Unravelling the mystery of what makes a great crime novel
Bestselling author John Connolly and Irish Times critic Declan Burke asked more than 100 crime writers to pick their favourite crime novel. The result is Books To Die For - this is what they learned
The mystery form understands that plot comes out of character, and not just that: it believes that the great mystery is character
Why does the mystery novel enjoy such enduring appeal? There is no simple answer. It has a distinctive capacity for subtle social commentary; a concern with the disparity between law and justice; and a passion for order, however compromised. Even in the vision of the darkest of mystery writers, it provides us with a glimpse of the world as it might be, a world in which good men and women do not stand idly by and allow the worst aspects of human nature to triumph without opposition. It can touch upon all these aspects of itself while still entertaining the reader – and its provision of entertainment is not the least of its many qualities.
But the mystery novel has always prized character over plot, which may come as some surprise to its detractors. True, this is not a universal tenet: there are degrees to which mysteries occupy themselves with the identity of the criminal as opposed to, say, the complexities of human motivation. Some, such as the classic puzzle mystery, tend towards the former; others are more concerned with the latter. But the mystery form understands that plot comes out of character, and not just that: it believes that the great mystery is character.
If we take the view that fiction is an attempt to find the universal in the specific, to take individual human experiences and try to come to some understanding of our common nature through them, then the question at the heart of all novels can be expressed quite simply as “Why?” Why do we do the things that we do? It is asked in Bleak House just as it is asked in The Maltese Falcon. It haunts The Pledge as it does The Chill. But the mystery novel, perhaps more than any other, not only asks this question; it attempts to suggest an answer to it as well.
But where to start? There are so many from which to choose, even for the knowledgeable reader who has already taken to swimming in mystery’s dark waters, and huge numbers of new titles appear on our bookshelves each week. It is hard to keep up with authors who are alive, and those who are deceased are at risk of being forgotten entirely. There are treasures to be found, and their burial should not be permitted, even if there are some among these authors who might have been surprised to find themselves remembered at all, for they were not writing for the ages.
And so, quite simply, we decided to give mystery writers from around the world the opportunity to enthuse about their favourite novel, and in doing so we hoped to come up with a selection of books that was, if not definitive (which would be a foolish and impossible aim), then heartfelt, and flawless in its inclusions if not its omissions. What we sought from each of the contributors to this volume was passionate advocacy: we wanted them to pick one novel, just one, that they place in the canon. If you found them in a bar some evening, and the talk turned (as it almost inevitably would) to favourite writers, it would be the single book that each writer would press upon you, the book that, if there was time and the stores were still open, they would leave the bar in order to purchase for you, so they could be sure they had done all in their power to ensure it was read by you.
While this volume is obviously ideal for dipping into when you have a quiet moment, enabling you to read an essay or two before moving on, there is also a pleasure to be had from the slow accumulation of its details. Reading through the book chronologically, as we have done during the editing process, patterns begin to emerge, some anticipated, some less so. There is, of course, the importance of the great Californian crime writers – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and James M Cain – to the generations of writers who have followed and, indeed, to each other: so Macdonald’s detective, Lew Archer, takes his name in part from Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon, while Chandler builds on Hammett, and then Macdonald builds on Chandler but also finds himself being disparaged by the older author behind his back, adding a further layer of complication to their relationship. But the writer who had the greatest number of advocates was not any of these men: it was the Scottish author Josephine Tey, who is a crucial figure to a high number of the female contributors to this book.
Or one might take the year 1947: it produces both Dorothy B Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, in which the seeds of what would later come to be called the serial killer novel begin to germinate, and Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury. Both are examinations of male rage – although Spillane is probably more correctly considered as an expression of it – and both come out of the aftermath of the second World War, when men who had fought in Europe and Asia returned home to find a changed world, a theme that is also touched on in Margery Allingham’s 1952 novel, The Tiger in the Smoke. The pulp formula in the US also adapted itself to these changes in postwar society, which resulted in the best work of writers such as Jim Thompson, Elliott Chaze and William McGivern, all of whom are considered in essays in this book.
Finally, it’s interesting to see how often different writers, from Ed McBain to Mary Stewart, Newton Thornburg to Leonardo Padura, assert the view that they are, first and foremost, novelists. The mystery genre provides a structure for their work – the ideal structure – but it is extremely malleable, and constantly open to adaptation: the sheer range of titles and approaches considered here is testament to that.
To give just one example: there had long been female characters at the heart of hard-boiled novels, most frequently as femmes fatales or adoring secretaries, but even when women were given central roles as detectives, the novels were written, either in whole or in part, by men: Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool (created under the pseudonym AA Fair), who made her first appearance in 1939; Dwight W Babcock’s Hannah Van Doren; Sam Merwin Jr.’s Amy Brewser; Will Oursler and Margaret Scott’s Gale Gallagher (all 1940s); and, perhaps most famously, Forrest and Gloria Fickling’s Honey West in the 1950s.
But at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, a number of female novelists, among them Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, but also Amanda Cross and, in her pair of Cordelia Gray novels, PD James, found in the hard-boiled mystery novel a means of addressing issues affecting women, including violence (particularly sexual violence), victimisation, power imbalances, and gender conflicts. They did so by questioning, altering, and subverting the established traditions in the genre, and, in the process, they created a new type of female writing. The mystery genre accommodated them without diminishing the seriousness of their aims, or hampering the result, and it did so with ease. It is why so many writers, even those who feel themselves to be working outside the genre, have chosen to introduce elements of it into their writing, and why this anthology can accommodate such a range of novelists, from Dickens to Dürrenmatt, and Capote to Crumley.
But this volume also raises the question of what constitutes a mystery – or, if you prefer, a crime novel. (The terms are often taken as interchangeable, but “mystery” is probably a more flexible, and accurate, description given the variety within the form. Crime may perhaps be considered the catalyst, mystery the consequence.) Genre, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, but one useful formulation may be that, if one can take the crime out of the novel and the novel does not collapse, then it’s probably not a crime novel; but if one removes the crime element and the novel falls apart, then it is. It is interesting, though, to note that just as every great fortune is said to hide a great crime, so too many great novels, regardless of genre, have a crime at their heart. The line between genre fiction and literary fiction (itself a genre, it could be argued) is not as clear as some might like to believe.
In the end, those who dismiss the genre and its capacity to permit and encourage great writing, and to produce great literature, are guilty not primarily of snobbery – although there may be an element of that – but of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fiction and genre’s place in it. There is no need to splice genre into the DNA of fiction, literary or otherwise: it is already present. The mystery genre is both a form and a mechanism. It is an instrument to be used. In the hands of a bad writer, it will produce bad work, but great writers can make magic from it.
Books To Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, has just been published in paperback by Hodder, priced €26.99