name those who fall well short. It's more difficult to choose the near-greats.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

As for playwrights, Ibsen comes in at 2nd. And I would put Tennessee Williams (early rather than later works) at 3rd.

As for short story detective fiction writers, I think Hammett is a solid 2nd. I cannot think of anyone writing short story detective fiction now who is making much of a challenge.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

Robert Crais and JOhn Connolly come to mind as among the very, very good. I love their work, always look forward to reading them, and never fail to enjoy them. I'm also not left with the same transcendent feeling I get from Hammett, Chandler, McBain, Leonard, or Ellroy.

Exceptions: Connolly, The Black Angel
Ellroy, The Cold Six Thousand

January 22, 2014  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

The very best of Neil Simon are very well-crafted plays. Also, I'd say many episodes of "Barney Miller" were pretty much 26 minute stage plays.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I was thinking of illustrating this post with the cover of the Library of America's volume of Hammett's short stories. I'm with you in ranking Hammett's short fiction high.

You may gather from a recent post that, though I have not read much ancient Greek drama, I rank those sturdy oldsters high. Or was their art so different form our idea of drama that it constitutes a distinct form?

I wonder if short crime fiction has withered simple because the outlets for it have dried up (pulps first, then paperback originals). I (and many others) have observed that one of the benefits of electronic publishing is that it makes dissemination of short stories and novellas more economically feasible. We could be in a new age of short crime fiction that has everything its predecessors did except money for the authors.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, oddly enough, I would rank McBain, from the little I've read of him, among the very goods, with the exception of the transcendent Nocturne.

If Ellroy gives you that transcendent feeling, and The Cold Six Thousand is an exception, does that mean you rank it lower than some of his others? I stayed up later than I should have last night reading about a hundred pages from The Cold Six Thousand.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

I think the new-age of online publishing is a double-edged sword. It means more stories are published, but it allows publication of stories that should never see the light of day. Moreover, I think there is no consistent, subscription-based readership as in the days of the pulps and magazines.

As for the Greeks, I would never say that some of the plays are not great. However, Shakespeare, because of his range and variety and skill still takes all the laurels.

As for Neil Simon, as someone suggested, I do not mean to sound too critical, but really? I mean, really? Let me phrase it this way: Whose plays are likely to be read and performed in another 400 years? Shakespeare or Simon?

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, you'll have noticed how many greatest television shows ever have appeared since Seinfeld: The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad. Does it say more about television, or more about the people who watch it and write about it that no one talks anymore about well-crafted shows like Barney Miller or, say, Mary Tyler Moore?

January 22, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Regarding TV programs and series . . . the changes in styles and qualities are responses to changing audiences' lower demands for style and quality. Throughout culture (if that is not a dirty word), things are falling apart (which I say with a tip of the hat to Yeats).

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I think you missed a nuance of John's comment about Neil Simon. As I understood it, he placed Simon not among the transcendently greats, but among the very goods. And his comment sparked some thoughts of mine about great vs. well-crafted.

You are absolutely right about the drawbacks of open electronic publishing (though was pulp readership subscription based? I always assumed, without any basis for doing so other than visions of magazine racks in old movies, that their sales came over the counter at newsstands and drugstores.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Was it not more fun then to stop by the newsstand on the way to and from work or during shopping trips (in the subway, at the train station, on the street-corners, in the drug stores, and elsewhere)? Everything was right there in front of people. They could browse. They could compare. And they could gaze at those eye-catching, sale-inducing covers.

And my bashing of Neal Simon stands. He may have written well-crafted plays, but no one will accuse him of writing timeless plays. They are almost all instantly obsolete.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike: I suspect you've read more of Thompson than I have, but I'd say that the best of his stuff (Pop. 1280 is bone of the very greatest of all crime novels, Savage Night is like nothing else) meets every criterion of greatness and transcendence. But not everything he wrote was that good. And yes on Goodis, if only because he was so throughly original.

(Remember my question on our Bouchercon panel about whether noir can have a happy ending? You went for the bait; I asked the question with Black Friday in mind.)

OK, what the hell. He's in. And I'll consider Howard Browne a recommendation. Thanks.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: I wait eagerly for the day an erudite football line judge whistles a penalty on an offensive lineman, and admonishes the protesting coach that "The center cannot hold."

Yes, styles and tastes have changed in television and so many other areas. Perhaps the greatest-ever hype is part hot air, and part overreaction to that disappearance of good, old craftsmanship.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., yes, newsstand shopping was more fun. I caught the tail end of it in my comic-buying days, which were the 12-cents-an-issue DC era.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

In the 50s, my parents while shopping downtown would park me in the G. C. Murphy or another five-and-dime in town, and I would simply escape into the magazines and comics, even though the sign said something about "No Browsing," which I neither understand nor obeyed. Illustrated Classics held me spellbound for long, long intervals while the parents threw money away on non-essentials like food and clothing. When I was older, navigating on my own, the newsstands were like powerful magnets to me. Even now I cannot pull myself away from the magazine sections of the big bookstores (B&N / BaM).

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To my embarrassment, Classics Illustrated struck me as nerdy substitutes for Superman and Batman. But yes, i was born to browse.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Culture isn't a dirty word but we live in a multi-cultural world and what's culture to one person isn't to another. Maybe multi-cultural is a dirty word to some people but having lived through my culture being wiped out in Montreal (or at least publicly erased) I like the idea that more than one culture can have value.

Sure, I like Shakespeare fine, and when I was on campus in the 80s I hated those stupid arguments about "dead white men," and appropriation of voice and all that but as I get older I find myself more interested in the moment rather than the timelessness. Maybe that's because I find the things that are "timeless" are backed up by a pretty powerful academic industry that I don't like much anymore.

Or maybe it's just that in Canada we have so little popular culture that I've started to appreciate its value in its absence.

Culture is protected by money, it's not really in any danger. As you say people will still be reading Shakespeare in 400 years.

But we're often lamenting the lack of quality pop culture.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

John, you make some great points. I would further point out, though, that Shakespeare is pretty much on his way out the door at many universities (i.e., he has to make room for multicultural voices), but he lives and will continue to live in theaters around the world.

I also dislike the DWM complaints, but those who have complained have prevailed on campuses.

As for "quality pop culture," I smiled when I saw that phrase. I wonder if it an oxymoron. Perhaps, though, we have different definitions of each of those words, so the phrase becomes subjective.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, in re your suggestion that culture is protected by money, defining culture is a mammoth undertaking, one that deserves at least a blog post of its own. But last month I found myself thinking, as I walked around downtown Chicago, giving myself kinks in the neck from staring up at all those magnificent skyscrapers, that Chicago's architecture, an integral part of American culture by any reasonable definition, are a marvelous tribute to the power of money--that money, in other words, is good.

This was not a thought I was accustomed to having, as I tend not think about money in such big terms. And it's no mere capitalist thing, either. Go back 5,500 years, to the Neolithic monuments of Stonehenge and Carnac, so inspiring of wonder, and so much made possible by the accumulation of power or what would one day be called capital. That's a source of intellectual tension for we left-leaners, I think.

This probably has nothing to do with the matter at hand, but I've been looking for an excuse to say it.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Of course, those ages had no equivalent to popular culture, at least not i today's commodified sense. Whatever Neolithic and other premodern, preliterate humans did in their spare time, when not putting up monuments, had disappeared or else been so thoroughly absorbed into our culture that there is no chance anyone will ever be able to make money off it.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I won't presume to read John's mind, but he himself produced quality pop culture (not to mention his good taste in choosing names for the minor characters in his books). I consider Dashiell Hammett the acme of crime writers; is he pop culture? I don't know.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect, too, that the moment one begins to talk about "culture" that culture is dead or at least undergoing cataclysmic change.

R.T. and I have discussed Samuel Johnson dictionary, which is built largely around selections from the greatest English writers. Johnson offers summaries of the areas in which each of these writers excelled, and he rates Shakespeare the highest as the writer of everyday life. The split into popular culture and high culture will reverberate long after most of us are gone (though some of the professional multiculturalists will still have tenure then.)

January 22, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Even as I question "quality pop culture" as a label/phrase, I remind myself that Shakespeare was the embodiment of that label/phrase in his own time.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I guess the phrase "popular culture" emerged in the middle of the twentieth century. I wonder when the recognition developed of a distinction between high culture on one hand and folk culture on the other, along with a recognition that each had value. I think of all those compilers of English and Scottish and Irish folk ballads. And when did folk culture become pop culture?

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

I'm a huge admirer of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Elmore Leonard - the crime writers already mentioned.

I'd like to also put forward another writer who is considered a spy thriller writer, but Ian Fleming's James Bond character also fought a good number of criminals in his thrillers.

Fleming's novels were darker and more complex than the films.

One of the greatest criminal characters in fiction, it seems to me, is Fleming's Red Grant from "From Russia With Love."

Grant was an English psychotic "Moon" killer and the chapter telling of his murderous background prior to joing SMERSH, the Soviet murder organization, is truly great, in my view.

Although the film did not go too deeply into the character's, actor Robert Shaw was chilling as Red Grant.

Goldfinger is another one of Fleming's great fictional criminals.

Another great crime writer that should be mentioned is former LAPD Sgt Joseph Wambaugh.

Joseph Wambaugh has written a good number of great novels, including "The Choir Boys," a black comedy about cops and crooks. The book is the cops' version of "Catch-22".

And Wambaugh's "The Onion Field" is a great true crime book about the murder of a LAPD officer.

If one has not read Ian Fleming or Joseph Wambaugh, I recommend "From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," "The Choir Boys" and "The Onion Field" to start.

Paul

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I should give you credit here for bringing the 1953 Fleming-Chandler interview to my attention. And maybe I'll follow up on the occasional kicks in the ass you send my way to read From Russia With Love.

I haven't read Wambaugh either, but he was recently recommended to me as one of the top writers about L.A., where I recently spent some time on vacation.

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

To follow-up, I'd to offer a great piece from Ian Fleming's "Goldfinger."

"Goldfinger's eyes were now blank, focused inwards. His voice became low, almost reverential at what he saw," Fleming wrote in "Goldfinger."

Goldfinger went on to explain "Operation Grand Slam," his grand criminal enterprise, to his prisoner, James Bond.

"Man has climbed Everest and he has scraped the depths of the ocean. He has fired rockets into outer space and split the atom. He has invented, devised, created in every realm of human endeavour, and everywhere he has triumphed, broken records, achieved miracles. I said in every realm, but there is one that has been neglected, Mr. Bond. That one is the human activity loosely known as crime.

The so-called criminal exploits committed by individual humans - I do not of course refer to their idiotic wars, their clumsy destruction of each other -are of miserable dimensions: little bank robberies, tiny swindles, picayune forgeries. And yet, ready to hand, a few hundred miles from here, opportunity for the greatest crime in history stands waiting. The stage is set, the gigantic prize is offered. Only the actors are missing. But the producer is at last here, Mr. Bond" - Goldfinger raised a finger and tapped his chest - "and he has chosen his cast.

This very afternoon the script will be read to the leading actors. Then rehearsals will begin and, in one week, the curtain will go up for the single, the unique performance. And then will come applause, the applause for the greatest extra-legal coup of all time. And, Mr. Bond, the world will rock with that applause for centuries."

Bond asked Goldfinger if he planned to rob the end of the rainbow.

"Yes," Goldfinger nodded. "That is exactly what we are going to do. We are going to burgle fifteen billion dollars' worth of gold bullion, approximately half the supply of mined gold in the world. We are going, Mr. Bond, to take Fort Knox."

Good stuff...

Paul

January 22, 2014  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

And if I may, I'd like to follow-up on Joseph Wambaugh (and plug my blog).

Yesterday was Joe Wambaugh's 77th birthday and I posted links to two of my reviews of his novels and my interview with him:

http://www.pauldavisoncrime.com/2014/01/happy-birthday-to-joseph-wambaugh.html

Paul

January 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul. maybe my piece of ---- computer and piece of ---- connection will let me post my comment this time. I was trying to tell you that a recent discussion at this blog of the DeNiro/Brando/Edward Norton movie The Score led me to the interesting suggestion on another blog that heist movies have a lot more to do with quest mythology than they do with real life. You know: impossible tasks, beating the odds, and so on when in real life simplicity will almost always work best. Goldfinger's plan exemplifies this, I think.

But it also reminded me of the great opening verse to "Can't Get Next to You" by the Temptations, which--no joke--I have long thought of as a tremedously exciting meeting of mythical and everyday sensibilities:

I can turn the greyest sky blue.
I can make it rain, whenever I want it to.
Oh, I can build a castle from a single grain of sand.
I can make a ship sail, uh, on dry land.
But my life is incomplete and I'm so blue. 'Cause I can't get next to you.

January 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the link, Paul, and happy birthday, Joe.

January 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike: I suspect you've read more of Thompson than I have, but I'd say that the best of his stuff (Pop. 1280 is one of the very greatest of all crime novels, Savage Night is like nothing else) meets every criterion of greatness and transcendence. But not everything he wrote was that good. And yes on Goodis, especially because he was so throughly original.

(Remember my question on our Bouchercon panel about whether noir can have a happy ending? You went for the bait; I asked the question with Black Friday in mind.)

OK, Thompson is in. And I'll consider Howard Browne a recommendation. Thanks.

January 23, 2014  
Blogger Roman Noir said...

I think Chester Himes should be up there. I love Gypsy Rose Lee's two noir novels "The G-String Murders" and "Mother Finds a Body". The Count of Monte Cristo is to me great noir as are some of the works of Richard Wright, such as Native Son. Noir isn't defined by the detective/cop genre, that's just one mean street.

January 26, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Regarding the Gypsy Rose Lee mystery novels, there is a great backstory, but I have neither time nor space to recount it all here. Let me simply bait the hook by inviting anyone interested in GRL's novels to look into the ménage that lived for a time in the 40s at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn. Among residents were W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, George Davis (big-time magazine editor), and others -- with occasional "residents" like GRL, Leonard Bernstein, and others. There is a book out there that I think is entitled February House. I've written elsewhere in the past that a colleague and I were compiling a book about 7 Middagh Street but were beaten to the punch by the author of FH. In any case, if you dig into the backstory, you may be surprised about who mentored GRL through the writing process. And you will also be surprised about GRL's fascination with fire-trucks. Really!

January 26, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Re: GRL and 7 Middagh Street -- see here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/06/nyregion/thecity/06feat.html?_r=0

January 26, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Roman Noir: Yes on Chester Himes, and for his short stories as well as his novels. Some of David Goodis' and Cornell Woolrich's work is only peripherally crime, and those guys were the noirest of noir. Some would call the Book of Job noir, at least the part that comes before the tacked-on happy ending.

I had heard good things about the Gypsy Rose Lee novels, with an undertone of surprise, I think, that such celebrity books were pretty good. So thanks for the comment.

January 26, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R,T,: I have just printed a copy of that Times article. Thanks.

January 26, 2014  

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