Being in the business of finding new writers, I am always delighted when I think I have found one, whether I published the book or not. There's nothing more exciting than thinking, "Wow, she could be bigger than Mary Higgins Clark," or "He could be bigger than Harlan Coben." (No one could be bigger than James Patterson; he sucks all pretenders into his world of co-authorship.)
HOWEVER...that is not the experience I had this week, when I had to turn back dozens of manuscripts for all the usual problems. That got me to thinking about who I miss the most -- amazing writers who are unfortunately deceased or no longer writing actively. So herewith an appreciation of some first-class, much-missed, mystery novelists.
While her later books were uneven, during her prime Margaret Yorke was one of the best mystery writers of the day. Many of her books centered around troubled families and some form of dementia or psychosis. She was at her very best in books like ALMOST THE TRUTH and CRIMINAL DAMAGE (both dealing with dysfunctional families) and in books where she throws a cruel plot twist on the last page, as in ADMIT TO MURDER. The cover shown here comes from the period during which Yorke was published by Mysterious Press--probably some of the best covers in the history of mystery publishing. When St. Martin's picked up Yorke, the covers became dark and brooding (and not nearly as effective).
Does anyone remember Henry and Emmie Tibbett, that happily married couple who managed to solve crimes on their various vacations? The Tibbetts had a marriage of normalcy--of friendship and help. They liked each other, and that gave the books a real warmth. But don't confuse a Moyes book with a cozy. Moyes dealt with some very modern issues (in books like Who Is Simon Warwick?) while building fabulously tricky plots that would've fooled Hercule.
The classic procedurals--the ones that really created the genre--all shared a similar approach to story telling: Teach your readers something about the way the police work, and give them a good story while you're at it.
Ed McBain worked this magic time and again, introducing us to the 87th precinct of Isola (literally the island of Manhattan rotated a quarter turn to left) and to the motley crew of the station house. Steve Carella was strong and honest, and he set a good standard for all the other guys (and, in later books, girls) at the 87th. McBain did it all--story, characters, suprises, pathos, usually in under 200 pages. I miss these long-running police procedurals (I miss Dell Shannon too). Who will be the next to deliver a really fine series of American procedurals?
I have always had great respect for mystery writers who write good one-offs. McMullen is a sometimes overlooked author who produced one great book after another in the 80s, among them A Grave Without Flowers, My Cousin Death, The Pimlico Plot, and But Nellie Was So Nice. Later work had some disappointments (The Other Shoe was so awful I had to believe that McMullen didn't write it), but in her prime she excelled at short, tight mysteries that twisted and turned a good amount until a surpising resolution.
In an oft-used quote, Anthony Boucher called Armstrong "a spell-casting modern witch." I can think of no better description for this wonderful writer. She managed to combined terrific, creative plots with believable characters who were just quirky enough to remain credible. Her stories went far beyond the murder mystery; in fact, many of her books had no murder at all, which is why they were so often subtitled "A Novel of Suspense." Of her trifecta of perfection, The Balloon Man, The Gift Shop, and Lemon in the Basket, my favorite is The Gift Shop, a high-speed treasure hunt that begins in an airport. I don't believe there's anyone out there today who writes like her, and I think our genre would benefit from having an heir apparent.