21/04/2008

30 mystery writers the Daily Telegraph and London Times staffes should read before next list

Two months after the Daily Telegraph disclosed its list of the 50 crime writers to read before you die, it's the London Times' turn to offer its own Top 50 and the result is just as interesting - that is, not much. Neither of both lists is very imaginative: much overlap, some curious omissions (Rex Stout is decidedly not popular with the British audience) and a general bias to psychological thrillers and hardboiled/noir fiction, preferably homegrown. Were Crimetime to issue their own pantheon, it would probably include the same authors, except of course the golden-agers. Other than showing they're as crime-savvy as the Telegraph folks, it's hard to fathom what motive prompted Berlins and his team to round up the usual suspects once again; hopefully the Grauniad and the Independent if they enter the game will come up with something a little more original.
Still, making lists is always fun, so I decided to set mine, though of a somewhat different kind. It has "only" 30 items but I don't pretend them to be the best ever; they're just in my opinion the best not to make the other lists despite being at least as deserving, if not as well-known as those who did. Feel free to make your own suggestions or voice your disagreements; that's why the comments section and Hotmail are for.

Charlotte Armstrong 1904-69
Turned suspense fiction into a modern-day morality play. You can't but like the author who gave Marilyn Monroe one of her precious few opportunities to act.
Robert Bloch 1917-94
Better-known as the guy who fathered Norman Bates but there's more, much more to him.
Pierre Boileau 1906-89 and Thomas Narcejac 1908-98 a.k.a. Boileau-Narcejac
A towering moment of French mystery fiction, either as solo acts or as a duet. They're Martin Edwards' favorite suspense writers: I can't think of a better recommendation.
Stephen Booth
Yorkshire mystery writer with a lot of promise.
Christianna Brand 1908-88
The other queen of crime.
Fredric Brown 1906-71
The master of paradoxes, equally good at mystery and sci-fi.
Howard Browne a.k.a. John Evans 1908-99
Chandler with plots.
Michael Butterworth dates unknown
British gothic writer with a fondness for decay, madness and body parts.
Thomas H. Cook 1948-present
Master-stylist, brilliant explorer of tortured psyches and haunted pasts and, more importantly, the very best plotter around.
Ursula Curtiss 1923-86
The woman who made people afraid of neighbours, old ladies, phones, peacocks and wasps.
Stanley Ellin 1916-87 and Jack Ritchie 1922-1983 and Henry Slesar 1927-2002
The Big Three of short crime fiction and an example to follow in these times of literary brontosaurianism. (Ellin and Slesar also wrote some excellent novels)
Richard Austin Freeman 1862-1943
The man who made forensics sexy and gave the world the inverted story - and Dr. Thorndyke.
Celia Fremlin 1918-present
Albion's answer to Charlotte Armstrong.
Emile Gaboriau 1832-73
Yes, he's wordy and his plots drag. But he started it all. And the first part of Le Crime d'Orcival is pure beauty.
Paul Halter 1956-present
Not quite John Dickson Carr's heir but responsible for some of the best locked-room mysteries in recent years.
Edward D. Hoch 1930-2008
Father of Nick Velvet, Captain Leopold, Ben Snow, Simon Ark, Rand and many others. Need I say more?
Patricia McGerr 1918-1987
One of the most innovative mystery writers of the late 40s, now sadly forgotten.
Mark McShane 1930-???
The weirdest and most unpredictable of all British crime/mystery writers.
Leo Malet 1909-1996
Nestor Burma's daddy, he did for Paris what Chandler had done for L.A.
Margaret Millar 1915-1994
The absolute queen of suspense fiction and the finest deviser of plots of the post-WWII era.
Ellery Queen
The most glaring omission of both lists. How can one pretend to make a list of best crime writers and then omit the duet responsible for The Player on the Other Side, Calamity Town, The Murderer is a Fox or Ten Days' Wonder among other gems and the fondation of the world's leading (and oldest) mystery magazine? Shame, shame, shame.
Patrick Quentin
The other great mystery duet, responsible for Peter Duluth, Inspector Trant, Dr Westlake and daughter Dawn and lots of excellent short stories.
René Reouven 1925-present
French king of mystery steampunk, author of some of the finest and most imaginative holmesian pastiches ever. Also writes science-fiction.
Mary Roberts Rinehart 1876-1958
The godmother of all modern mystery fiction, no less. Read her seriously if you don't believe me.
Julian Symons 1912-94
Often exasperating as a critic, but one of the very few authors who genuinely tried to break new ground - and succeeded on more than one occasion.
Henry Wade 1887-1969
Awfully underrated Golden Age detective writer in bad need of a reprint.

01/04/2008

Jean Stubbs - Dear Laura

I must confess I am not particularly fond of historical mysteries, which puts me (once again) in the minority camp. My objections are twofold:
- Plot and characters all too often take a backseat to "production values"; the author has done his homework and wants it to show. Alas, it does.
- Because it's popular fiction and readers are meant to bound with the main protagonists, the latter tend to display attitudes and ideas which are quite mainstream in this day and age but were considerably less so back then. While I can see the commercial logic behind this, it's still cheating to me; when you set out to write a book set in the past, you must go all the way: no presentism, no statiscally-implausible beacon of enlightened values in a time of obscurity, no "oh-look-how-weird-they-were" condescension, no preachiness about how things are better nowadays.
 
Jean Stubbs avoids all of those trappings in this remarkable 1973 novel, the first of a trilogy featuring rather than starring Inspector John Joseph Lintott.
 
1890. Theodore and Laura Crozier have been married for fifteen years. On the surface they are a happy couple by contemporary standards of wealth and respectability. If you look beneath however, things are different. A cold, repressed and authoritarian man, Theodore treats his wife and children well - nothing more; his only soft spot is for his ever-broke younger brother Titus, a charming parasite with no interest in life but game and women. Entering marriage with bovary-like expectations of everlasting and passionate love, Laura was sorely disappointed with that anything but passionate husband who, as a final touch to an already unflattering portrait, happens to be also a hypocondriac always seeking for a new illness to suffer of. As time went by, however, they've found a modus vivendi - helped by Titus's comforting and sometimes troubling presence. And then Theodore dies. A natural death at first sight, but only at first sight. Murder? Suicide? It's Inspector Lintott's job to sort that out - or try to.
 
What makes Dear Laura such a wonderful work is that it makes no compromise; from first page it's total immersion into a different society - some would say a different world.  Characters act victorian, talk victorian, think victorian; even their occasional rebellions against social codes stay within victorian boundaries. Lintott for instance is a likeable character, a skilled investigator and shows more empathy and compassion than most, but his values and opinions are those of his day - few modern female readers will agree with him that a woman "has no [sexual] need". None of the characters will have a Damascus experience; Laura Crozier repeatedly complains about her status and enjoys the freedom she finally finds as a widow but nothing suggests any intention of hers to go further and engage the establishment, though she fancies assisting a Fabian Society meeting - probably more out of the thrill of doing something forbidden than any serious commitment or intellectual curiosity.
 
The plot is typically victorian as well, revolving around a hidden secret, a major theme of sensation fiction and logical outcome of a society obsessed with respectability. Lintott's gentle yet firm manners as well as his ability to get along with the domestics makes him a cousin of Wilkie Collins' Sgt. Cuff. Even the ending, while cynical to the last degree, actually conforms in an admittedly twisted way to victorian values. The object of the secret and Stubbs' use of misdirection, however, are distinctively modern, as well as the rampant nihilism permeating it all.
 
For Dear Laura is a bleak book, though nothing shocking is ever shown or openly said, understatement being another distinctive trait of victorian literature. The society it portrays is an open-air jail where everyone is both a prisoner and a jailer. Even those holding power or seeming to are subjected to the same self-enforcing, never questioned codes, no matter how suffering they bring; the next century is only a decade away, but it might as well be one million years. No sign of change, no sign of a desire for change, is in sight. Jean Stubbs, unlike some of her later followers, passes no judgement; she just observes and provides the reader with the evidence she collected. The result may not be exotic, picturesque, it's certainly not a feel-gooder and doesn't give any easy answer, but it rings true without burying the reader with useless erudition and straight-from-the-textbook "atmospheric" touches. This is, in short, the kind of historical mystery that I like.