Sunday, February 24, 2008


Andrew Mckie one of the contributors to the Telegraph list of 50 greatest crime writers was kind enough to put a comment on this humble blog.

"I wish we'd had a lunch. There was a lot of fighting over this, and I agree the absence of Ross MacDonald and Rex Stout is terrible.

But you can't have read McIlvanney.

And PD James, Colin Dexter and Tony Hillerman can't write."

Yes I plead guilty I haven't read McIlvanney, but P.D. James, Colin Dexter and Tony Hillerman can't write???

An interesting opinion, what do you think?


Blogger Philip Amos said...

Mcllvanney is a very good novelist and a poet -- he won the Whitbread and he won two CWA silver daggers. But he wrote, I think, just three crime novels, and those back in the 70s and early 80s. I read them and enjoyed them, but it is a small opus and not the stuff of greatness. Ditto the three crime novels Julian Barnes wrote in the 80s as Dan Kavanagh. This makes me think again that, as the subhead of the article suggested, they were largely choosing their favourites, not bending their minds to the question of what constitutes greatness in the writing of crime fiction. I really don't know what to make of the suggestion that James, Dexter and Hillerman can't write. Of course they can, and wonderfully well, but this leaves the question of what, if poor writing keeps you off the list, Agatha Christie is doing on there, among quite a few others. I rather doubt the panel established any criteria for themselves. Monsignor Ronald Knox is a famous figure in the genre as one of founders of the Detection Club with Sayers, Christie, Chesterton and Crofts, and I think that is why he was reflexively included. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought anyone would nominate him as a great crime writer, but then, again, I don't think that is what the list is about.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

I adored Laidlaw and always regretted that McIlvanney didn't write more -- but I think from memory Laidlaw was the best of his 3 books. Or at least, the one I enjoyed most.

I have not inspected this list yet though several people have been kind enough to email me a link, so I will have to go over it with my magnifying glass later on, on the lookout for even more terrible omissions, which, by definition for any of these lists, are bound to be there. (I recently read the Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw, which I enjoyed, but felt there were quite a few highly significant omissions -- though a satisfyingly high number of necessary inclusions, I have to say.)

9:04 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Philip and Maxine. I realise I have got a lot to learn I must have been working too hard in the 70s and 80s and missed some of these authors, McIlvanney sounds interesting.
Surely "greatness" requires a distinguished body of work, or a few novels that are so innovative that they take the genre in a new direction.
Perhaps we should select our own top 50?

3:50 PM  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The suggestion that Colin Dexter can't write is silly, of course, barring a serious attempt by McKie to prove otherwise. But he makes no such attempt.

I like Philip's suggestion that the compilers of the list failed to bend their minds to the question. Their failure to do so does not invalidate their list, which, after all, contains lots of good names. But it makes the list worth no more than yours, mine, or that of any random man or woman in the street.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

7:48 PM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Good idea, Norm. Your suggestion reminds me a bit of that time I called for a list of 10 women authors of crime fic, because David Montgomery (who had been collating a list of "10 best" and asking readers' advice) ended up with 10 men, 0 women. I seem to recall that your comments there led me to discover Fred Vargas (who at that time I'd not only never heard of, but would in any event have assumed to be a man).

But I digress. Why not start a process by which we can nominate our favourites? Perhaps every nomination should be accompanied by one sentence (only!) of reasoning for inclusion. Do you think 50 too ambitious? (or too much hard work to put together, more like!). Should there be some boundaries, eg detective not thriller, or both, or is everything fair game? I never know how to define books that aren't really "crime fic" in the genre sense but nevertheless are about a mystery that needs solving, eg Tenderness of Wolves (Stef Penney) or 13th Tale (Diane Setterfield), both of which I started out reading thinking they were "general fiction" but both of which turn out to be crime mystery novels. Should a list of "top crime novels" contain books not "marketed" as such?

11:30 PM  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maxine, the Telegraph list reminded me a bit of David Montgomery's list. When that controversy started between the two of you, I suggested that list makers might save themselves grief if they defined their terms carefully before they began.

In David's case, I speculated that a reader with a preference for, say, old-school hard-boiled fiction might naturally like far more male than female authors. In the Telegraph's case, the list was a shambles, as someone said. That's not to say that it's a bad list, just that it's assembled according to no standards.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

2:36 AM  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Having been thoroughly delighted with a certain editorial that received quite a bit of publicity over here, this expat in Canada is disinclined to disagree with Maxine about anything at the moment. That said, has our concern in all this not been 'greatest crime writers', not 'greatest crime novels'? And that is to say, harking back to a previous discussion that helped to clarify this, writers of such quality that they deservedly won, or may now qualify for, or might be awarded posthumously, that Diamond Dagger? Also, if I made up my own list of greatest crime fiction writers, and I'm thinking about it, it would have to number 100. Albeit the efflorescence of the genre did not come until the last century, we are still looking at a period of nigh on 200 years, and there must be space for all periods, schools, and subgenres.

One thing that much strikes me looking at comments sent to the Telegraph and blogs is that an awful lot of people seem to have one hell of a hard time keeping their eyeballs on the words 'greatest crime writers' and wrapping their minds around that concept. Not favourite crime writers, not favourite crime novels, not the writer of one favourite crime novel, not the greatest writers in the school or subgenre for which one has a predilection -- 'greatest crime writers'. (I stopped reading the Telegraph comments because I was pretty sure I'd start coming across writers whose detectives have four legs or who wind up each chapter with a yummy recipe.) I might also mention that my list would most certainly not include any writers of thrillers or tales of espionage.

3:43 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I totally agree and think that the people who comment on the crime fiction blogs could come up with a much more definitive list.
I might follow this up in a few weeks when the dust settles.

Toby Clements, Jeremy Jehu, Jake Kerridge, Sam Leith, Andrew McKie and Sameer Rahim

were the panel who made the choices according to the Telegraph website, and I wonder what their qualifications were for this daunting task.
Jake Kerridge is the only name I have noticed before in relation to crime fiction.
They apparently think Ed McBain's real name is Evan Hunter, which does not give you a lot of confidence.

If I don't reply to your comments it is either because you have said it all, or the fact that my daughter has just sent the first 4,700 words of a degree essay for me to peruse, and make comments.

The title "Is Mental Illness in our society socially caused or socially constructed. Discuss."

If I might plagiarise the talented Declan Burke "are you frickin' kidding, me".

I may have a headache for a month after reading that essay, which I hope has short sentences and perhaps a few murders.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

A very quick troll indicates both Toby Clements and Jeremy Jehu review crime fiction and write parodies thereof. Andrew McKie is the Telegraph's Obituary Editor and a reviewer chiefly of Science Fiction. Jake Kerridge reviews crime fiction. Sam Leith is Literary Editor of the paper. Sameer Rahim seems to write on politics and Islamic affairs, as well as reviewing books of various sorts.

My sympathy to you as you set about the perusal of that paper, and also to your daughter. The question she is asked to discuss may be the worst example of the fallacy of false dichotomy I've ever come across in an academic context, and in that context they are distressingly common.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for the information Philip.
The Obituary editor and science fiction very appropriate for an opinion on Tony Hillerman.

I'd better get back to that essay. At least the university authorities won't be able to claim ant efforts of mine will give her an unfair advantage as I can't understand a word of it.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My list was MUCH better than the Telegraph's. :)

The difference, I think, is that the list I put together sought only to include the books that *I* thought were the best -- which in inarguable; I am, after all, an expert at my own opinions -- rather than a presumed consensus of several people writing largely anonymously in a newspaper.

Disagreement is inevitable -- and healthy. The Telegraph list has gotten a lot of people talking, which is presumably what they intended, and which is always nice to see.

(That being said, their list did include some startling choices.)

4:49 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

David they did only include eight women and if I remember correctly your list included zero.;o)

Perhaps the Telegraph had taken a leaf out of your book and decided to be controversial.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to be controversial -- I wish I could claim the foresight to have been that calculating! Alas, in my naiveté it never even occurred to me that people would be upset that I didn't include any female authors on the list. Apparently that was a much more distasteful statement to make than I realized. Oh well... live and learn.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

David we take female authors contribution to crime fiction very seriously in the UK.
After all we made Agatha Christie and New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, Dame Commanders of the British Empire, and Ruth Rendell and PD James life peers. They sit in the House of Lords as Baroness Rendell of Bambergh and Baroness James of Holland Park.
It's called girl power I think.;o)

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on, Norman!
But David and I made our peace over that "10 best" list at the time, I hope.
I'm still musing on the Telegraph list and all the many comments on it on the crime fic and other blogs. Maybe a Petrona post will come out of it one of these days.

1:24 PM  

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