Greatest Writers: Hardboiled/Noir vs Mainstream/Cozy

In the wake of the Daily Telegraph list of must-read crime/thriller authors, The Rap Sheet decided to create their own. I was looking at the discussion about it and came back to the same question I've pondered before:

Are hard-boiled/noir books better written than cozies/amateur sleuth/mainstream books?

Before I explain where I'm going with this, readers of this blog will know I prefer darker subject matter. To me, that is a question of taste, not quality writing. It does stand to reason we often read more in the spectrum we write in, or to our tastes, and that means when I start recommending books they tend to be darker police procedurals, hard-boiled and noir offerings.

However, that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of great books that fall outside the scope of one's usual reading.

The reason I raise the question is because list after list in the crime fiction community, it seems that the classics cover Chandler, Hammett, Ed McBain, Charles Williford and modern masters of noir such as Ken Bruen. Although Michael Connelly writes police procedurals, they lean on the dark end of the spectrum as well.

We still see Agatha Christie named... but who are the modern cozy/amateur sleuth/mainstream classic writers? Why don't we often see historical crime fiction on these lists? And what of foreign masters and translated works? In the wake of the surge of popularity of noir/hard-boiled, have we settled on the conclusion that this part of the genre isn't as good?

Despite my own reading preferences, I don't believe this to be true. For one thing, I would classify Laura Lippman solidly in the mainstream camp, and I think she's a great writer. I would also consider Reginald Hill to be mainstream, and personally, I think a good chunk of what Val McDermid writes actually falls in that part of the genre: A Place of Execution; The Distant Echo.

I've floated my own theories in the past. In the same way that the academy awards honour dramas and neglect to nominate comedies and animated films the majority of the time, whatever is serious tends to be treated with more respect. Noir and hard-boiled works, in general, delve into very serious subject matter.

I'll readily admit this is part of the reason I have misgivings about these lists. For one thing, I think every person on the planet creates their own "things to do before I die" list, and they vary greatly. That doesn't make them right or wrong. I certainly don't feel compelled to tell all readers they absolutely must read any 50 books before they die. Reading is something I do for enjoyment, stimulation, for work... But for the most part, I think readers dive into books they think they'll enjoy reading. That's the key factor. As long as someone is reading, and enjoying themselves, isn't that all that matters? Of course as an author I hope people will read my work and enjoy it too, but that isn't the point here.

I don't think anyone should dictate to readers any list... Particularly such a generalized one. Authors, sure. If you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader first, and you should know your genre.

My thoughts on this seem have drawn criticism. The cycle here is that it's okay to question the Telegraph list and create a new one, but apparently it isn't okay to question whether there should be such a list to be... Honestly, I'm more concerned by any suggestion that involves blatantly ignoring discussion about the list, and an endorsement to specifically seek out input from those who clearly favour one part of the genre. (This is posted on a forum and we aren't allowed to discuss it? Since when did the community become a dictatorship? I mean, if I don't like a discussion I can walk away... But the answer here is if you don't like some of the feedback, ignore it and talk to more compliant people?)

For any such list to have real merit, it needs to have a limit on it. It should also be divided into sections. If we want to represent the mystery/crime/thriller genre then all segments should be represented. There should also be a list for classics and contemporary offerings. This list won't be a good genre representation if it heavily features noir books, or if 75% were PI books, or if 68% were police procedurals. In order for a list to be meaningful to readers, it needs to identify their reading preferences and highlight the books for them. In the same way that someone who reads noir/hard-boiled/horror would probably not have a favourable response to Louise Penny, no matter how great the writing, someone who prefers cozies/amateur sleuth offerings and doesn't like violence would probably have a hard time with THE WIRE IN THE BLOOD or SAVAGE NIGHT. As much as I love those books, I know I'd never give them to my mother to read, for example. They would be so far outside her comfort zone the reading would certainly not be enjoyable, or beneficial on any level.

Now, I'm throwing questions out for public debate. What are the modern classics in the cozy-mainstream-amateur sleuth end of the spectrum? Why are 'must-read' lists filled with darker offerings? Are we guilty of the same sin of discrimination as the academy awards, by favouring dark fiction when we dish out our highest honours, or are we okay with saying that more mainstream works aren't as well written or timeless?

Opinions wanted. I'm half tempted to contact some of the cozy writers and let them weigh in on this in Spinetingler...

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Comment by Sandra Ruttan on March 20, 2008 at 9:36pm
Wow - and I hadn't even heard of her.
Comment by Patrick Balester on March 20, 2008 at 2:45pm
I would add Dorothy Simpson to a list of modern masters of the cozy mystery. She wrote 14 Luke Thanet novels during the late 80's, and through the 90's.

Well written, very cozy. But she didn't lean on a lot of stereotypes. Her mysteries were complex and the character development was superb. The main characters aged in real time, which was interesting. Readers got to see changes in CID Thanet's life and the life of his partner, see his children age, etc.

A very interesing, sensitive and top notch cozy writer.
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on March 18, 2008 at 5:50am
Heck no - those are all great points! You ought to write an article...
Comment by Pepper Smith on March 18, 2008 at 5:19am
LOL! Don't get me started on women writers. Women in the past have so often been 'protected' from the harsh realities of life by their men, especially you can point toward the wealthy who would have the time to write, and women from wealthy families of the Victorian era for certain. Many received an education that only suited them to being the mistress of the household and little else, where they did receive an education. Women authors who wanted to be taken seriously had to write under male pseudonyms because men didn't think they were intelligent enough to write something worth reading. And really, if you've spent your whole life being 'protected from reality,' what do you have to write about except what you've experienced, namely stories about relationships?

Sorry, yes, I've given this some thought over time and in a number of different contexts. I probably better quit before I say something that will get me into trouble, lol!
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on March 18, 2008 at 4:47am
Pepper, it's as interesting a thought as I've heard on the subject... ever. I remember in the discussion about the Telegraph list some people were shocked at the low number of women on the list, and I didn't even go there. But now you have me wondering, is it because traditionally (not saying this is correct, but traditionally) was the view that women wrote nice mushy love stories instead of "serious" works? What makes Jane Eyre a classic that's still read, as opposed to... some forgotten work? I guess that could be debated all day, but it's interesting. Trying to figure out that side of the business is something that I suppose could take a lifetime, and you'd probably still not come up with any concrete answers.

You gave me a lot to think about, though. Thank you.
Comment by Pepper Smith on March 18, 2008 at 1:45am
I have to admit that most of what's listed on the best-of lists, I've never read. I'm not that into noir. My favorite authors are Elizabeth Peters and Dick Francis.

I have thoughts rolling around in my head on why there's such a drive toward being seen as 'serious' in making out the lists and awards, but I haven't figured out how to put it into words yet. I wonder if it isn't in part that intellectual pursuits have always, to some degree, been looked down on as frivolous because only the idle rich could afford to indulge in them in the past. To justify an interest in such time-wasters as reading fiction, you had to be able to prove that there was some 'serious' aspect that could benefit you, otherwise, you'd be kicked back out into the world to dig that ditch, or plow that field, or milk that cow, or whatever other physical labor you might care to come up with. Some cultural things hang on long after the reason for them has disappeared.

Could it be some sort of cultural guilt over intellectual pursuits that entertain and amuse, rather than teaching serious lessons?

Just a thought, anyway.

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