To do my job, I feel that I have to keep one foot planted in the past and one planted in the future, with the rest of my body in that ill-defined space called "the present."
So, while I do my best to keep up with what's being published and what's succeeding (as well as what isn't), I like to revisit the greats.
The first Grand Master award for lifetime achievement was bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America on Agatha Christie in 1955. The three most recent recipients have been Dorothy Gilman (2010), Sara Paretsky (2011), and Martha Grimes (2012).
Something I really like and respect about the Grand Master award is that it has been earned. Unlike so many other awards in the various industries (film, publishing, etc.), the Grand Master award is bestowed with care - or at least it has always seemed to me. Reading over the entire list of recipients, it's hard to see anyone who doesn't seem worthy, though there are a few whose links to mystery seem more tenuous (Graham Greene in 1976, John Le Carre in 1984, Daphne du Maurier in 1978, Stephen King in 2007).
More sad, for me at least, is the number of writers on the Grand Masters list who are out of print or receive very little "press" or chatter. I've waxed rhapsodic about Margaret Millar (1983's Grand Master) in the past and tried via Mysterious Matters to get at least a few more people to look for her books.
I haven't read ALL of the Grand Masters yet, but I plan to do, sometime between now and the time I die. Here are a few books I've read recently by the Grand Masters (with some Agathovian observations). The full list of Grand Masters can be found on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mystery_Writers_of_America.
1. GEORGE HARMON COXE (1964 Grand Master), Moment of Violence.
When I first picked up this book, the title seemed very Dell Shannonesque, and I was expecting a police procedural. Truthfully, I did not know much about Coxe; he seemed to be quite respected in his time, but I believe all of his books are out of print. Moment of Violence is what I call a straight-out mystery. The attorney protag, David Payne, flies down to Barbados to help out his former mentor, who is about to be cheated out of a valuable property. Upon arrival, he finds a body - and the investigation proceeds from there, in a very tight 190 pages. Coxe isn't a stylist, but he does make good use of the femme fatale who was so essential to the earliest detective stories. There's very little fat here: Just a solid mystery, good detection, and minimalist description. I enjoyed the book but would have to read more Coxe to formulate an opinion.
2. DOROTHY B. HUGHES (1978 Grand Master), A Fine and Private Place.
Hughes was very respected in her day, and her talent is on display in A Fine and Private Place. (I also like The Davidian Report, but am less of a fan of Ride the Pink Horse, which I find very s-l-o-w.) Crazed psychos have become a fairly large part of the modern mystery/thriller population, but I don't think the earlier practitioners of the craft had the vocabulary we have to describe a certain type of person. But in In a Lonely Place (1947) Hughes wrote a very fine portrait of a sociopath and the forces of the law closing in on him. The books holds up very well, and I hope some readers of Mysterious Matters will consider going to Amazon or the local library and finding a Hughes to curl up with.
3. STANLEY ELLIN (1981 Grand Master), House of Cards.
A one-time president of MWA, Ellin was also a strong writer in his own right. Some of my favorites of his include House of Cards, Very Old Money, and Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Like Margaret Millar, Ellin never wrote the same book twice; the books can be long and expansive (House of Cards) or short and disturbing (Mirror, Mirror).
Truthfully, there are some names on the Grand Master list with which I have zero acquaintance: Vincent Starrett (1958), Baynard Kendrick (1967), Aaron Marc Stein (1979), Edward D. Hoch (2001 - I believe he is more known for his short stories than for novels; and short stories are not my strong suit). Sometime between now and death, I'll find something of theirs to read.
Looking at the list, though, one can't help but notice some really glaring omissions. For example, where is Charlotte Armstrong? Elisabeth Sanxay Holding? Margery Allingham? Henry Holt? Leslie Charteris? Celia Fremlin? If practitioners of the Gothic are included (Phyllis Whitney and Daphne du Maurier are on the list), then shouldn't Mary Stewart also be honored? How about Cornell Woolrich, Andrew Vachss? Doubtless we all have favorites with prodigious output whom we'd like to see honored.