Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Another Change of Pace: 50 Great Novels of Mystery and Detection: Part 1

Part 1

Well, face it, lists of great detective stories are even more arbitrary than lists of great movies. What are the criteria? Does it matter that Raymond Chandler was a much better writer than John Dickson Carr? It does to teachers of undergraduate fiction classes–Chandler is often assigned, Carr never–but otherwise, there’s no clear reason to believe that Chandler’s style and wit are preferable to Carr’s brilliance as a plotter and deceiver: to be deceived is what we hope for when reading a mystery. The closest I can come to explaining my own criteria, is as follows.

There are basically two poles of mystery/detection fiction. At one extreme there’s the would-be realistic–“I’m reading about the real world ”--or what it would be like if it had the schematic outline of fictional narratives. The police procedural, of which Ed McBain is the most famous practitioner, is the most familiar instance of the type–see #8 below; certain types of "psychological" mystery (e.g., Ruth Rendell) also aim at this goal. At the other extreme is the fabulous tale, which tries not to imitate reality but to depict a world in which apparently incredible things seem to happen, yet still somehow all make sense in the end: see #1 below.
That I’ve rated what I consider the best example of realism #8 and the best example of the fabulous #1, sufficiently establishes my own preference scale, making it easier for you to judge the judger. But the main point is that most mystery novels are some amalgam of both, Chandler being the best example of someone who can convey a feeling of urban “reality” while spinning romantic tales of La-La Land.
What I look for then, is the striking of a satisfying balance between those poles. No realism at all, and we’re in the land of the purely fabulous, or magical realism, where no logic applies and thus there can be no sense of satisfaction in following the deductive process inherent in the mystery genre. Too much realism, and we lose the pleasure of immersion in the special world of the creative imagination, as opposed to mere reportage. (E.g., McBain’s cops are much wittier than most real cops, or people, for that matter.) That said, I apply my own response to the works: how well do they establish, maintain, and resolve the tension that mystery writing is all about? How badly do I want to reread them; and again?
Of course, the notion that any group of creative works of any kind ( or of college football teams for that matter) can be rated from 1 through 50 is even more absurd than the idea of creating such a list at all. Paul Schrader recently published a list of 66 “best films of all time” in the journal Film Comment. I agreed with about a third of the list, though not especially their order, and thought that we’d had an exceptional meeting of minds–and this in a creative arena for which it is much easier to suggest formal criteria (dozens of critics have tried with varying success to do exactly that) than it is for popular fiction. So I’ll say only that my degree of confidence at the top of the list is extremely high, but descends sharply towards the bottom of the list. I could easily think of another dozen books to replace some of those listed there. So I’ve added “additional thoughts” at the end; if you like mysteries the more the merrier.

In any event, the main thing is my expectation that anyone who enjoys mysteries will enjoy most, if not all, of the fifty and more great ones listed here. And these are mysteries; I’ve omitted great suspense fiction (e.g., Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry Wrong Number, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black) and great spy stories (e.g., Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios) or thriller/adventure stories (e.g., Thomas Perry’s “Jane Whitefield” series). Rush to read all of these if you haven’t already. But to be considered for inclusion among these recommendations, a novel has to be primarily about crime and detection; about our pleasure in trying to figure out, as the title of one of the finest books about detective fiction has it, What Will Have Happened?

The list:

1. The Red Right Hand (Joel Townsley Rogers, 1945)
The most notorious unreliable narrator in the history of fiction is the “Watson” of Agatha Christie’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, but as Edmund Wilson famously wrote, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” If we don't, it's because Christie doesn’t generate enough intensity of involvement. But ah, The Red Right Hand! A car careens across the Connecticut countryside, driven by a rampaging madman, leaving death and destruction in its wake. It comes to a halt in a cul-de-sac past a crossroads at which the protagonist/narrator has been standing–but he claims not to have seen it go by! As he sits alone in the cottage of one of the victims, surrounded by suspicious policemen, hearing the screams of more victims in the distance, and feeling that a killer is creeping nearer, he painstakingly sets down the events that have landed him at the center of this maelstrom. But on page after page, bizarre coincidences pile up self-incriminating evidence, and give reason to doubt not just the veracity but even the possibility of the blood-curdling story he’s telling us. Rogers wrote only one other mystery, and it wasn’t very good. This one is awesome.

2. The Detective (Roderick Thorp, 1966)
One of the most intense feelings of pleasure a reader can get from mystery or suspense fiction is that of the moment when the seemingly unrelated strands of an ambiguously coherent narrative suddenly come to together in a flash of insight. The Detective is the very best of all such narratives of detection; when I read it for the first time I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen what was coming–but I hadn’t. Made into a bad movie with Frank Sinatra.

3, The Burning Court (John Dickson Carr, 1937)
Carr was the absolute master of the “impossible crime” novel, primarily through the plot device of “the locked room.” This is as close as possible to being an unassailably authoritative statement about detective fiction, in that no historian of the genre would dream of disagreeing with it. What makes this his best work is that an atmosphere of the seemingly supernatural, which he was especially skillful at generating in his earlier works, is here combined with a shudder of eroticism that like most detective story writers of the “classical” period he usually avoided; and with a startlingly ambiguous ending that is unique in the genre.

4. Past Caring (Robert Goddard, 1986)
Goddard’s first novel is every bit the equal of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, with which it has much in common, but as a more obvious piece of genre writing it never achieved the latter’s fame. You will read the beginning and ending over and over, not to work out what has happened, which is finally clear at the end of a wonderfully plotted mystery, but to try to decide what you, the reader, want to happen next. Like Possession, it combines a flawed and misjudged hero–one of the most believable underdog heroes in fiction–with an impossible romance: or is it?

5. Farewell My Lovely (Raymond Chandler, 1940)
Nothing more really needs to be said about Chandler, except perhaps that it’s very difficult to choose his “best” novel. Of them all, Farewell My Lovely to my mind most persuasively combines Philip Marlowe’s romanticism and epigrammatic wit (out of the same humorist stable that includes Mark Twain, S. J. Perelman, and Groucho Marx) with a good mystery–and the descent into the Inferno that was always Chandler’s deep-down theme.

6. The Master of the Day of Judgment (Leo Perutz, 1930; English translation 1962)
To say anything specific about this mystery–one of only two non-English language works among these fifty, about which more later–would be to say too much. Suffice it to quote from Anthony Boucher’s “Introduction” to the English Language edition: “The Master starts off as a formal period drama of Vienna in 1909...suggestive of a play by Schnitzler. It shifts into a straight detective story, then into a tale of supernatural terror, then finally into an ending as Viennese as the beginning–if you recall that Vienna is the cradle of psychoanalysis. Like every story of Perutz’s, it creates its own form and sets, rather than follows, precedents.”

7. The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (Sebastien Japrisot [Jean Baptiste-Rossi], 1968; translated from the French)
To quote one reviewer, “unputdownable.” Each time I finish rereading it, I sigh with satisfaction at having finally committed to memory the magician’s sleight-of-hand; and before long have forgotten exactly how it worked and have to start all over again. As the overwrought but accurate paperback cover has it, “Shooting someone to death from hundreds of miles away isn’t possible. Nor is driving so fast that you’re back before you’ve left. Finding traces of yourself everywhere you’ve never been; looking for a killer only to discover it’s you yourself; trying to escape when you’re also the victim!” One more (perhaps) “unreliable narrator,” this one a woman, Dany Longo is one of the great heroines of genre fiction. Could go as high as #2.

8. The Last Known Address (William Harrington, 1965)
See my introductory comment. This is the best of all pure police procedurals. Lieutenant Kerrigan, an (unfairly) disgraced detective, is recalled from the bottom of the barrel and assigned to look for a missing witness, not because his superiors think he will succeed but so that they can cover their asses. (Think of Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet.) He and a reluctant side-kick, a rookie female cop, set out along a cold trail, trudging from doorway to doorway, interviewing neighbors and acquaintances who know nothing, starting hares that instantly disappear down false trails, until he recalls one offhand remark...Harrington wrote several other “Kerrigan” mysteries, all worth reading, but you do have to have a tolerance for plodding.

9. The Three Coffins (Carr, 1935)
Most famous for the definitive “locked room” lecture that Carr’s detective Gideon Fell gives in the midst of the definitive “locked room” mystery. The murder can’t possibly have happened as witnessed–but it did. Like The Burning Court, a masterpiece of the uncanny, though without the former’s hint of the supernatural. Carr also wrote under the name of “Carter Dickson;” the only difference conveyed by the different names is that Fell, along with Inspector Henri Bencolin, belongs to Carr and Sir Henry Merrivale to Dickson.

10. The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey, 1949)
Tey based her contemporary novel on an 18th Century trial, one of the most famous trials in English history. A young girl accuses two women of having kidnapped her and held her captive for two weeks. They deny everything and say they have never seen her–but she can describe the room in which they supposedly held her captive perfectly! It ends with a wonderfully realized courtroom drama, including a climactic cross-examination.

11. Warrant for X (Philip McDonald, 1931)
Shades of Sorry Wrong Number: A blind man sitting in a restaurant overhears a conversation and realizes that a kidnapping is being plotted. He finds his way to a private investigator, Colonel Anthony Gethryn, who sets out to forestall the event with no clues other than the cryptic words of the conspirators. A classic of pure detection, it was made into a barely adequate movie, 23 Paces to Baker Street, with Van Johnson.

12. The House of the Arrow (A. E. W. Mason, 1924)
Inspector Hanaud sees a wisp of smoke curling from the chimney of a French villa, and as it rises he realizes the solution to a baffling mystery. Mason engagingly mixes pure deduction a la Holmes with such exotica as secret passages, stolen jewelry, and the unmasking of a culprit whose identity will surprise all readers, and make some unhappy. A prolific English writer, Mason is most famous for his novel The Four Feathers; but his Running Water is one of my all-time favorite adventure stories. It features an imaginatively realized heroine who defies conventional loyalties and death threats as she follows “the one law last broken–the law that what you know, that you must do, if by doing it you can save a life.”

13. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, 1939)
Unlike Christie’s conventional Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries, this suspenseful novel is unconventional and spine-tingling. Ten strangers, invited to a mysterious island from which they cannot escape, are being knocked off one by one. Everyone left has a perfect alibi; at last only our hero and heroine remain. The film cheats on the ending, but some readers will prefer it.

14. The Big Clock (Kenneth Fearing, 1946)
Twice filmed, once brilliantly in the 40s with Ray Milland, and the second time updated (drastically) as No Way Out with Kevin Costner. A reporter is assigned by his publisher to investigate a murder that he witnessed and for which he is being framed; and twist and turn as he might, his investigation comes closer and closer to implicating...himself. Fearing was primarily a poet; like Rogers he wrote only one other mystery beside his classic, and it wasn’t nearly as good.

15. Dead Famous (Carol O’Connell, 2003)
I’m tempted to say, the best living detective story writer...but let the temptation pass. There are very few contemporary mysteries among these recommendations. It takes a while to confirm the status of any esthetic experience; a mystery especially requires rereading for this purpose–if it can’t be reread, it probably doesn’t belong on a list of “greats.” Dead Famous (which can be reread) is the first of these exceptions, because around policewoman Kathy Mallory, an over-the-top, totally implausible, and sociopathic (but vulnerable) heroine, O’Connell has fashioned a series of tall tales that have no equivalent. They should be read in sequence, but if that’s not possible, this one–the seventh--shouldn’t be missed. Two relentless and powerful women, one bent on vengeance, duel to trap a serial killer. But is the vengeful woman, as Mallory suspects, bent on murder; or even the actual killer herself? –An interesting aspect of the Mallory novels is that superheroines are usually (though not always) the creation of male authors–a fact that any Freudian analyst would have no difficulty explaining. O’Connell is definitely not a male author!

16. Arrow Pointing Nowhere (Elizabeth Daly, 1944)
Daly’s Henry Gamadge was a rare book and manuscript expert, once the most suave and least violent of all amateur detectives, later a member in good standing of the FBI, dealing mostly with the rich and well-born of Edith Wharton territory. In this story, he receives a crumpled envelope, originally addressed to a rare book dealer and readdressed to himself, that has been dropped from the window of a Whartonian mansion. Inside it contains only the scrawled message, “Recommend early visit to inspect interesting curiosa. Discretion.” Like Colonel Gethryn of Warrant for X, he deduces an entire scenario from this slight communication and sets out in pursuit of what turns out to be a dangerous and twisted murder plot. Daly’s eerie, skin-crawling Evidence of Things Seen (1943) also belongs here.

17. Red Harvest (Dashiell Hammett, 1928)
“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.” Hammett, the founder of the “hard-boiled” school of fiction, was one of the most influential writers in American history. Andre Gide called Red Harvest “the greatest American novel." That was probably intended as a cultural put-down, but Red Harvest was surely seminal. A story about union-busting (with which Hammett the ex-Pinkerton was too familiar) it’s the most politically conscious of American detective novels, at least until Sara Paretsky came along (#36 below). But even V.I. Warshawski isn’t as tough as the Continental Op.

18. Drury Lane’s Last Case (Ellery Queen, 1933; originally published as by “Barnaby Ross”)
Another mystery about which the less revealed the better. Queen’s Drury Lane, a gentleman detective like Gamadge, had three earlier cases–The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y, and The Tragedy of Z–and all of them repay reading; this one was indeed his last. Queen (actually Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee), who was better known for his eponymous amateur detective (also the hero of a long-running radio program), was the most inventive plotter of all detective story writers, ever. The Tragedy of Z introduces an ancillary detective, Sally Thumm, who at the end outdoes the great man himself.

19. The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck (Andrew Laing, 1934)
Long out of print but available from Amazon.com, it is well worth the search. One of those novels that is presented as having come to the publishers from a “reputable literary agent, who claims to be as ignorant as we are of the author’s identity,” it takes place in a small Maine town in which monstrously deformed children are being born. The narrator/diarist writes of having “been drawn unwillingly into a sequence of grim events, of which “the climax could yet be my own death.” It may well be...

20. The Weird World of Wes Beattie (John Norman Harris, 1963)
A Canadian mystery, just reprinted. Wes Beattie, an “obscure bank clerk” and apparently friendless congenital liar, stands accused of a murder for which he had means, motive, and opportunity; his only defense is a fantastic story of conspiracy against him by a “strange and sinister” gang of alleged criminals who appear not to exist. At a seminar of “doctors, lawyers, and social workers,” a psychiatrist presents his case as one of dissociation from reality. Sidney Grant, a not-very-attractive lawyer, sets out to run down Wes’s lies in the hope of proving to him that they are lies, so that he can be persuaded to stop lying, and plea bargain out from under a potential death penalty. But Wes turns out to have some friends after all, including a courageous aunt and a dynamic and attractive sister, and things are not always what they seem.

21. The Deadly Percheron (John Franklin Bardin, 1946)
There’s no writer quite like Bardin, and no book quite like this one. He wrote three mysteries, collected in The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus, that are nightmarish, hallucinatory, and surreal. In The Deadly Percheron a horse can indeed be deadly–and that’s the least of it. The story begins with a shaggy dog story: a client walks into the narrator/psychiatrist’s office wearing a hibiscus in his hair, and explains that a little man named Joe, wearing a purple suit, gives him ten dollars a day to wear it. And there are other little men...who, like Wes Beattie’s sinister gang, turn out to be more than figments of an apparently (but not) harmless delusion.

22. Phantom Lady (William Irish, 1942; pseudonym of Cornell Woolrich)
Woolrich/Irish, author of novels and short stories that eventually became the movies Rear Window, The Bride Wore Black, and quite a few others, is generally considered to be the best suspense writer of all time. His specialty was “the ticking clock,” and Phantom Lady is the most exciting example of the genre he made his own, as well as being a true detective story. A desperate woman races against time to save her condemned fiancĂ© from execution for a murder that she alone is sure he didn’t commit. Descending into a nightmarish urban landscape, she searches out witnesses who one by one disappear or are murdered before she can reach them; the clock is ticking. Robert Siodmak’s film noir of the novel is one of the best in that genre; and Ella Raines’s fierce intensity makes her one of its most compelling heroines.

23. Rainbow Drive (Thorp, 1986)
Another version of a narrative in which apparently unrelated plot threads come together; almost as good as The Detective. It’s based on the 1981 Hollywood “Wonderland murders,” (the subject of a recent movie by that name), involving rival drug gangs, in which porn star John Holmes was involved. More than any other recent novel this one gives the feel of L.A. as a hotbed of corruption in high places and low–if that comports with your view of things. The rest of Thorp’s fiction, e.g., Die Hard etc., is worthless.

24. A Small Town in Germany (John Le Carre, 1968)
Le Carre’s George Smiley is a spy, not a detective, and the inclusion of one of his tales on this list is thus questionable. But A Small Town... belongs to the same sub-genre as The Detective and Rainbow Drive; in this case the search for a missing man produces a series of clues that suddenly cohere in a shocking revelation. Like all of Le Carre’s novels, it’s political as much as it is a thriller; not perhaps the best of them, it still belongs on a list of “best mysteries.”

25. A Stranger in My Grave (Margaret Millar, 1960)
Millar and her husband (John) Ross Macdonald were, until the Kellermans and the Kings came along, the most successful writing couple in the chronicles of genre fiction. What was extraordinary about their careers was the eerie similarity of their narrative conventions. In her books, there is always one character, so to speak, too many; or too few. Two people will turn out to be really one, or one to be two; the story involves not just the solution to a crime but the uncovering of an identity. In his books, analogously, Lew Archer, often functioning more as a psychoanalyst than a private eye, uncovers incestuous or murderously Oedipal secrets from a buried past. Perhaps the concealed father figure of his mysteries is the missing person of hers?

To be continued...

50 Great Mysteries: Part 2


26. One Shot (Lee Child, 2005)
If you’re one of those readers who doesn’t like the “hard-boiled” genre, don’t be fooled. It’s true that Child, a terrific writer, at first glance comes across as the ultimate tough-guy adventure story-teller. In fact, though, most of his books are true detective stories, and lone-wolf hero Jack Reacher functions in the classic private eye tradition. Here, an old enemy has been arrested for an assassination in a Midwestern city; he sends a message to Reacher asking him to come to town. He knows Reacher detests him; so what can he possibly be after? Solid detection, not so different from that of Lieutenant Kerrigan (#8) results in an astonishing conclusion. Reacher’s next book, The Hard Way, is as good, and contains some wonderfully Holmesian ratiocinations at its beginning, but toward the end it becomes more of a straight-out thriller.

27. The Man Who Tried to Get Away (Reed Stevens [Steven R. Donaldson], 1990)
There are four “Man Who” novels by an author who’s a well-known sci-fi writer under his real name; this one is the third, and the most like a true detective story. The titular hero is on the surface a broken anti-hero: an ex-alcoholic whose weakness resulted, in the earlier books, in the death of his brother and the maiming of his partner/(ex)lover. Yet he’s actually a true hero, smart, tough, and sensitive. Here, he and his partner, who now hates him, are trapped in one of those isolated snowbound murder scenarios that turn up so often in crime fiction, but this one doubles in spades. Not only is there a murderer on the loose, but the estranged hero and heroine are fleeing from a gangster who has put a bounty on their heads, and may have tracked them down; worse, she is falling for a man who might be the (which?) killer. This is the best ever in this particular sub-genre (And Then There Were None has no snow); but see immediately below.

28. The Rim of the Pit (Hake Talbot [Henning Nelms], 1944)
Henning who? No-one’s ever heard of the author, or the book. Sometimes posterity gets it wrong. John Dickson Carr correctly called it “a marvel of ingenuity.” Another snowbound party, with less emotional angst than The Man Who Tried to Get Away, but with many apparently supernatural incidents, and, as in Carr’s books, impossibility following on impossibility.

29. The Maltese Falcon (Hammett, 1931)
Sam Spade on the prowl for the missing Black Bird. Probably the most familiar story on this list, but more because of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart film version than the actual book. Read it to see how perfect Bogart was at incarnating the perfect hard-boiled detective.

30. The Long Goodbye (Chandler, 1950)
Was this Chandler’s next best Philip Marlowe novel? It’s probably the most coherent, in that it wasn’t cobbled together from Black Mask magazine short stories, but is all of a piece. Marlowe’s search for a missing man has a nice surprise ending, and after Farewell My Lovely it’s his most romantic case, in the bittersweet tone they all sought after and usually achieved. Next in line is, I think, The Big Sleep, but they all have to be read. There is no modern detective story without Chandler; he succeeded in his professional heart’s desire, which was to kill off the classical English murder-in-the-country-house-and-the-butler-did-it tradition (resurrected cinematically by Robert Altman in Gosford Park). He succeeded so well that today we are inundated with tiresomely grungy cops and other pointlessly unsavory investigators slinking “down these mean streets” of London and Glasgow, without any of Chandler/Marlowe’s saving wit; until one finally wants to scream, “Enough already. Lighten up!”

31. Winter House (O’Connell, 2005)
Another Mallory entry, following on the heels of Dead Famous. A police procedural and twisted gothic entwined make a story that moves between the distant past and the present day. A homeowner kills an alleged burglar with a scissors–but he turns out to be a hired killer, and she a missing child kidnapped sixty years ago after her family was massacred with an ice pick. That’s the relatively ordinary part of the story...

32. The Hound of the Baskervilles (A. Conan Doyle, 1888)
“It was the footprint, Watson, of a gigantic hound!” Doyle’s full-length works are not really detective stories and not really novels, but rather thrillers of novella length. Still, it would be inconceivable to have a “best” list of any kind of detective fiction without at least one Holmes title. Of the novellas, Hound is the closest to being a classic story of deduction such as one finds in the short stories about Holmes–though the others ("A Study in Scarlet," "The Sign of Four," and "The Valley of Fear") must also be read.

33. Wilders Walk Away (Herbert Brean, 1948)
“Other people die of mumps/Or general decay,/Of fever, chills, or other ills,/But Wilders walk away.” And so they do, over a period of almost a century. Journalist Reynolds Frame sets out to find how, and why, they keep mysteriously disappearing as they are seemingly just walking away. On the way he finds romance with the last Wilder–clearly a dangerous position to be in.

34. The Moving Toyshop (Edmond Crispin, 1946)
As “classic” as classic can get. Oxford Don Gervase Fen is the very British private detective. We can’t do better than to quote the Penguin cover: “The toyshop in the Iffley Road contains the strangled body of a grey-haired woman when a friend of Fen’s enters it one night. The next morning the toyshop has vanished and a busy grocer’s store occupies the site. And nobody’s surprised...”

35. The Doomsters (Ross MacDonald, 1958)
See Margaret Millar, #25 above.

36. Burn Marks (Sara Paretsky, 1990)
Paretsky has said that Philip Marlowe was the chief inspiration for V. I. Warshawski, though her take on the sociology and politics of Chicago is much more complex and politicized than Chandler’s on Los Angeles; and Marlowe probably wouldn’t be caught dead with even a hint of V.I.’s feminism. But they’d get along, and probably become lovers. As in all Paretsky’s books, a seemingly minor case (of arson) leads to the uncovering of scandal and corruption by V.I., and puts her life in danger. Blood Shot (1988), in which V.I. sets out in search of a friend’s missing father, is just as good, and explores the same sordid stew. Between them, the two novels take on much of the seamy side of America in the Reagan years. Remember those?

37. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (C. W. Grafton–father of Sue; 1955)
Could be a lot higher–but that could be said of many of these. A journalist sets out to prove a point about the legal system by framing himself for murder–bad move. A good courtroom drama in which unpleasant surprises abound. The Fritz Lang film version is adequate.

38. Strong Poison (Dorothy Sayers, 1930)
For me, this novel, and Sayers’ Lord Peter (aptly named) Wimsey books in general, bear out much of Wilson’s dismissal of the genre. Still, at some point one has to stop arguing with success, especially if it has lasted this long. Wimsey is smart and not as foppish as he sounds; Harriet Vane is an attractive woman-in-peril; and the inane plot still manages to be compelling.

39. The Duke of York’s Steps (Henry Wade, 1929)
Another “classic of the Golden Age” (Jacques Barzun’s epithet), belonging primarily to the peculiarly English genre of the complicatedly unbreakable alibi that a detective sets out to break. As the title suggests (to those who know London), a murder takes place in broad daylight in one of London’s most public venues. Neatly worked out. Can be re-read and re-read.

40. The Egyptian Cross Mystery (E. Queen, 1932)
As noted above, Queen was the most inventive plotter among detective story writers, sprinkling unidentified bodies, cryptic clues, and bewildering turns of events around slightly off-kilter settings (although like Carr’s his later work tended toward self-parody). The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) is as good a detective story, but lacks the exotic atmospherics of this one.

41. The Door (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1910)
Yes, Rinehart is old-fashioned, but not nearly as fuddy-duddy as her reputation would suggest. In fact she wrote some excellent mysteries, of which this is the finest. It has a completely unexpected deus ex machina; and one of the very best of all “least likely suspects”--a statement I can make with a clear conscience, in confidence that the suspect will remain unsuspected by readers until the end. See also her surprisingly bloody The After House (1914).

42. The Sculptress (Minette Walters, 1994)
An idiosyncratic choice, but every list-maker has to be allowed at least one. As one reviewer said, the plot “strains credulity,” and it does meander, but the character of convicted murderess Olive Martin and the relationship between her and investigative author Roz Leigh, as well as the shocking conclusion of that relationship are, for this reader, unforgettable.

43. Trent’s Last Case (E. C. Bentley, 1913)
Yet another classic from “The Golden Age;” I could easily be persuaded to rank it higher than Strong Poison. And another “last case,” but Philip Trent has quite a different motive for making it his last than Drury Lane did. Trent wears his heart all over his sleeve as the noose tightens slowly but surely around–you guessed it.

44. The Amazing Web (Harry Stephen Keeler, 1929)
Keeler was an amazing web-spinner. His specialty lay in pulling incredible coincidences out of apparently unrelated hats, one after another, and then making them all come together at the end. The idea in his books was not to make the reader think “It could really have happened like this,” but rather to say, “Look what I’m going to do! I’m going to start with a butterfly flapping its wings in China (well, not literally), and an ad looking for 1200 men with suitcases to come to a certain place at a certain time, and move on to the last flight of Amelia Earhart (an uncanny prefiguring), and have a woman save a child’s life while its father is visiting the prison in which she’s incarcerated, and wind up with an innocent but apparently doomed man on trial in a Chicago courtroom, and, and, and–and in some bizarre fashion of which I am in total control it will all work out into one exciting story!” And so it does. This is his best.

45. The List of Adrian Messenger (Philip McDonald, 1958)
Written 27 years after Warrant for X; that’s quite a career. A plane goes down in the Atlantic; a dying man whispers “New broom sweeps clean” to a rescuer. Bodies pile up one after another all over Great Britain; what is happening, and why, and who will be next? Made into a tremendously exciting film by John Huston; it would be a shame not to see it on the big screen.

46. The Bone Collector (Jeffrey Deaver, 1997)
This was Deaver’s first novel featuring brilliant forensic scientist Lincoln Rhyme, a police consultant who is wheelchair bound because totally paralyzed from the neck down (think Christopher Reeve); and his tough-as-nails police detective legwoman Amelia Sachs (played by Angelina Jolie in the film, but Uma Thurman in her Kill Bill persona fits the book’s description of a former model better: more legs, less bust). Together they are a gender-bending revision of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Then why no Stout on this list? To borrow a concept from baseball statistician Bill James, comparisons of career performance (Mays over Mantle) and peak performance (Mantle well over Mays) may give quite different results. Stout plays Mays to Deaver’s Mantle: an illustrious career, but no single performance as memorable as this one. The scene in which Sachs comes racing to Rhyme’s rescue is wonderfully cinematic.

47. The Thirty-Seventh Hour (Jodi Compton, 2005)
A noticeable omission from this list is any representative of the traditional “damsel in distress” genre. That is because I find such books very irritating–and that’s the best of them. Why doesn’t she just call a cop and get on with it? However, in a recent (“post-feminist”?) version, the woman in question is a tough cop, or prosecuting attorney, and not just herself but the law she’s supposed to uphold, and the integrity of her performance in that role, are in peril. Jilliane Hoffman, April Smith (Good Morning, Killer), and Robin Burcell are good at this genre, but Compton is the best of all. The sequel, Sympathy Among Humans, is equally chilling.

48. Sacred (Dennis Lehane, 1997).
It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a detective story rather than a thriller, perhaps, but it’s my favorite Lehane, and as in all his books its darkness is blood-curdling. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are one of the great male/female partnerships, and this book contains the most exciting moment of their partnership. Darkness Take My Hand and Prayers for Rain would do almost as well. It might rank higher, but I haven’t reread it yet.

49. No Defense (Kate Wilhelm, 2000).
Erle Stanley Gardner and Perry Mason move over, Kate Wilhelm is now the number one author of courtroom dramas. In this one of her (so far) nine cases, “Death Qualified” Oregon attorney Barbara Holloway fights the political establishment, the legal powers-that-be, and a dangerous crime lord to save the life of an innocent defendant: a typical day’s work for her. Her cross-examinations are brilliant, without Mason’s histrionics, and her out-of-court maneuverings tough and adventurous. In an earlier incarnation, Wilhelm was a topflight writer of sci-fi and intriguing novels of what might (or might not) be the occult.

50. The Whispering Wall (Patricia Carlon, 1969)
In this instant classic by an Australian writer who is too little known here, a bedridden stroke victim who cannot move or speak overhears a murder plot; she can only communicate by blinking. Wow! Like Sorry Wrong Number it’s not really a detective story, but in figuring out how she’s going to “act” to thwart the plot the helpless woman plays the role of a great detective.

Additional Thoughts:

The worst part of list-making is having to stop. Not in fact being able to stop here, I will mention, in addition to the parenthetical inserts above, some works omitted merely because the number “50" looks so definitive. Anything beyond what can be written with one Roman numeral unfortunately suggests that, as E. B. White wrote in his parody of Archibald MacLeish’s poetry, “I could go on like this forever.”
In no particular order, then, I recommend Elizabeth Sanxay Holden’s The Blank Wall (recently a good movie starring Tilda Swinton); Vera Caspary’s Laura (1943; one instance where you won’t lose much if you see the film version, with beautiful Gene Tierney as Laura, instead); Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting Room Floor (1936), a version of the “unreliable narrator” plot that questions the genre’s generally unquestioned assumption of determinacy; Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s D’Entre les Morts (1954), the source for Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Gaston Leroux’s fin-de-siecle genre-bending roman policier, The Mystery of the Yellow Room (La Mystere de la Chambre Jaune); Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1936), with Vane as the detective instead of Wimsey; and Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man, a dual personality roman-a-clef that takes place at Smith College, and so cannot go unmentioned by me.
I also tentatively add Katherine V. Forrest’s Apparition Alley (1997), in which lesbian detective Kate Delafield investigates a shooting (her own) for which a homophobic cop is being framed, while another cop who was on the verge of outing gay and lesbian (LAPD) officers is murdered. Unfortunately, Forrest interrupts the action every few chapters for bouts of hard-core sexual coupling, a la contemporary romance fiction (think Nora Roberts); but if you don’t enjoy that kind of prose, those scenes are narratively irrelevant and can easily be skipped. Still, an all-time mystery--especially for those who dislike the LAPD. As who doesn’t?
All these additions and afterthoughts aside, however, for real mystery buffs the simple truth is that there can never be too much John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, so more needs to be said about that prolific author. Ignoring those of his works that contain a little too much great-detective-whimsy, cheesy atmospherics, or uninspiring romances, still leaves, at a minimum, The Judas Window (featuring a surprisingly good courtroom climax), It Walks by Night, The Lost Gallows, Seeing is Believing, The Plague Court Murders, The Nine Wrong Answers, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Ten Teacups–better stop now; after that you’re on your own. Generally speaking, the early Inspector Bencolin mysteries are the best. Sir Henry Merrivale behaves with slightly more annoying buffoonery than Dr. Gideon Fell, but it doesn’t really matter any more than Katherine V. Forrest’s sexual excursions do.

As for Agatha Christie, there can certainly be too much of her, but still there are several more of her books that ought to be read, even if one has to hold one’s nose at the silliness of Poirot and the blithering idiocy of his “Watson,” Jeff Hastings. My choices for the best of the rest are Toward Zero (no Poirot), Peril at End House, The ABC Murders, and The Clocks. Still and all, if like me you prefer 5th Avenue family mansions and jiggery-pokery about rare books to rural English family manses and small town murders, then I’d recommend going further into Elizabeth Daly before going on with Christie. Can’t get too much Daly.

Finally, apologetically, it’s obvious that there are very few non-English language works on this list of recommendations. That’s as it has to be. Though the detective story originates in France as well as in England, few French mysteries make their way across the Channel, let alone the Atlantic; that is even truer of other literatures. As with films, the American mass market establishes a huge cultural discount for works that can make it in the English language generally and the U.S. in particular.
Still, in addition to those already mentioned, look for Elisabet Peterzen’s The Last Draw (Sweden–women will love it, it will make men squirm); man-about-Europe Nicholas Freeling’sThe The King of the Rainy Country and Because of the Cats; and Peter Haug’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Denmark). The most noteworthy omissions from this now-extended catalog are the Inspector Maigret mysteries of the prolific Georges Simenon, and the two Wilkie Collins classics, The Woman in White and The Moonstone. As to the former, I haven’t found any of the Maigret books to be individually memorable (perhaps that’s my problem); see the Mays/Mantle comparison above. As for Collins, I thought The Moonstone was lengthily boring. And though I loved The Woman in White as a teenager, and Marian Halcombe is certainly one of the most powerful female characters in all of fiction, when I tried to reread it recently I just couldn’t get past page twenty. But any women (especially) reading this should absolutely try it.

Most of the books listed here are available at a good mystery bookstore; if one isn’t available to you, all the books are available from Amazon or Powell Books or abebooks.com

Post-Script: I’ve just finished reading Carol O’Connell’s Find Me, the 9th Mallory. A picaresque novel as well as a mystery, it’s dazzling, gripping, inventive, astonishing, with a heroine who raises the heroism bar. Not the kind of book you can’t put down, but the other–superior--kind, which you can’t bear to keep reading because you might finish and you never want to get to the end, an end that might be both too heartbreaking and too soon. Perhaps I should overcome my reluctance to resort to the rhetoric of “the best.” Publisher’s Weekly, after all, says O’Connell “sets the standard.” Very true.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

killing dragons, torturing terrorists (revised)

A simple yet fundamental question presents itself under the rubric of “rules of war.” Can it ever be morally rightful, can it ever be accepted as legitimate, to execute a dragon on sight, without first attempting to inquire as to whether its intentions toward humans are peaceful; whether it means no harm; or at least whether it can be captured and caged without posing an unacceptably grave threat?

The question surely answers itself. We know, all of us, that there is no such thing as a peaceful or well-intentioned or harmless dragon; such exists only in the fantasies of pacifists and other hopeless idealists, who always wind up doing more harm than good in the name of their “principles.” Dragons are, without exception, mortal enemies of humankind; anyone who attempted to “establish communication” with one would be incinerated before the first word was out of her mouth. Only nervous nellies and girlie-boys refuse to face this simple truth.

There is, to be sure, one problem with the argument I have just made. There are no dragons; never have been. Ils n’existent pas. But then why, an impatient reader might be demanding, have I just been arguing about non-existent dragons in an essay that is supposed to be about torture. What can the two things possibly have to do with each other?

Actually, everything.

Let us consider three putative “enemies:” dragons, aliens who abduct humans into their spaceships, and terrorists who will cause massive destruction if they are not tortured into a timely revelation of their nefarious schemes. These all have one crucial thing in common: never in recorded history has any one of them been known to exist.

To be fair, historically torturers are not totally without their accomplishments. In perhaps the most well-known instance, the Gestapo captured two ill-trained British spies and tortured them into revealing their network, which it then rolled up. And there may have been other instances in occupied Europe in which the Gestapo successfully tortured spies and resistants at some cost to their colleagues.

And because of these signal successes, Nazi Germany was finally able to...destroy the French Resistance; repel the Normandy landings; win World War II...
...well, no. Maybe kill a few dozen more people than it would have killed anyway.

Wow! Glory be. Praise Allah.

The intellectual handmaidens of torture–John Yoo, Alan Dershowitz, the cynical utilitarian Judge Richard Posner–will instantly spot the flaw in this argument and leap into the breach: they only mean to justify torture that will prevent “mass murder,” not be its accomplice. Except, unfortunately, that is not what they are about. Can they really believe, e.g., that Mohammed Atta, had he been picked up in New Hampshire and tortured (in the real Gestapo way, not the timid water-boarding and fingernail-pulling that our heroes advocate), would have revealed the destination at which he fully intended to blow himself to bits an hour later? That a suicide bomber is afraid of pain? That a fanatical terrorist who intends, say, to detonate a nuclear weapon in New York City will be sitting peacefully in Philadelphia waiting to make this happen? After having sent a detailed map of his plans, complete with maps and time-tables, to his colleagues in Afghanistan just in case they are captured, perhaps? This is all the most total nonsense, of course. The discourse of torture has nothing to do with Judge Posner’s ridiculous calculations of cost and benefit. There is something much larger at stake: an attempt to destroy moral limits in the name of naked (American) power. Nothing less.

And the attempt is succeeding. Critics of the torture complex, ignored by the mainstream mass media, play catch-up with the fait accompli and its spokesmen. At best, we get “both sides of the debate" (see, e.g., Sanford Levinson’s Torture: a Collection), letting us know that we're already living in a morally degenerate society. It might as well be a place where Holocaust deniers are not only granted equal time and a polite hearing, but set the tone of the discussion. There is no “other side.” (I remember being told of a Rotary Club meeting at which, having listened to a presentation about the nature and extent of wife-beating, a man in the audience asked if they were going “to hear the other side.”) The argument “for” torture illustrates only the depths to which persons of higher than average accomplishments–not just professors, judges, and legal bureaucrats, but also their post-deserting, draft-dodging bosses in the White House and its vicinity–can sink in the pursuit of their private fantasies of unrealized masculinity. The minor accomplishments of the Gestapo aside, in real life no one tortures to find out something they didn’t already know, since nothing the torturer finds out can be trusted as evidence, as the history of coerced confessions in police stations endlessly testifies. And of course if there were a single case in the history of warfare where torture had enabled the pursuers of a just cause to ward off a supposedly greater evil, we would certainly have heard of it, instead of all the invented stories of ticking bombs and hidden terrorists in which the Dershowitzes and Posners of the torture discourse traffic.

There is none and there won’t be, not simply because torture can’t procure reliable information but because that’s not its purpose. The true aim of the Inquisition was inquisition; the purpose of torture, whatever its fellow travelers argue, is to satiate the lust for sex or power of the torturers; none other. And the purpose of the argument “for” torture in, remember now, “only a few extreme instances”...is to justify torture in any instance. As with any other inhibition, break it down once and away it goes–and then we can get on with the real business of being tough and winning. The point is, after all, that once the utilitarian calculus gets under way the benefit–let’s say, to save the life of one soldier “on our side”–always, always exceeds the cost of doing what is necessary “just this once.” How could it not? Come on, Judge Posner: you mean we would torture in the name of defusing a nuclear weapon but, hey, if it’s only a mortar round that’s going to kill a platoon of our heroic men and women, let it come down!

The people who write this crap can’t possibly believe it themselves, although perhaps the intellectual fellow travelers of American Caesarism really fall for their own ideological siren song. Practical men of affairs suffer from no such illusions. Witness the enthusiastic endorsement by the Justice Department’s torture brigade–Albert Gonzalez, David Addington, Jay Bybee–of all torture, all the time, anywhere, under the guise of “necessity” and “self-defense;” not to mention the welcoming embrace of the War-Criminal-in-Chief and his Vice-Criminal. And why not? Other than hard-core sadistic psychopaths, who ever commits an act of brutal violence that isn’t either “necessary” or in “self-defense?”The academic purveyors of the lust to inflict pain are simply men who can only satisfy that lust in their brains, and who can only prove their masculinity by winning on paper battles that they have never won in life. Never fired on a man who aimed a loaded weapon at them; never entered a burning building to save a trapped child; never won a fistfight against a truly tough guy. Like that purveyor of fantasized masculinity Harvey Mansfield, Jr., they can only show their manhood to a skeptical world by imagining it. Some of those imaginaries may be relatively harmless; but the imagination of torture enables–encourages--true evil, the repressed voice that longs for realization, to bubble up from the depths and present itself as good; and in that it is one of the worst evils of all. The apologists for torture should be shunned as one would shun an advocate of child molestation in the name of "love"–they are at the same ethical level, not one whit higher. Not one.