Much like you – well, exactly like you, I’d imagine – there are authors I love and authors I don’t. Almost as a counter-point to last week’s My Blog Name in Books, here is my list of nine ‘classic’ crime authors whose work I’m unlikely to ever touch again and – in some cases – whose continued popularity is, in all honesty, a complete mystery to me. I cast no aspersions by this, it’s just interesting to throw some ideas around and get a sense of people’s tastes and preferences.
As ever, there are rules: they must be dead (I’m not one for trolling), I must have read at least four of their books (to give them a fair chance) and they must fall into my self-imposed 1920 to 1950 envelope. Presented alphabetically by surname, too.
Cecil Day Lewis, as poet laureate, was responsible for some wonderful and moving work with the English language. As Nicholas Blake he mainly wrote turgidly and indefensibly dull mysteries that often required contortions considered too outré by Cirque du Soleil in order to fit together; his plots always discard their sole interesting hook in favour of stilted and awful dialogue, and Nigel Strangeways is less a sleuth than a pompous collection of quotations and unhelpful observations. Blake’s novels are the kinds of books you write when you don’t know any real people, or when all your friends are politicians (same thing, really). Lovely descriptions, atrocious everything else.
James M. Cain
Cain is the only author on this list because he was too good, but too good once. My first Cain – Double Indemnity – astonished me, it was honestly like being cracked in the face by a bucket of ice, and everything since has been a pale and disappointing toe into a puddle in comparison. I simply cannot read him again, because nothing – no, not Mildred Pierce, not The Postman Always Rings Twice, not Serenade, nothing – even touches that first peak, and the disappointment each time weighs increasingly heavy in my soul.
“We danced around like some hoo-haa boys trying to flip a penny switch while a piano-player ate glass on the sweepstake, and just as I was about to launch the ticker he took one high-handed and scrammed like a hard-time dingo dusting his wheels on a flapper girl’s curling tongs”. Reads everything Chandler ever wrote. Some wonderful quips (I seem to remember ‘She was pushing 40 backwards hard enough to break a wrist’) do not make up for his inability to simply and clearly describe people and their actions. That may be the point, but it’s not what I’m looking for!
Chesterton’s whimsy and verbosity rile me like little else; case in point, ‘The Queer Feet’ contains one of the single-most brilliant examples of ratiocination the genre has ever seen (yes, ever. No argument) but, dear crikey, can the man not just tell the story? The verbiage present in everything makes getting to his points agonising work. Gets kudos for inspiring Gideon Fell, but that was passive rather than active and so doesn’t really count. And he gets far too much leeway for ‘The Invisible Man’, too, which is surely one of the most frustrating detective stories ever written (though with a wonderful final sentence).
The plotting on Red Harvest is about as dense and amazing as they come – virtually every short chapter changes the structure of the plot in a meaningful way – but the blandness of Hammett’s expression makes it difficult for me to get too involved with his guys and dames as they scheme, fight, and kill each other. It’s more noticeable in his shorter works, I feel, because you get to the end of a story without anything approaching an interesting idea well expressed. As soon as I noticed it there, it killed his novels for me, too. Yes, even The Thin Man.
I love Marsh’s cattiness, but she’s probably the only detective author I’ve read whose books become less interesting once the crime is committed. Her detective Roderick Alleyn is pretty much just some dull questions wearing a coat and, and might just be the only detective whose appearance in books I’m mentally hoping is put off for as long as possible. If Marsh ever introduced him in the last 30 pages like Christie did with the later Poirots, it’d probably be the exact book I was looking for from her.
I don’t like anything about Mitchell’s writing. Her characters are annoying, her sleuth is infuriating, her settings are dull, her plots are hokey, her clues are astonishingly poor, her chain of reasoning is diabolically bad…I’m amazed she was allowed to get away with this for as long as she did. I’m sorry to be so negative – there is at least something that I can say is good about everyone else on this list – but the time I’ve wasted trying to like Mitchell, or even find one redeeming thing about her writing, is one of the bigger regrets of my reading life.
Dorothy L. Sayers
I know, I know. I want to like Sayers, I really do, and I love the way we started off with Peter Wimsey as this shell-shocked, devastated ex-soldier occasionally affected by panic attacks, but she increasingly struck me as a detective novelist who disdained the ‘detective’ bit. I’m aware of the research that went into The Nine Tailors, but to write a crime novel just to prove how much research you’ve done would get you castigated these days (and I can’t help but feel that none of Sayers’ peers would have been allowed to get away with it). An innovator, a lady of letters, no doubt, but I’ve yet to read her without getting the impression she’s just slumming it to show that she can.
The Franchise Affair is an excellent book, everything else by Tey (I’ve only The Singing Sands left to read) is bland, overlong, and marked by an absence of real character. More than anyone else on this list I struggle to come to any opinion on Tey’s work, because it’s simply too uninteresting for that lack of interest to even make it noteworthy. Yes, yes, Richard III and all that, but if Barbara Cartland had been the one to discover water on Mars it wouldn’t have made her books any better. ‘Significant’ and ‘good’ are not the same thing.
So there you have it. Two crime queens wiped out, the three arguably most influential American hardboiled writers swatted aside, what am I thinking? I invite you to challenge my choices and call me out on my adulation of Christie or Rupert Penny; that would be lovely, and no less than I deserve. Alternatively, feel free to herald me as a genius of the modern age for my insight, that would also be lovely. Who wants to start…?