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Simenon And Great Crime Novelists
July 7, 2003 11:29 PM   Subscribe

Inspector Maigret And The Strange Case Of The Immortals: The immensely prolific Georges Simenon, most well known for his Maigret mysteries, has just been published in 2 volumes by France's most prestigious collection, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Crime fiction looks like it's slowly becoming respectable. What popular crime novelists would you like to see elevated to literature's highest pantheon? Or does it somehow ruin the fun a bit? For comparison purposes, I'd say The Library of America is the nearest English language equivalent. [First, second and fourth links in English; others in French.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (32 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Ian Fleming
posted by mischief at 12:11 AM on July 8, 2003


Simenon is a national institution in France, right? I mean, I learned about him in junior high French class, and if I recall correctly, the only other author mentioned was Victor Hugo. Having said that, my namesake, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a good place to begin--in fact, perhaps the only place to begin--for English-language whodunnits. Agatha Christie as well, of course. Actually, my firsthand knowledge ends about there, but I'd suppose the whole "hard-boiled" subgenre deserves some representation as well--Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler?

One genre I'd really like to see get some literary respect, though, is science fiction. There's a fair amount of crap in there, of course--Jeff Noon's notion of ditching the elves and spaceships springs to mind--but successful SF manages to simultaneously be a literature of Ideas and a vehicle for escapism. But with both SF and crime fiction, acceptance into the temples of High Culture feels a bit, well, beside the point. They don't teach rock and roll at Juillard, after all.
posted by arto at 12:25 AM on July 8, 2003


I don't think it's really possible for a crime novel ever to be particularly highbrow. Possibly, it's because crime novels are plot driven rather than character driven. The best novels are about human emotion and human relationships, and by their very nature, crime novels find this hard to achieve.

My favourite crime author is Elmore Leonard. His books are like the literary equivalent of the film Pulp Fiction. Not deep, but clever in a kind of laughing at it's own genre kind of way. Get Shorty and Jackie Brown were two fine films as well.

I think I read the entire Agatha Christie collection between the ages of 11 and 16.
posted by salmacis at 12:40 AM on July 8, 2003


Chandler and Hammett are already in the Library of America. Poe, who helped invent the genre, was there from the beginning.
posted by boswell at 1:03 AM on July 8, 2003


I second Elmore Leonard. I stand in awe of his dialog.
posted by timeistight at 1:08 AM on July 8, 2003


Patricia Highsmith.

I thought the divide between high lit and genre fiction was become more permeable, until I heard a couple of literary lovies on Radio 4's Saturday Review last week tearing into P.D.James. It wasn't so much that they didn't like James, but that they believed that genre fiction is only read by people who can't handle "real" literature. There was lots of "people who read this kind of stuff".
posted by ceiriog at 1:33 AM on July 8, 2003


I remember reading an article were the writer asked authors about their "guilty pleasures" (or some such phrase). John Updike gave Elmore Leonard; someone else gave John Updike. I don't think they asked Leonard.
posted by timeistight at 1:50 AM on July 8, 2003


Ian Rankin. And yes, Elmore Leonard.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:14 AM on July 8, 2003


The bio on Simenon reveals an amazing man--his sexual life mirrored his prolific writing life, and his relationshi[p to his daughter--she killed herself--in off the wall too. Highsmith has a collection of her letters etc justy ut and is said to be a great insight into a writer's mind.
Simenon by the way wrote a number of non-Maigret books--psychological stuff in which there is usually a crime too. That is his best stuff.
posted by Postroad at 4:10 AM on July 8, 2003


Another vote for Elmore Leonard. And Ed McBain aka Evan Hunter. Nobody gets characters to say so much by saying so little.
posted by TimeFactor at 4:45 AM on July 8, 2003


The best novels are about human emotion and human relationships

Not necessarily.
posted by rushmc at 5:27 AM on July 8, 2003


Or, perhaps I should add, so are many of the worst.
posted by rushmc at 5:27 AM on July 8, 2003


Richard Stark and Jim Thompson
posted by donpardo at 6:16 AM on July 8, 2003


Eric Ambler. A Coffin for Dimitrios and the Siege of the Villa Lip are both extraordinary. As for crime/suspense not being valid literature, it all depends on how its done. Story and character aren't the two sides in a zero sum game.

Raymond Chandler is brilliant as well - 'She was the kind of blond who would a make a bishop want to kick in stained glass window.' is one of may favourite lines in all literature.

Also, if you're going back to the roots, you'd have to include the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.
posted by fluffy1984 at 6:52 AM on July 8, 2003


I've got to go with the husband and wife team of Ross MacDonald and Margaret Millar.

The only thing that puzzles me more than Ross MacDonald's relative obscurity is Margaret Millar's. I think that being married to a wildly successful novelist in the same genre really didn't help (although my understanding is that earlier on in his career it was MacDonald who hid in the shadows of Millar's success).

hey, rush, don't knock human emotions and human relationships until you've tried 'em ;)
posted by filmgoerjuan at 6:56 AM on July 8, 2003


I can't believe nobody mentioned James Ellroy

also check out this true American gem:
Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s
The 1930's and 1940's book is exceptional, too
posted by matteo at 7:19 AM on July 8, 2003


I'd go with almost all those choices, and add a recent fave: Christopher Brookmeyer who cracks me up and has something interesting to say ... usually.

(My first post in however many years - I am quite excited)
posted by paperbag princess at 7:26 AM on July 8, 2003


Those "Left Behind" books aren't really crime novels, but it's a crime that they're so popular. I'm sorry... what was the question again?
posted by jonson at 8:11 AM on July 8, 2003


> I think I read the entire Agatha Christie collection between
> the ages of 11 and 16.

Like Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Christie's Miss Marple is an instance of a writer of at most the second rank, writing stories of the second rank, nevertheless creating a character that will remain interesting as long as anyone still reads English. (P.S., snarky allusion to another thread, this is something A. S. Byatt has not yet achieved.)
posted by jfuller at 8:44 AM on July 8, 2003


P.P.S., best detective series in past 20 years or so, Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books set in the thirteenth century monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury.


> The best novels are about human emotion and human
> relationships

If you want critical approval for your latest effort, it had better be about neurotic emotion and dysfunctional relationships.
posted by jfuller at 8:59 AM on July 8, 2003


Keeler? (Thank you Vacapinta.)
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:19 AM on July 8, 2003


crime novels are plot driven rather than character driven

I'm not sure how you can say this and then praise Elmore Leonard. Leonard's characters are more believable than almost all of what passes for serious literature these days. And crime writers have the advantage of being able to put their characters into a moral universe where their choices mean something.

On the other hand, mystery writers generally deserve their reputation as formulaic genre hacks. Chandler described the difference between mystery and crime really well in "The Simple Art of Murder" when he praised Hammett for "taking murder out of the drawing room and putting it back in the streets where it belongs, giving it to the people who commit murder for a reason instead of to provide a convenient corpse" (can't find the essay online, so I'm guessing at the quote from memory).

All my favorite crime writing, from Hammett to Chandler to Leonard to Ellroy to Edward Bunker, recognizes that the line between the good guys and the bad guys doesn't really exist, and everyone has to make their own choices instead.

Simenon is a special case. His characters and plot are mostly formulaic and flat. But his descriptions of the details of Paris life -- neighborhoods, cafes, shopkeepers, concierges -- are so well drawn that he's worth reading.
posted by fuzz at 10:33 AM on July 8, 2003


I'll second the mention of Patricia Highsmith, and add another name as well: Charles Willeford.
posted by Rebis at 11:08 AM on July 8, 2003


America: perhaps Joseph Hansen?

UK: I'll second the Ian Rankin motion, and add Reginald Hill (although the last three Dalziel and Pascoes needed a much sterner editor).
posted by thomas j wise at 12:29 PM on July 8, 2003


Raymond Chandler is brilliant as well - 'She was the kind of blond who would a make a bishop want to kick in stained glass window.' is one of may favourite lines in all literature.

Ack! Since you're right, it is a great line, I have to correct you on it:

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window." -- Farewell My Lovely

Also, if you're going back to the roots, you'd have to include the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

Indeed, I think it's funny that Salmacis says that crime novels can't ever be considered high brow, since I read The Moonstone in a Victorian Lit. class and it was treated very respectfully by a professor who was highly aware of the fact that when it was published it was considered Sensationalist lit, the lowest of the low, the equivalent of the stuff they sell at the grocery store now. Today, you won't find it on the mystery shelf, it'll be in the Literature section almost always.

That said, I'd like to see Raymond Chandler get more of the respect he deserves. I don't think he's considered low-brow by most who know their stuff, but personally I think he's got one of the most formidable talents for just pure stylistic writing that I've read. I'm not a mystery expert by any means though.
posted by Hildago at 2:55 PM on July 8, 2003


All my favorite crime writing, from Hammett to Chandler to Leonard to Ellroy to Edward Bunker, recognizes that the line between the good guys and the bad guys doesn't really exist, and everyone has to make their own choices instead.

Chandler said something about how detective stories draw their structure from Arthurian Romances and such, tales of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress. The lack of moral clarity is probably the most obvious difference between the two, which is really interesting and also probably to be expected.
posted by Hildago at 2:57 PM on July 8, 2003


Arturo Perez-Reverte writes in Spanish but most of his books have been translated into English. His characters are often highbrow, dealing in the arts, or writing, and tend to be upper class men and women. That said, he seems to have an insight into the human condition that I find interesting and attractive.

I don't think it's really possible for a crime novel ever to be particularly highbrow. Possibly, it's because crime novels are plot driven rather than character driven. The best novels are about human emotion and human relationships, and by their very nature, crime novels find this hard to achieve.

Salmacis, while I might agree with you about what constitutes a great novel, I have come across more than one author who details relationships and emotion with great accuracy and insight. I grant you that many crime authors don't delve into the psyche of their characters, but I think that this has been changing over the last few decades.

Perhaps that last sentence is wrong. After all, crime novels deal in emotion. I feel that many authors make their characters two-dimensional, instead of fully fleshed. Nonetheless, crime authors have been changing. P.D. James is wonderful, as is Ian Rankin and Minette Walters, to name just a few.
posted by ashbury at 4:01 PM on July 8, 2003


Okay so someone said Richard Stark, but he's best as Donald Westlake. Possibly heresy, but I like Westlake even better than Leonard these days. He can make you hug yourself with joy at some of his sentences.

If you haven't read the Dortmunder series yet, I'm jealous.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:35 PM on July 8, 2003


Oooo oooo - It's online!


This may be one of my favorite and funniest openings of a book ever. The first chapter of Westlake's Bad News - a self contained gem.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:43 PM on July 8, 2003


Since nobody has mentioned him, I would like to add George V. Higgins to the list. He is great at how the characters just talk. And they talk so very well.
posted by jlbartosa at 9:00 AM on July 9, 2003


Okay, I'm leaving town for a week's vacation that will involve me sitting on a beach reading. I'd like to take some good mystery novels. Any suggestions? There are too many above for me to take them all so I'd love to hear what one or two books are indispensable mysteries. I could use some help. :)
posted by Dantien at 11:04 AM on July 9, 2003


Off the top of my head, I recommend:

The Chill by Ross MacDonald
How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

All very different mysteries, but all very good.
posted by filmgoerjuan at 6:23 AM on July 10, 2003


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