#44: Who are the Kings of Crime?

King

The Tuesday Night Bloggers – an opt-in blogging group initially started by ‘Passing Tramp’ Curtis Evans to commemorate Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday but since expanded to include a broader program of authors from the Golden Age – has produced a glorious range of diverse posts from a variety of contributors and perspectives.  Mostly I feel incapable of contributing anything half as interesting as what these guys and girls come up with, but Brad Friedman’s recent Ngaio Marsh-themed post on his excellent AhSweetMysteryBlog has got me thinking laterally about something he said, and so I’m going to run in my own direction with an idea that I’m curious about.

Any conversation about Marsh, see, veers into the debate over the Queens of Crime which is rife with obviously-Christie, pro-Sayers (hmmm), anti-Mitchell (yay!), possibly-Allingham (wooo!) debate, but Brad says that his personal “Queens of Crime” included John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen.  And I thought: hang on a minute, male monarchs?  There’s a word for that…

Because, who are the kings of crime fiction?

I mean, sure, it’s obvious, right?  Except, when you get down to it, it sort of isn’t.  If we take the merry-go-round of contenders for QoC, a certain pattern emerges: the names typically mentioned did a majority of their work during the (still slightly loosely-defined) Golden Age and are primarily known as crime novelists despite having many other varied outlets for their talents (Sayers translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, for pity’s sake).  More importantly, they are acknowledged for working within the Golden Age traditions – indeed, even establishing them – and the key word above is surely novelists: these ladies are best-known for their work in the longer form of the crime story, and each produced a good number of varied examples of such.  More than that, their contributions to the genre led to its growth, to a diversity in its possible approaches and scope, and the stories they told have endured: they’ve dated, of course, but the core ideas have remained unsullied and so persevered.

If we wish to establish like-for-like parity, then, some exclusions must apply: Arthur Conan Doyle undoubtedly meets the growth and endurance criteria, but is both out of era and predominantly a short story specialist, as were G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Futrelle.  Belgian maestro Georges Simenon established a clear and influential school of thought on the crime novel, but one that was clearly at odds with the puzzle-oriented approach of the Golden Age.  Edgar Allan Poe arguably innovated the detective story, but while also out of era only wrote a handful of true detection tales and is doubtless better known for his Gothic writings and poetry (no dabblers on the throne!).

Edgar Wallace was more of a thriller writer, producing plenty of exciting tales but relying very little on deduction and investigation.  Clayton Rawson, Cyril Hare, Edmund CrispinAnthony Boucher (who transferred his loyalties to SF fairly quickly) and others produced excellent work in the Golden Age tradition, but firstly there wasn’t a great deal of it and secondly it can be said that their influence carries little beyond a relatively small circle (points like this are always up for debate, of course, which is where part of the difficulty lies).  The famous decalogue of Ronald Knox is still much-quoted (and much-misunderstood) these days, but does that alone signify an impact or a notable growth of the genre?  His books have failed to impress me in either capacity, so for my purposes I’d rule him out too.

Now, yes, there are some key names not yet mentioned and not yet excluded, but hopefully this gives you a flavour of my reasoning and perspectives.  And, worry not, I’m going to take my own personal opinions of an author’s quality out of things, so anyone I’ve previously expressed a dislike for may yet be in with a chance of ascending to regnant status.  Because, see, over the coming weeks I’m going to outline the cases for my Kings of Crime, purely as an exercise in seeing how this develops.  You will have your own candidates, and I would be delighted to hear them, but I’ve made my four choices (one for each suit of cards in the deck) and shall now attempt to argue their corners.

In true TV talent show fashion, and mainly because I work full time and want to do this properly, I shall reveal one per week and then afterwards (if anyone still cares) discuss the almost-made-its.  My choices shall, of course, be influenced pretty much exclusively by what I’ve been able to read, and that’s also part of my motivation – there are swathes of you out there who would do a far more authoritative job of this than I, and I’m keen to learn if there’s an author whose marvellous influence and delightful brilliance I’ve been missing out on.  Hey, I’m nothing if not adaptable, and nothing is forever…ask me again in ten years and it’ll probably be a different list entirely!

So, are you a sycophant for S. S. van Dine, do you marvel at Michael Innes, or are you still angry about Arthur Conan Doyle?  Let me know, and come back to see if your Prince Regent makes it to the throne room (there’s a Westeros reference in there somewhere, I’m sure, but it’s beyond me).  And, yes, I’m aware that my timing is terrible.  Christmas is coming up and people will have many other things on their mind.  Blame Brad, he’s the one who started this…

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27 thoughts on “#44: Who are the Kings of Crime?

  1. Oh my Gosh, JJ, I am terribly flattered and totally flummoxed that I have inspired this huge project from you. I promise to follow it carefully and chastise every wrong decision you make! 🙂

    I don’t want to speak for Curtis Evans, but one of the points I think he has been trying to make for some time is that the almost arbitrary decision to focus on the “Queens” – the women who wrote the GA mysteries – has sadly contributed to the waning of attention, interest – and, most important, publication – of some fine, if not perfect, male writers of the genre. That might be why Julian Symons was so dismissive, which helped prompt Curtis to write such insightful books about some overlooked writers of great interest to those of us who love GAD stuff! (And Margaret Cole is every bit a female in that group!) Your posts can certainly contribute to that, and Noah Stewart has been careful to add some of the best male writers – Stout, Carr, Upfield – to the list of authors that the Tuesday Night Bloggers will examine.

    Oh man, I sure love talking about mysteries with all you people! I don’t get to do this with anybody in real life! Such a loss! And such a gain to find this community! When can we all meet for coffee??? 🙂

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    • but one of the points I think he has been trying to make for some time is that the almost arbitrary decision to focus on the “Queens” – the women who wrote the GA mysteries – has sadly contributed to the waning of attention, interest – and, most important, publication – of some fine, if not perfect, male writers of the genre.

      Agreed, but I don’t think it’s been an arbitrary decision. I think there’s been a deliberate bias in favour of female writers. A deliberate over-praising.

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  2. Well, really look forward to seeing who you go for JJ. My own Royal Court would have to include at least one Queen (ahem), one motor vehicle with an extra r,a Steam Ship initial, and orchid fancier and one character from FRIENDS (if we include Golden Age hardboiled authors, which I always do) 😉

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  3. If we’re talking about the Golden Age Crime Fiction, defined as the period from the end of the First World War to the end of the 40s, then my picks would be S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr as the High Kings, with Cecil Street (who wrote under the names John Rhode and Miles Burton among others) and J. J. Connington as lesser Kings.

    Of course I’ve never been a great admirer of the Crime Queens, apart from Christie. I’d rate Crofts, Carr and Queen much more highly than Sayers, Marsh and Allingham. And I’d rate Street and Connington very much more highly than Mitchell!

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    • Yeah, having only just read my first Street/Burton fairly recently I’m afraid he’s not in the running, which is why I’ll probably have to update this list every few years. And I too remain a little underwhelmed by some of the so-called Queens: Christie is wonderful, of course, but no-one else has really impressed me with their consistency. There has have been some good individual novels – Christianna Brand’s The Crooked Wreath, Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair, Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar, etc – but I’ve yet to encounter anyone who could knock it out the park time and again like dear old Dame Agatha.

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      • To my way of thinking Christie is the only Crime Queen who’s in the same class as the Crime Kings. Tey, Brand and Allingham seem to me to be interesting minor writers. What little I’ve read of Marsh has left me underwhelmed. Sayers was OK until the awful Harriet Vane appeared on the scene.

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  4. Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr are definitely stalwarts among the men who write mystery/ detective fiction; I also appreciate the earlier mentions of Freeman Wills Crofts and Edmund Crispin. I’ve heard good things about – but have yet to read – John Rhode, Clyde Clason, Cyril Hare, Clayton Rawson. There books are still sitting on my shelf.

    I have enjoyed Anthony Berkeley’s works, though as in the case of Crispin I wonder if his writing is superior to his puzzles. Paul Halter deserves some mention, though he probably belongs to the wrong era…

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    • It is a shame that Paul Halter is so out of era, you’re right, but there are still plenty of fabulous authors to make wittling the list down to just four difficult enough as it is! I’m trying to find a way to give Halter a bit of blog love, though, especially given the quality of what has come out recently from LRI, so watch this space…

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  5. Great post and you definitely should write some posts for the TNBs. There does seem to be a female bias in regards to GA writers, but then I would say there is a male bias for hard boiled detective fiction. I can think of quite a few male GA writers I enjoy, but I don’t know if they would fit your criteria, though the idea that the King/ Queen has to be well known and write a lot wouldn’t necessarily apply to Josephine Tey who is occasionally added as another queen. But back to the men… Anthony Berkeley/Frances Iles should definitely be included, as although his name is not that well known now but his books such as Before the Fact, Malice Aforethought and Trial and Error are excellent examples of the genres and have influenced films. Carr would also be on my list as he certainly produced a lot, is probably one of the best well known and did provide innovation in the locked room department. I would also like to include Alan Melville and Delano Ames, as there work is really good, but I appreciate in regards to Michael Innes, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout and Freeman Wills Crofts (defo the King of boring the pants off people) are probably better known and therefore more likely to get kingly status. I’ll be interested to see which writers you select in the coming weeks.

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      • Well you are someone to expect controversy from (which is a good thing) and I have a feeling that I’ll be one of those disappointed people (not that I mind), especially considering you actually enjoy Inspector French’s investigations…

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        • You’re safe from that disappointment: have only read the one Crofts, and even then I’m not sure there’s sufficient evidence to enthrone him even in his wider output. Those beter informed than me may disagree, and if thre’s sufficient disagreement I’ll have to spend a few years checking him out, but at present he’s not in the (ahem) Big Four.

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  6. Historically, I would think that Berkeley has as much right to the title of king as Sayers had to being a queen, especially after reading Martin Edwards’ book. However, it didn’t sound like JJ was going to go all historical on us! Ah, the perils of personal taste! I would vote for Queen and Carr, based both on taste and their massive output. I enjoyed reading Stout, who was also prolific, although I don’t think his puzzles hold a candle to anyone we’ve been discussing here. He just wasn’t that kind of writer.

    Just as long as you don’t go all Paul Halter on us, JJ! 🙂

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  7. To add fuel to the fire, I think if the criterion is the formation of puzzles, then Paul Halter deserves a space before Anthony Berkeley – much as I love Berkeley. But if humour comes into play, I would be hard-pressed to put anyone above Berkeley. Perhaps Edmund Crispin?

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  8. Ellery Queen
    John Dickson Carr
    Michael Innes
    Edmund Crispin
    Nicholas Blake
    Anthony Berkeley
    Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge

    are probably the ones I’d pick. I’m not much of an Innes fan, but he was so prolific, varied and to some extent innovative as well that it’s hard to get round him in this instance. The others are all favourites of mine.

    Boucher, Rawson and Talbot have too few novels.
    Hare and Clason are a bit too niched.
    Gardner, Crofts, Wade and Rhode/Burton/Street are too one note.
    Stout I’d debate with myself if he should be added, but I think he’s a little bit too formulaic as well.

    Hard boiled folks like Chandler and Hammett need not even apply.

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    • Some excellent choices; I agree about Rawson, Boucher and Talbot, too: they’re undoubtedly awesome, but there’s not enough material to claim any overall impact. All I can say is: you’re going to be disappointed in at leat one regard…and you’l find out which one next Monday when the King of Clubs is announced!

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  9. Pingback: #48: The Kings of Crime – II: Jim Thompson, the King of Clubs | The Invisible Event

  10. Pingback: #50: The Kings of Crime – III: Anthony Berkeley, the King of Diamonds | The Invisible Event

  11. Pingback: #54: The Kings of Crime – IV: Erle Stanley Gardner, the King of Spades | The Invisible Event

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