In your opinion, list the authors who have lifted the genre called mystery/detective up into the rarified air called 'Art.'

Most of us, I think, would put Raymond Chandler up there. But who else? And why? And while you're at it, explain why Chandler is so deified and somone like Ed McBain isn't.

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Comment by B.R.Stateham on February 21, 2009 at 9:53am

I really liked your comment about building characters, plot, etc,. That's the formula for any great book. In any field.
Comment by Jon Loomis on February 21, 2009 at 6:48am
Oh, and I have to disagree with IJ (she's shocked by this, I know) where Dante's concerned: there's nothing didactic about the Inferno. It's mostly about taking hilarious literary revenge on one's enemies--something most of us could identify with, I'm guessing.
Comment by Jon Loomis on February 21, 2009 at 6:46am
For me, it's all about complexity/layering, originality and invention, great characters, and the quality of the writing. If you're doing those four things, you're making art. If you're not, you're not. Genre's got nothing to do with it, except to the extent that the demands of a specific genre (highly formulaic romance, say, or books about elves) prevent you from creating three-dimensional, fleshed-out human characters, etc.
Comment by B.R.Stateham on February 19, 2009 at 1:01am
Agreed. Let's just read/write a good story. Let others worry about whether it's Art or just yesterday's newsprint.
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 19, 2009 at 12:44am
I really like that last paragraph of yours, B.R.

It troubles me that we cannot accept crime fiction (a better name than detective story or mystery) for what it is and does without demanding that it be raised to art and read on the same level as Shakespeare or Tolstoy. Let the crime novel do its thing and do it as well as it can be done. The rest becomes a matter of reader taste.
Comment by B.R.Stateham on February 18, 2009 at 5:05pm
Holy Moly! I leave just for a few hours and come home to find I have (again) opened Pandora's box!

Let me say this--and I do not mean to step on anyone's toes. It seems to me there are two kinds of critics when it comes to literature. There is the academician--the college trained critic who has read all of Milton, and Shakespeare and others. And then there are Lovers of Books.

The academician uses formulas and 'rules' which are, frankly and in my opinion, arbitrary in nature. Arbitrary and artificial. Almost all great writers believed they did not writing great literature--just a damn good story. 'Great Literature' was an accolade placed upon them by others. And usually these 'others' were university-trained critics who, quite literately, found imagery and depth and meaning completely alien to what the writer was trying to create.

The Lover of Books critic is, for me, a newspaper reporter-turned-critic. Like Hemingway, this kind of critic loves the way words are selected and how they flow in a sentence. The cadence of sentence-the way the words sound within the mind our uttered from someone's lips, whether the subject of the sentence is a discussion about God's Will, or about how silly men are when they are watching a football game on a Sunday afternoon, is what is important.

Great detective writers look into the hearts of their victims and their heroes. They look into the darkness and the madness that make's people do terrible deeds. Whether they just observe this madness, or whether they create an in-depth analysis is unimportant. But how they say it, how it sounds--how it captures the imagination of the reader--that's the key element. When it's done well it becomes Art.
Comment by Dana King on February 18, 2009 at 11:17am
As for the "can a mystery be art" discussion, I'll defer to Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder.:

In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently–one can never be quite sure–is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.

I do not think such considerations moved Miss Dorothy Sayers to her essay in critical futility.

I think what was really gnawing at her mind was the slow realization that her kind of detective story was an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications. It was second-grade literature because it was not about the things that could make first-grade literature. If it started out to be about real people (and she could write about them–her minor nor characters show that), they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot. When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves. They became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility. The only kind of writer who could be happy with these properties was the one who did not know what reality was. Dorothy Sayers’ own stories show that she was annoyed by this triteness; the weakest element in them is the part that makes them detective stories, the strongest the part which could be removed without touching the "problem of logic and deduction." Yet she could not or would not give her characters their heads and let them make their own mystery. It took a much simpler and more direct mind than hers to do that.
Comment by Dana King on February 18, 2009 at 11:16am
While I admire Chandler's writing as much as anyone, I am also confused as to why Ed McBain doesn't appear more in this type of discussion. Maybe it's because his eloquence is more understated, doesn't draw attention to itself unless you're paying attention.

I agree that Hammett belongs on the top shelf with Chandler, as does James Lee Burke. Denis Lehane's work can be called art without lowering the bar, especially Gone Baby Gone and The Given Day. Declan Hughes also shows great promise in his three Ed Loy books. Some of John Connolly's writing is elegiac in its beauty.
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 18, 2009 at 8:44am
B.R., the entertaining part is a tricky issue in literature. Great literature teaches and entertains, but how much of each depends on what it is. Milton's PARADISE LOST strikes us as didactic, as does Dante's DIVINE COMEDY, but both authors thought they were entertaining. Mysteries mostly just entertain. But, yes, by all means stretch the limits. That's what distinguishes great mysteries from mediocre ones.

As for Naomi's point: I don't buy the fact that a mystery becomes art by sticking a social issue into it. In fact, mostly that sort of thing (called "the agenda") ruins a good mystery by dragging in extraneous stuff. I should also add that the social topics that show up in mysteries pretty regularly have generally already been discussed for a year or more in non-fiction and are very familiar to everyone (for example, battered wives, which used to crop up in a lot of mysteries for a while). I did not like GONE BABY, GONE. The agenda I passed over completely. I disliked his awkward handling of images.
Comment by Reece Hirsch on February 18, 2009 at 7:02am
I think the line between mystery/crime and literary fiction is a pretty fuzzy one. Earlier posts have already named a lot of the greats who are clearly identified as genre writers. For two classics by "literary" writers that I think are really genre fiction at heart, I'd add "Lush Life" by Richard Price and "Dog Soliders" by Robert Stone. "Lush Life" is essentially a beautifully rendered police procedural. "Dog Soldiers," even though it is also a commentary on the Vietnam era, is a thriller about a heroin deal gone bad. And how about Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men "? I think critics and readers sometimes categorize books more by the name on the cover than what's inside.

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