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Matters Criminous

crime / mystery / detective literature:
a critical list with discussions

Matters Criminous: Literate Mystery Series

Man, not satisfied with the mental confusion and unhappiness to be derived from contemplating the cruelties of life and the riddle of the universe, delights to occupy his leisure moments with puzzles and bugaboos.
--The Omnibus of Crime,
Dorothy L. Sayers

Why Are We Here?

The purpose of this site is simple: to set forth a list of excellent works in the fields of crime, mystery, and detective fiction so that readers with an interest in or taste for such literature may be guided to good books of which they might otherwise not be aware.

As a threshold issue, this site is not, nor is it intended to be, a comprehensive illumination of those fields. All fiction--indeed, all art, or arguably all of life--comes in a spectrum from superb to abominable. That is scarcely news. It is also true, specifically of fiction, that even the abominable can be sold and will be read by at least somebody. That, obviously, is because readers' literary sensibilities also come in such a spectrum. The distribution of quality in published works will tend strongly to parallel the distribution of perception in book readers as a class, because people buy what they enjoy, and they enjoy what their sensibilities fit them to enjoy.

But in those subdivisions of general fiction referred to as "genres"--mystery/crime, science-fiction/fantasy, romance, westerns, and the like--we deal with different spectra. It remains true that the quality spectrum of what is published roughly matches the demands of the readership, but within genre fiction, those demands are regrettably other than in the reading public as a whole (perhaps even of genre readers when they read outside their preferred genre). Too often, genre readership is satisfied with the form of the genre, without much concern for the content--much as an alcoholic will not, perhaps cannot, distinguish Annie Greensprings from Chateau Lafite-Rothschild: just gimme my hit. "Merit", in such cases, is assigned on, as applicable, alcohol content or genre-form content.

(That phenomenon, and more so the reasons for it, is a topic of significance and interest, but not one I will try to explore here and now. Perhaps some day farther on I'll try. But for now, we simply notice the point and move on.)

Lest you think I am merely parading my own prejudices, let me point you to a 1927 essay, "The Great Detective Stories", by one Willard Huntington Wright; and lest you think I am scrounging the obscure to make a point, let me note that that essay was included by Howard Haycraft in his seminal 1946 collection The art of the mystery story. Its opening paragraph will suffice:

There is a tendency among modern critics to gauge all novels by a single literary standard—a standard, in fact, which should be applied only to novels that patently seek a niche among the enduring works of imaginative letters. That all novels do not aspire to such exalted company is obvious; and it is manifestly unfair to judge them by a standard their creators deliberately ignored. Novels of sheer entertainment belong in a different category from those written for purposes of intellectual and æsthetic stimulation; for they are fabricated in a spirit of evanescent diversion, and avoid all the deeper concerns of art.

Out of their own mouths, as the saying goes. (It is, in any event, always hard to take seriously a writer who cannot even get elementary logic and grammar straight.) You can read the entire sorry thing for yourself. Or, if one opinion seems like cherry-picking, there's author S. S. Van Dine (creator of Philo Vance) and his oft-reprinted "Twenty rules for writing detective stories" (1928), of which #16, in its entirety, is:

A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

Perhaps the chiefest fallacy in those farragos of folly is the false disjunction clearly drawn in the first between "intellectual and æsthetic stimulation" and "sheer entertainment". It pithily embodies the too-common genre-fan prejudice against (and perhaps fear of) well-crafted literate work, which--according to the party line--is apparently incapable of providing "sheer entertainment". How pitiful. Are we to imagine folk of reasonable intelligence and taste invariably sweating and groaning every time they joylessly plod through the complex ordeals supposedly consequent on reading one of those "enduring works of imaginative letters" apparently held in contempt by genristas? I take back that "pitiful": it's not pitiful, it's disgusting. It's also a gross insult to those who write and who read (with much joy) the really good work that is assuredly available within the scope of genres.

For, despite such fatuous pronouncements, there is, in any genre--but perhaps especially in mystery-crime-detection and speculative fiction--always work of real and substantial merit, things that can be chewed and tasted and swallowed by those not necessarily addicted to the sheer form. The problems for the reader who knows the brevity of life are, first, realizing that there in fact are such meritorious works within "genre" fiction, and second, identifying them, picking them out from the flood of mediocrity.

The reader with literary sensibilities above the Mickey Spillane level too often shies away altogether from genre fiction owing to a belief that the entire field is no better than the more common and, often sad to say, adulated authors working in it. If such a reader from time to time picks up a specimen of the field for casual examination, sheer probability dictates that it will likely be, from the viewpoint of a civilized, literate reader, mediocre at best. Such a reader has not that peculiar obsessive thirst for the mere mechanical forms, and is looking for a sound, well-constructed piece of literature, whether or no it happens to deal with crime (or mystery or detection, or whatever related term one prefers--not to say that those terms are fungible, because they are not, but an examination of the distinctions is a matter for later on.)

Two mildly digressive notes:

First, literate tastes and a fondness for a genre are by no means mutually exclusive, and no one should make the error of assuming that I implied any such incompatibility. There are various sound reasons why one can have an interest in and taste for tales that fall into certain categories (as opposed to "tales" in the general). All I am saying is that there is neither want nor need for suspending intelligence and taste when seeking works within any of those categories. There is a difference between an interest in and taste for works of a certain kind and an indiscriminate, near-obsessive craving for such works.

Second, neither is any of this is to say that there are no such things as works with little or no formal merit that can nevertheless, for one reason or another, have some zestful entertainment value--in crime fiction, The Shadow is perhaps a good example--but the point is that such works are a distinct, and usually small, subset of genre works as a whole, whereas the defenders of wooden writing would have it--as the quotations above make manifest--that all genre work gets an automatic free pass from the demands of basic literacy merely for being genre.

The belief that all genre fiction is trash, or, more courteously, "light reading", being, as noted, too well supported by random sampling, a great many readers avoid it like the plague they think it is. Well, Canute could not order the tides, and neither can any reviewer or web site order widespread opinion. What one can try to do, however, is to point the curious and reasonably unbiased reader at such instances of work within a genre as are, in fact, capable of satisfying those who demand reasonably literate qualities in what they read.

Next, though, I need to point out--as emphatically as I can--that even within the constraint of works pleasing to a readership that does not feel an obligation to award bonus points just because of the mechanical form of the work, this site is not a comprehensive introduction. In certain other fields, notably those comprised within "speculative fiction", I feel I have some legitimate expertise, and have made a comprehensive web site about Great Science-Fiction and Fantasy Works; in the mystery/crime/detective field, though I have read it for over half a century, I do not claim a like expertise, for my readings have been desultory.

Rather, what I present here is a modest selection of authors and works, serendipitously discovered, that I feel thoroughly comfortable in recommending to the literate, but which I expressly avow to probably--almost certainly--not be all, or even most, of what is good literature from this genre. Since, unlike most critics amateur and professional, I do not dwell on what has not pleased me, I may seem, by inadvertent omission, to be implicitly criticizing this or that author or work: not so. If it's here, I think it's good; if it's not, I may not think it good, but most likely I've never read it. Life is too short for anyone not making their living at it to become a true expert in multiple fields.

Some Words on Mystery Fiction

Mystery fiction is largely a literature of series. But mystery series (unlike the seemingly endless plot-linked series in, for example, contemporary fantasy publishing) are related only by the chief characters: they are rarely if ever continuing tales, 5-volume "trilogies" and that sort of thing. They hold their regular readers not through continuity of story line but through continuity of character (or, very occasionally, setting). Thus, we typically identify leading mystery books more by series character (or characters) than by title or even author; indeed, some popular series have been carried on after the death of the original author, and with eminent success, by some other writer. That is likely one reason that writers so often adopt a different pen name for each different series they undertake.

(Mystery authors are indeed, to put it mildly, prodigal with aliases; the champion, in that field and perhaps overall, was John Creasey, who wrote over 600 books under at least 26 pen names.)

As I look over our shelves of mystery fiction and consider the chief perpetrators, the point that emerges most clearly is that in none are the supposedly traditional obsessions of the mystery writer, and reader--Who Did It? How Was It Done? (Colonel Mustard in the Study with the Wrench?)--matters of any real import. (Ever-more bizarre and wildly improbable, if technically possible, methods of murder are staples of the genre.) Rather, each of the great series of mystery fiction succeeds because its author has used the investigation of crime as a literary modus operandum to in fact deal with something else than crime, be it comedy or be it the human soul (not that those are mutually exclusive propositions). Crime, especially what one may call the ultimate crime, murder, is a gauge of the human soul. Writers who concentrate on the exterior mechanics write pedestrian or worse "genre stuff"; writers who focus on the interior aspects, the mind and soul of the criminal, his victims, the affected bystanders, and indeed the corresponding qualities in the detective who "solves" the crime, are writing literature. (Of course, they may be writing bad literature: such an interior focus is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for literary merit.)

I find interesting and peculiar the thought expressed by some series authors (see Peter Dickinson's essay "The Lure of the Reichenbach" in Murder Ink) that series soon become tiresome to their authors at least, if not their readers: "Then [after a few books, the author] has finished. What is she to do with him [the protagonist] now?" That, I find, is much like saying "I've made a friend; what am I to do with him now?" The very reason series are so popular is that the character or, more commonly, characters have to their readers become just that, old friends. One visits with and enjoys the company of old friends because one is sympatico with them, because one enjoys their talk and their outlook and their behavior. That we find something drastically new and different every time we visit with an old friend is not needful; indeed, it would likely be distressing. So long as our friends are friends owing to some merit, and not merely convenient habit, that is well and good.

Vastly more--libraries more--could be said on those and many other related matters; and in fact, as a visit to any major library will show, it has been said. But I will not rehearse it here. You can find leads to some of the more interesting and useful of those books, as well as some immediately available on-line mystery-crime-detection resources, on this site's other resources page.

While this site focusses on certain particular authors, series, and books, it also has a general mystery/crime/detection bookshop attached to it, which I invite you to browse at your leisure. And besides the mystery books displayed there, you can also search out copies of any book, on any topic, new or used. Here is a link to our Mystery/Crime/Detection Book Shop.

And, Finally:

Click here to continue on to the mystery/crime/detection series of interest page.

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(essential one-time reading)
Introductory Material:
    Literate Mystery Series:
 a brief list of the series discussed here

(the heart of the site)
The Series (alphabetical by character last name):
    Roderick Alleyn
 (Ngaio Marsh)
    Father Brown
 (G. K. Chesterton)
    Mr. Campion
 (Margery Allingham)
    Adam Dalgliesh
 (P. D. James)
    Gervase Fen
 (Edmund Crispin)
    Sherlock Holmes
 (Conan Doyle)
    Inspector Maigret
 (Georges Simenon)
    Philip Marlowe
 (Raymond Chandler)
    The Continental Op
 (Dashiell Hammett)
    Solar Pons
 (August Derleth)
    The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (Precious Ramotswe)
 (Alexander McCall Smith)
    The Saint (Simon Templar)
 (Leslie Charteris)
    Lord Peter Wimsey
 (Dorothy Sayers)
    Nero Wolfe
 (Rex Stout)
    Yellowthread Street
 (William Marshall)

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