Thursday, 22 January 2009


The second chapter in the Guardian/Observer's '1000 Novels Everyone Must Read' was titled 'Crime', but anyone looking for a coherent best of the genre would be disappointed. Of course such lists exist to attract attention, if not controversy, and this one was specifically designed to rise above the usual suspects, such as the 50 best crime novels chosen by the Times back in April (see it here) or the Telegraph's last February (here). It's somewhat harder to pick apart than those were (see, for example, Mike Stotter at Shots here on how difficult it is to know where to start) but there are some egregious omissions--and inclusions-- by any standards.

Having said that, it is important to note that the list was introduced with a tortured attempt to define their goals, a Mission Statement which, using prose George Bush might envy, detailed an attempt 'to reflect as much of the spectrum as possible, as well as the regularity with which literary novelists have made evildoers their theme. The difference? The latter break genre rules, typically eliminating the hero who solves or prevents crime. And they usually write more stylishly; but the recent rise of the literary crime fiction epitomised by PD James has made that distinction less clear.'

Oh really.

This at least explains why Carrie O'Grady is such a treasured crime reviewer for the paper; her review of Fred Vargas, which was so amazingly wrong-headed it prompted an entire essay: 'The Guardian's Telegraph Crossword Theory of Crime Fiction', which you can find linked in the 'Bullseyes' section at the right, or here, made exactly the same sort of myopic distinction, with same sort of celebration of the epitome of 'literary' crime fiction ignoring some seven decades of writing. O'Grady features prominently in writing the entries here; you might not share her sense of the importance of Michael Innes's 'impish glee', but it helps explain why Anthony Berkley is a 'master of the genre' and Donald Westlake doesn't appear, in any of his guises, as if Richard Stark's writing didn't mark a revolution of crime style.

Yet even within their own parameters, the G/O can't achieve any consistency; not least because rather than reflect as much of the spectrum as possible, they tended, by choosing multiple books by favoured writers, to narrow that spectrum considerably. For example, five books by Ruth Rendell, none by, say, Margaret Millar, or Kate Wilhelm, or Laura Lippman's Every Secret Thing, if they want something recent. Colin Dexter has two books included, one because, according to Ms. O'Grady 'the Jag, the jokes, the's all here' (the crosswords?!) but where is John Harvey? Michael Dibdin gets his own section written by Mark Lawson, in which four books are chosen, perhaps these were the books Mark must read before he dies. Guardian reviewer Matthew Lewin gets to provide a sidebar on 'modern hardboiled crime', but the selections are only two of James Lee Burke southern gothics, and two by James Ellroy: yes, LA Confidential is a must, but why The Big Nowhere rather than the more crucial Black Dahlia or the more manic White Jazz? Why not the amazing American Tabloid, the start of the still unfinished American Underworld trilogy? Indeed why not a Lloyd Hopkins novel or even Ellroy's startling debut, Brown's Requiem? And in modern hardboiled crime, where is Michael Connelly?

Or, for that matter, Joe Gores, whose DKA novels are the most real of non-police procedurals, whose Hammett became a film (see below) and opened a sub-genre for writers as detectives, and whose Interface is the most serious bending of the hard-boiled detective hero that anyone has done before or since (you can find my essay on it here).

The selections also seem overly influenced by film (or TV) adaptations, and not just because they need art to decorate the section, and they must believe film stills work better than book covers, but also because films are a short cut to a writer's work (and reputation). Even so, is 'Get Shorty' really the Elmore Leonard you'd feel everyone 'must' read? Why The Manchurian Candidate and not Winter Kills? On the other hand, Jim Thompson gives you The Grifters and Coup de Torchon, as well as Peckinpah's excellent The Getaway (and its insipid remake). And yes, in this case, a still of a soaked Ali MacGraw may well make a better illo than the cover of Thompson's book.

In spy fiction are 'Tinker, Tailor' and 'Constant Gardener' really more essential reads than 'The Honourable Schoolboy'? Those two are listed among the choices, while the more crucial 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold' is included as part of an essay, The Best Spy Fiction, by Henry Porter (at least one of whose books, Empire State, deserves mention) which includes only two other candidates, both by Eric Ambler. On the main list are three James Bonds (all by Ian Fleming; I'm amazed they could resist including Kingsley Amis or Sebastian Faulks) but none of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helms. And is there really no place at all for the spy fiction of Robert Littell, Charles McCarry, Alan Furst, Paul Hennisart, or, indeed, Norman Mailer?

Mailer? Well, I say this because the list also includes two of Thomas Pynchon's novels. The Crying Of Lot 49 was a clever choice, but V, which was my favourite book when I was 17, and still is one of them now, is more of a stretch. John Dugdale does point out that, in V Pynchon pardies the John Buchan/Erskine Childers--both included in the Guardian's list-- thriller, but V is a novel filled with literary parody, not a crime novel itself.

Mailer wrote a huge spy novel, Harlot's Ghost which holds up very well, and to which the promised sequel remains unwritten. He also wrote a parody hardboiled, Tough Guys Don't Dance. There's murder at the heart of An American Dream, my own favourite of his novels, and of course there's The Executioner's Song, probably his best book, which is a non-fiction novel and certainly more rewarding for you to read than most of the books on this list.

I mention Mailer also because a very erratic group of 'literary' works are shoe-horned in, the likes of Ian McEwan, Patrick Susskind, Sarah Waters, Brett Easton Ellis, and Donna Tartt (someone must've loved that Bennington/Manhattan circle 15 years ago!). These are the literary lights who 'with regularity make evildoers their theme', yet nothing included by any of them holds a candle to An American Dream, much less American Tabloid.

There are also a lot of classic novels, including Zola's Therese Raquin and Dumas' The Count Of Monte Cristo. I love the latter, (who doesn't) and I guess it has crime (perjury) at its core (as well as a great prison break), but its inclusion really opens the door to any number of adventure novels, and might best have been put into a supplement of books you have to read before you hit puberty. Genre seems to create some major stumbling blocks for the Guardian. Peter Carey's Kelly Gang is surely a western, even if it is set in the southern hemisphere, while both the Michael Crichton novels included are surely sf. Why them and not any other sf classics that involve crime, like Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep (not that it's Dick's best, but it does have a detective, and it was made into a famous film by a British director). If you've got The Three Musketeers, why not Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination? Why not Crichton's Eaters Of The Dead?

The whys and why-nots were the decisions of a 'panel of experts' but the write-ups for the entries chosen were apparently then assigned elsewhere, so we can't blame those who wrote the entries. For example, I doubt anyone 'must read' James Hadley Chase's No Orchids For Miss Blandish but I'll concede it does have some historical value here in Britain. As John Sutherland writes, Chase had studied Warner Bros. gangster movies, but perhaps he wasn't aware that the 'experts' had also chosen for this list William Faulkner's Sanctuary, which would make it worth his pointing out that Chase evidently studied Faulkner's book far more closely than any movie.

One can quibble too choices of books for the authors who were included; I'm not sure who'd choose Lush Life as the only Richard Price novel, or Sidetracked for Henning Mankell, but those quibbles aren't as important as asking why two Sara Paretsky and no David Goodis, two John Grishams and no Ross MacDonald, or why Jonathan Lethem but not Michael Chabon.

There are some positives. Nice to see George V Higgins, who surely qualifies for such a list even were it reduced to a dozen. Yes, Eddie Coyle was the one made into a movie, but it is still one of Higgins' very best. Good to see Sjowall and Wahloo remembered, even if one suspects they chose The Laughing Policeman because they don't know there's also a movie of The Man On The Roof! There's Friedrich Duerrenmatt's The Pledge, recognition of his place within the pantheon. Among the literary choices is Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, for which John Mullan makes a good case. All of Hammett's four great novels are in, though someone (I'm assuming it wasn't Maxim Jakubowski, who wrote the entry, but one of the sub editors 'correcting' him) felt compelled to Anglicise it, transforming Red Harvest's setting of Personville (aka Poisonville) to Pentonville (!) Even the Continental Op might be amused by that one.

As I said, these lists exist to stir debate, prompt rants, and sell papers. But also, in this case, to educate the audience. And it is so heartening to learn that, thanks to PD James, crime fiction may someday attempt to rise to the literary heights of Perfume, Fingersmith, American Psycho, or The Secret History. Mission Accomplished!

POSTSCRIPT (24/1): It turned out that the Crime supplement was actually far more sensible than those that followed, whose categories, after Comedy (where the choices made Crime's look rational and comprehensive), grew increasingly more bizarre, like the oxymoronic Family and Self, State Of The Nation, and my favourite, War and Travel. The beauty of that one was that it allowed them to include Black Beauty, South Wind, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (which isn't a novel, and if we're including non ficton where's Dispatches?) and even The Mark Of Zorro (what, no Fu Manchu?), while excluding War And Peace. Think about it. The outre categories meant inclusion for most of Pynchon, which was a good thing, but among all the fashionable moderns and Guardian contributors, they found no room for anything by Richard Powers, in my mind the very best 'younger' novelist writing in English. And how CAN anyone discuss the self or the nation without reference to Philip K Dick?.

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