Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Time’s Imperfect Genre Survey

Time magazine is newly out with its list of “The 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time,” those selections made by a panel of “celebrated authors”: Megan Abbott, Harlan Coben, S.A. Cosby, Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Rachel Howzell Hall, and Sujata Massey.

The choices are certainly astute and broadly representative of the genre, though they’re also overwhelmingly of the popular, well-remembered variety—unlike some of those books that featured on H.R.F. Keating and Mike Ripley’s London Times list of the 20th century’s best crime novels, published back in 2000. Works by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Daphne du Maurier, Chester Himes, Josephine Tey, and Raymond Chandler all find places in Time’s inventory, which is arranged chronologically, beginning in the mid-1800s. Look for others, too, by Ian Fleming, Patricia Highsmith, John le Carré, Margaret Millar, James Crumley, Walter Mosley, Val McDermid, Kaoru Takamura, Camilla Läckberg, Dennis Lehane, Stieg Larsson, Laura Lippman, and William Kent Krueger. As the picks range closer to our own time, more and more women and non-white writers are represented.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all seven of Time’s panelists for this project have novels featured among the heralded hundred.

Missing from the roll, however, are books by other fictionists who were important in the development of crime fiction, at least some of whom I would have fought to include. I’m thinking of Ellery Queen, Ross Macdonald, Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald, P.D. James, Jim Thompson, Georges Simenon, Sara Paretsky, Donald E. Westlake, Ian Rankin, Philip Kerr, and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, just to name a handful. Heck, Edgar Allan Poe didn’t even make the magazine’s cut—and he is credited with inventing the detective story! I consider myself a better reader, and maybe a better person, to have discovered all of these wordsmiths at one or another point in my history.

Still, Time gives readers new to this field a good guide with which to start their explorations. Plus, it offers up a couple of associated features worth investigating—one by Tana French about “Why Mystery Books Are So Satisfying,” and another by Rachel Howzell Hall on “The Rich, Underappreciated History of Mystery Writers of Color.”

FOLLOW-UP: In an essay explaining how these 100 works were chosen, Time’s Annabel Gutterman and Megan McCluskey defend their decision to leave Poe out of the survey: “The invention of the modern mystery is widely attributed to Edgar Allen Poe, who established many of the conventions we associate with detective stories—from the genius, amateur sleuth to the friendly narrator—when he published the 1841 short story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ Crime and suspense were present in fiction before Poe, but it was his series of tales featuring eccentric investigator C. Auguste Dupin that originally emphasized solving a mystery by gathering evidence. Since Poe primarily wrote short stories and poems, none of his titles are included on this list of novels.” The obvious problem with this defense, of course, is that their feature is titled “The 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time,” not “The 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Novels of All Time.” It seems allowances could have been made to include one of the three Dupin yarns among the mix. And there’s at least one book-length collection of those stories. By the way, it doesn’t help Gutterman and McCluskey’s case that they misspelled Poe’s middle name!


pattinase (abbott) said...

I was surprised at no Elmore Leonard. But perhaps there is no single Leonard book that stands out?

Peter Handel said...

I have no idea why these lists even exist or even more, matter. Your list of neglected writers and or novels is dead on…but I’ll wager Still only scratches that amazing surface. I’m glad you posted this.