20 mysteries you must read before you die?

A link came round on Twitter recently to the writer John Connelly’s website, where he and Declan Hughes have posted a joint list of ’20 mysteries you must read before you die’.

This is it:

1. THE GLASS KEY-DASHIELL HAMMETT (1931)

2. THE LONG GOODBYE-Raymond Chandler (1953)

3. THE CHILL-Ross Macdonald (1964)

4. DEEP WATER-Patricia Highsmith (1957)

5.THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE-George V.Higgins (1972)

6. THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN-James Lee Burke (2007)

7. THE LECTER TRILOGY-Thomas Harris.

8. STRANGER IN MY GRAVE-Margaret Millar (1960)

9. LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN-Ed McBain (1972)

10. THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD-Agatha Christie (1926)

11. THE NAME OF THE ROSE 1980) by Umberto Eco

12. MORALITY PLAY ( 1995) by Barry Unsworth

13. THE BLACK ECHO (1992) by Michael Connelly

14. THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (1966) by Thomas Pynchon

15. THE BIG BLOWDOWN (1999) by George Pelecanos

16. WHAT THE DEAD KNOW (2007) by Laura Lippman

17. HAWKSMOOR (1985)  by Peter Ackroyd

18. FAST ONE (1932) by Paul Cain

19. MIAMI BLUES (1984) by Charles Willeford

20. THE LAST GOOD KISS (1978) by James Crumley

A few observations:

  • Of the above, I’ve read a grand total of … five. And I consider myself to be a complete crime afficionado, with shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of crime novels.
  • Does this mean that I’m horribly ignorant? Yes and no. Some of the books on the list I know I should have read (Patricia Highsmith, for example). On the other hand, there are some I’m sure I’ll never want to read, such as the Hannibal Lector trilogy. Cannibalism’s just not my thing. Which is another way of saying that crime fiction is so broad, with so many subgenres, that top 20 lists are bound to vary significantly. For example, I’m not spotting any ‘cat detective’ novels here, which will almost certainly feature on someone’s list.
  • I’d agree with the nomination of the five I’ve read for a top 20 (2, 10, 11, 14, 15). I’m pleased to see Agatha Christie included, as she seems to have fallen out of fashion recently. I still remember the first time I read Roger Ackroyd as a teenager – the twist was a complete and hugely enjoyable surprise. Eco’s The Name of the Rose – absolutely. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 – a little gem and very underrated. Pelecanos’ The Big Blowdown…blew me away.
  • But – I’d have had more foreign-language fiction. And only four women? Surely there must be more out there that merit inclusion?

So there’s only one thing for it, obviously – I’ll need to draw up a top 20 of my own. Already mulling on it and will report back in due course. Thanks to John and Declan for getting me thinking. Their list is here, and is well worth a look: each text has a little explanation of why it was chosen, and there are also some useful recommendations for further reading.

By the way, this one will definitely be on Mrs. Peabody’s list:

Historical crime fiction: Sansom vs Eco

I hugely enjoy historical crime fiction, and so was looking forward to reading C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution (2008), which features the lawyer-detective Matthew Shardlake, working under Thomas Cromwell as the monasteries of England are dismantled by Henry VIII.

The reviews I’d seen of Sansom’s work were extremely good, and I was rubbing my hands in anticipation not just of a single book, but of a whole new crime series. But I found Dissolution a bit of a disappointing read. Not bad, by any means, but one that fell short of expectations (an illustration, perhaps, of how the overhyping of crime novels can backfire). I was hoping for richer historical detail, and felt that the depiction of Shardlake’s moral crisis, brought about by his realisation that Cromwell is less than a model of virtue, was rather weak. I guessed the murderer pretty early on as well (which of course is not necessarily a deal-breaker – just sayin’).

As I was reading, I was reminded of a classic historical crime novel: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, first published thirty years ago (yes really) in 1980.

This was no doubt triggered by the similar narrative framework of the two novels. In both we see the detective and his younger companion entering the enclosed, ritualistic world of the monastery, now transformed into a gruesome crime scene, with monks being picked off left, right and centre, and hints of devilish forces at work. In Eco’s work, though, it’s the young companion, the novice monk Adso, who narrates the tale many years after the events have taken place, rather than the detective in the historical present. Interestingly, Sansom is an admirer of Eco’s (see Guardian interview), and has clearly drawn on aspects of the earlier novel for inspiration when writing his own.

For me, The Name of the Rose leaves Dissolution in the dust, in terms of its depth and erudition, its status as a novel of ideas, and its fabulous evocation of a past time – in this case, of medieval Europe. And I love that Eco, an Italian professor of semiotics, is said to have written The Name of the Rose just to show everyone that he could. Write an international best-seller? Non c’è problema!

There’s a good profile of Eco and his works here.

Of course, it’s possible that my lack of enthusiasm for Dissolution is a reflection (ahem) of my own critical shortcomings. Am I missing something here? Does the series get better as it goes along? Willing to give the Shardlake novels another go if the case is made persuasively enough…