Nicholas Fuller, in a typically thoughtful post, outlines his own definition of a good detective story:
For me, a good detective story is also a good story in its own right. Story-telling, atmosphere, characterisation, and theme are as important as, if not more important than, the problem. The problem is crucial, but ideally, it should be the result of the theme and the characterisation.
I agree - to an extent.
As a firm believer in art for its own sake, I don't see the need for detective stories or any other kind of fiction to be "about" something. The masterful plotting of And Then They Were None and the haunting atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles are sufficient justifications for the existence of the books. So "theme" to me is an irrelevant notion.
Also, while I value story-telling, atmosphere and characterization as much as anyone else, I don't think they should be given as much importance as the problem when it comes to assess the quality of a detective story, for the problem is the core, the identity of the genre. Vivid characters, convincing atmosphere and good story-telling are very rare things indeed but can be found in other genres, while the puzzle plot is a trademark of detective fiction and real mystery fiction. Call me a genre nationalist, but I think it's worth preserving and defending.
Now, as I said above, I basically agree with Nick that a detective story with not only a brilliant plot but also good story-telling, atmosphere and characterization is certainly better than one which is abysmal on all counts but the problem - and is much more frequent than critics of the genre would have us to believe. That's indeed why I like R.A. Freeman better than, say, S.S. Van Dine. But I also believe a loosely-plotted detective story cannot be quite redeemed by fine writing or sense of character. It may be good as general fiction, but as mystery fiction it's just bad.
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