The Great American Mystery: What's your pick?

I posted a piece about the Great American Novel over on Poe's Deadly Daughters this week. It ended with a call to readers to nominate their choices for the Great American Mystery. As I said over there:

What could be more American than Laura Lippman's Baltimore, Margaret Maron's North Carolina, Dana Stabenow's Alaska, and Nevada Barr's National Parks? And few dispute that the private eye novel is an American form of the genre.

Rereading this, it occurs to me that "few" is the wrong word. Are there any dissenters at all? There are British private eye novels: P.D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman springs to mind. But the rugged individualism and social mobility that makes characters not just American, but Great American (ie quintessentially American) is imho a hallmark of the fictional PI.

I invited DorothyLers to comment on the Poe's Deadly Daughters post, because I wanted to focus on mystery rather than crime fiction to avoid bias in favor of the dark side. But now I'm asking CrimeSpacers. And let's broaden the question:

What is your definition of the Great American Mystery? And what's your pick?


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Comment by Russ Heitz on January 5, 2008 at 11:26pm
I'm still partial to Bill Pronzini's "Nameless Detective" series. Bill's a master of the genre and I'm really happy that he finally won the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America. Long overdue. If anyone knows how to contact him I sure would like to send him a congratulatory note. He doesn't seem to have a web site. Another favorite of mine is the late Evan Hunter whose Ed McBain 76th Precinct series was excellent. Such interesting characters and so many creative ways of keeping an old story fresh and new. But the bottom line is, there are so many good mystery writers in the US (and elsewhere) that it would be impossible for me to pick one above all others. I'm just pleased to have even a tiny part in the wonderful world of mystery/suspense/ detective genres.
Comment by Kevin Burton Smith on January 1, 2008 at 1:54am
If you're looking for the "Great American Novel," you're sniffing up the right tree if you mention Hammett, Chandler or Macdonald. And I love the irony of Chandler being a naturalized British citizen and Macdonald being half-Canadian. But if you're talking about the book that really, truly captures the mood of a country at the time it is written, there might be a case made for the blunt, coarse bloodlust of Spillane's I, THE JURY. Nobody said the portrait had to be flattering.
Comment by Patricia Harrington on January 1, 2008 at 12:25am
Elizabeth, Happy New Year to you, and thanks for the good wishes for the coming year. I'd like to respond to a couple of items you've posted: 1) Sadly, the appelation "cozy" that has diminshed or demeaned the traditional amateur sleuth/investigator mystery, and 2) Who is the Great American Mystery Writer. I suspect the slide into sleuths with cats and dogs who solve mysteries have made the genre seem more trite or just "entertainment" without enlightenment or merit about the human condition. I also agree with MysteryDawg who chose Ross MacDonald as a great American mystery writer. I admire MacDonald, and in fact, have a mystery, "Lonely Trail to Perdition," at Mysterical-e ( in which I have Ross MacDonald helping my amateur investigator to solve a child kidnapping case.

I had the opportunity to take a mystery writing class from M.K. Wren who wrote the Conan Flagg series set in Oregon. She taught that mysteries were set on a three-legged stool: plot, character, setting. I think setting is important and place helps define character and, often dictates or precipitates characters' actions/reactions. My sleuth Bridget O'Hern lives in Western Washington at an actual historic spot known as St. Mary's Corner (evokes St. Mary Mead, I think). My first mystery, Death Stalks the Khmer, set near Seattle is quintessential "New American" in that it is about the murders of a Cambodian refugee couple. Bridget is called in to act as a liaison between the police and the Khmer refugee community. The community is stonewalling the investigation based on their old fears of police, men in uniforms, under the Khmer Rouge regime.

It is a thrill to me that this simple "mystery" has been chosen by two different college professors as a supplemental reading text for their classes. on for students becoming social workers and the other on intercultural communication. Not bad for a simple mystery "cozy" or amateur sleuth.


Pat Harrington, Bridget O'Hern Amateur Sleuth Series and coming Golden Age sleuth, Aunt Amelia Winthrope in Murder Visits Antigua
Comment by MysteryDawg on December 31, 2007 at 1:47pm
I vote for my favorite, Ross MacDonald. Pure poetry and pitch perfect dialogue that shows the human condition of life. Hard to beat.
Comment by Austin S. Camacho on December 31, 2007 at 1:11pm
The Great American Mystery would be a novel that most perfectly represents the human motivations of a crime, the process of observation and deduction, AND the spirit of life in the United States at the time it was written. As a piece of literature, a mystery, an exploration of human motivations and a moment in American history, no one has written anything better than Raymond Chandler's "The Lady in the Lake." At least Dana and I agree on who the Great American Mystery Writer is. :-)
Comment by Dana King on August 21, 2007 at 1:51pm
The Great American Mystery shows the seaminess under the surface of almost any large, successful endeavor. It's an old one, but I've yet to see any novel do this better than Chandler's The Big Sleep.

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