Who is the world's best Mystery Novelist?
Do we even dare to ask this question? Can it be answered in any way other than subjectively? By answering it, do we relegate to second-class status all those many fine writers whom we have not chosen to receive that honor?
And yet--this was the question being bandied about the office this week. Everyone has his/her opinion, and here is mine. But first...what would I consider the qualifications to be Best Mystery Novelist?
1. Note that capital M in Mystery, and the capital N in Novelist. I capitalize Mystery to emphasize that the winner of the award must have contributed strongly to the genre, to have done new and memorable things. I capitalize Novelist to indicate that the person must be a truly fine writer--not just serviceable, not just good, but truly memorable.
2. Best Mystery Novelist should not rely on the same plot devices, or write the same book, over and over again. Over a long career, it is all right to write the same book two or even three times, but not ten. By this criterion, Best Mystery Novelist does not mean Most Commercial Mystery Novelist.
3. Winner of the award must do all things well: plot, pacing, characterization. S/he must truly offer a mystery to be solved, and have that mystery solved by reasonable human means, not hunch or coincidence. Preferably, s/he does not make use of the device of "crazed murderer admitting all before attempting to murder the protagonist" or other overused denouements.
4. Finally, Best Mystery Novelist must have written no bad books, many good or very good ones, and a few absolutely stellar ones that would make anyone's Top Ten List.
So, by all these criteria, who is Best Mystery Novelist?
Is it Edgar Allan Poe? No, he was certainly creepy and suspenseful, but he wasn't a novelist.
Is it Wilkie Collins? Almost. I think of him as the first of the mystery novelists, the creator of the genre, though I know there are those who would disagree. What a fine novelist, ahead of his time, so clever and such a dazzling writer. Books like The Moonstone and The Woman in White should be required reading for anyone who wants to write in this genre. But even though they're very suspenseful and well plotted, they are a bit long (as was the wont of the Victorian novelists). I can't give Collins the award because I feel the best mysteries do it all in 300 pages, not 600. But he is my first runner-up.
Is it Agatha Christie, from whom I take my nom de blog? She is certainly the best plotter of all time, and her contributions were stellar, from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to And Then There Were None to Witness for the Prosecution. But do I think of her as a truly fine writer, a master of characterization? No, probably not. So on to the next nominee...
Is it Dorothy L. Sayers? Certainly she gets my vote for the most literary, for one of the finest writers of the genre. The problem I have with DLS is that, having read most of her ouevre, I cannot help but see Lord Peter as a protagonist whose author fell in love with her own creation. He was just too good to be true, and he got even more perfect (grammatically impossible, I know) with each passing book. By the end, you'd think Lord Peter was the Second Coming. Kudos, though, to DLS for bringing us Harriet Vane, though she does owe much to Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White.
Is it Cornell Woolrich? No one was better at creating a mysterious mood, and tormenting his readers with suspense, than Woolrich. Yes, the prose got a little too purple sometimes--but the dazzling sentences, passages, paragraphs, and pages make that easy to overlook. The man created the noir genre, and he's never been equaled. But his people aren't real...they are oversized, sometimes oversimplified, even when they're sympathetic or hateful. This doesn't make me enjoy him any less, it just takes him out of the running for BMN.
Is it Georges Simenon? Certainly we owe Simenon and Maigret a debt for bringing a more subtle approach to psychology into crime fiction. I don't think the man ever wrote a bad book. But to be BMN, the winner must have written truly stunning pieces of crime fiction, and while Simenon was always beyond competent, and certainly would deserve a Grand Master Awared for Contributions to the Genre, I can't think of a single book of his that would make a Top 10 Best Mysteries List. So we must pass him by.
Is it Ruth Rendell or P.D. James? Both ladies deserve to be on the nominee list, but unfortunately they do not make the short list. Rendell is good, but her plots too off plod along, the detection element is often slight, and--most criminally for me--I find her writing to be cold, even when she's at her most politically angry. P.D. James suffers from a similar lack of warmth (she gets closer with Cordelia Gray, who never rose to the level of eminence that Dalgliesh did), but she has the even bigger problem of having a protagonist who became increasingly opaque and annoying with each passing book.
Is it Charlotte Armstrong? I adore the woman, and she gets the prize for Warmest Mystery Novelist, while also being in contention for Most Suspenseful Mystery Novelist. Certainly novels like The Unsuspected and A Dram of Poison would make most Top Ten lists. And there is always a deeper seriousness under some of her more light-hearted work. But overall there are a few writers who've done more, and done it better and more deeply.
Is it Ross Macdonald, John D. McDonald, "Ellery Queen," Lawrence Sanders, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Dell Shannon, or Michael Connelly? All are worthy contributors, but all have written the same book over and over again. To call them formulaic writers isn't quite fair, as all of them do manage to rise above the formula, or at least to put some hair on the chest of that formula. But to qualify as BMN, you have to have written stellar books, and not one person on this list has written an awe-inspiring jaw-dropper.
So, who is left? I can think of only one person who meets all the qualifications, who did it all. Who wrote superbly plotted books with deep characterization, who played with structure to fabulous effect, who contributed some of the genre's finest works, who is admired not only as a Reader's Writer but also a Writer's Writer--someone whose work, in fact, outdoes anything done by her much more famous husband. That woman--Best Mystery Novelist--is Margaret Millar.
Her works are sadly out of print, one of the many injustices in our world. (I do believe that you can still get a collection of her short stories titled The Couple Next Door, and Stark House a few years ago put out a two-in-one that combines two of her very fine works, Vanish in an Instant and An Air That Kills.)
Millar was famous for her opening paragraphs--which set up an immediate contradiction/dissonance for the reader--and her closing sentences, in which she liked to unload a final surprise. But in between the opening and the closing, she managed to write suspenseful, tautly paced, tightly plotted mystery thrillers that dared the reader to put the book down. Random House published many of her titles, and often marketed them as "novels of suspense," which doesn't quite do justice to them. Certainly the suspense is there very strongly, but the feeling I always get when reading Millar is one of intense absorption. ("A novel of absorption" doesn't sound very sexy, though, does it?)
She was one of the first, and possibly the foremost of, the psychological mystery writers, always keeping readers guessing about her characters while simultaneously developing them. A specialty of hers was making a character just complicated enough that you can't figure out, until the end, whether he or she is good or bad, sane or insane. She was writing about the intense frustrations of the traditional housewife long before Michael Cunningham did so with Mrs. Brown in The Hours. She explored racial, class, and gender divides, making them part of her stories while not claiming to have any easy answers.
She was master of a technique I call "swinging the camera." She'd acquaint you very intimately with a character for several chapters, then suddenly swing her camera onto another character to move the story to its next point. You never knew what Millar didn't want you to know, but if you weren't so absorbed in the book, you could have seen what was coming--which means that she was also a master of fair play, of setting up her surprise endings in a way that makes the reader thunk his head and say, "Of course! How did I not see that?" Every character has secrets, and when you read enough Millar, you know that--and yet the endings still come as a surprise. She also knew how to do a tight-lipped, wiseass detective, who consistently delivered a series of jaw droppingly good, cynical one-liners.
She is perhaps best known for her Edgar-award winning Beast in View, a taut, terrifying tale that strangely enough now seems a bit outdated. But certainly she has many other works worthy of places in the Top 10: The Listening Walls, How Like an Angel, The Iron Gates, and Wall of Eyes come to mind. Consider the opening of Wall of Eyes, which highlights Millar's genius:
I wonder if he knows I'm not blind, Alice thought.
Millar writes sentences that stop you dead in your tracks. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans" is her line--it's from Beyond This Point Are Monsters. "As a father he wasn't around much, and when he was around he wasn't much" is also hers, from A Stranger in My Grave. The sharpness of the writing never wavers, and the effect is incantatory.
Finally, it can never be said that Millar wrote the same book twice. She even experimented with a children's book (It's All in the Family) and a romance (Experiment in Springtime). Her editor at Random House used to say that each manuscript was always a surprise; he never knew what to expect in advance. All of this is to stay that Millar never rested on her laurels, never wanted to be tied down to a series character, which many believe limited her success. Yes, she did use the occasional detective a few times (as well as a young lawyer named Tom Aragon), but always in such different circumstances that you'd scarcely recognize him from book to book. She wrote serious works, and she wrote more comic works. She would turn in her grave if someone attempted to give all of her books variations on the same theme as their titles.
Lest I be accused of gushing (which I know I am), it is true that Millar was not perfect. (Who is?) One thing she never quite got right was romance and love. In her novels, people don't meet, date, and have love come to them gradually. They meet, dislike each other, then out of the blue declare love for one another. The romances always seem forced, but then again, the blustery marriage between Millar and her husband Ken Millar (aka Ross Macdonald) is well documented. Is this how Millar saw love--as an emotion that just is, that comes out of nowhere, and that must be dealt with? Because that's how it is often portrayed in the books.
Also, it's true that her later work didn't quite match the brilliance of the earlier work. Books like Mermaid and Banshee are as suspenseful and well-written as the earlier books, but somehow not quite as close to perfection as the earlier work.
Millar must have been a very complicated woman; she outlived both her husband and her mentally troubled daughter Linda, and at one point was the president of MWA. Long may her work be remembered and read.