The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time: Are the Oldies Still the Goodies

Having just finished the edits (Dangerous to Know) and waiting for readers comments (This I Would Kill For) the Australia Day long weekend (for those of us who took the bridge day) stretched a head with no writing to be done.  Solution?

Read of course!

But what to read? Last weekend having read the Donna Leon interview about a well regarded and awarded crime author I had never read I rushed to read the first of the Guido Brunetti novels, Death at la Fenice, set in Venice, and passed a pleasant afternoon; a old fashioned crime procedural more like Agatha Christie than Ian Rankin (or any US author, and though Leon is American she has been breathing Venetian air for some time). Venice was the star of the book, without doubt (and there was none of the violence the author found abhorrent in Stieg Larsson’s books).

This got me thinking though—particularly as Sisters in Crime just sent two invitations to wonderful events of new authors (okay Candice Fox is on her third and I have read all hers) I didn’t know—there are so many authors! And as a newbie myself  I feel I need to have some cred; I can’t know and have read all crime authors, but surely I should have read at least one of each of the “greats”.

Next step—wiki. Two lists exist of the top 100 crime novels of all time: Crime Writers Association list of 1990 and the American’s, never to be out done, Mystery Writer’s of America 1995. There are lots of overlaps—as interesting as the differences. Of course some authors have more than one book appearing.

Thirty three on the CWA list were authors I had never heard of (23 of the MWA)—the rest I read at least one of each author’s book, though not necessarily one on the list. Twenty two books differed between lists.

So I thought I’d try and make sense of it—because Wiki doesn’t tell you what their criteria was. Sales maybe?

Here we go:

Oldest?  Edgar Allan Poe 1852, then Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and two of Wilkie Collins from the 1800’s.  Let me call these the Groundbreakers.

Then there were the Unexpected Type I; not because they aren’t good but because one doesn’t automatically think of them as crime novels (eg Crime and Punishment, To Kill a Mocking bird, Rebecca, The Godfather, The Collector, and court room thriller Presumed Innocent) and those I really enjoyed but seem to be a bit light weight for the list Unexpected 2(Mary Stewart, Dick Francis, Susan Moody). I had read all of these. In here I’d also add Unexpected 3 the spy and action ones from Greene, Le Carre, Follett, Buchan, Bagley, Condon, Higgins, Clancy, Alistair MacLean, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Martin Cruz Smith.

Putting aside the quarter I hadn’t read or heard of, this puts a majority in the action/spy group. Not sure they shouldn’t have a different category. But this was a group I was well read in—all Dick Francis’s (I had horses as a teenager, what can I say?), all Mary Stewart’s (The Ivy Tree can still make me shed a tear), all Bagley’s, all Follett’s until he went historical and a few of the rest. Missing on this list for me is Wilbur Smith; The Eye of the Tiger is every bit as good a mystery adventure as any Bagley. Has he been left off because he’s South African? The MWA did stray as far as the UK and Russia.

There are then the Classics: hardboiled American’s Chandler and Hammett to the British women—Sayers, Christie, Tey, PDJames and Rendell/Vine. (Incidentally, on both lists about a quarter of the spots were taken by women, the previous names featuring more than once). These authors tended to be born later 1800’s and die 1950-60’s (okay Christie was a little later). I realized that was a little light on here—yes I’d read all the Christie’s, and the one Tey that makes the list, Daughter of Time (but over 30 years ago) and a couple of Rendell and Vines I’d hadn’t taken to. But not the hardboiled Americans and not the Vine on the list, or Sayers. So that’s what I did on my long weekend.

I started with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon—I had only seen the movie. And though Humphrey Bogart kept popping into my head on occasion, it was Hammett’s words that created visions—and I was so there. More than any other writer his characters are what they say and how they say it. You can hear it, see it, just like the movie is rolling out in front of you. But it is, well, very male, very American 1930’s. Lots of guns and bad guys, pretty much in every scene.

Chandler (The Big Sleep) I expected to be much the same but was pleasantly surprised. Yes, still male, American and bad guys, but more contemporary and more sophisticated.

I diverged to re-read Tey’s classic (her entire works, 78 hours reading for $3.19, I couldn’t resist) that is on both lists, and despite Hillary Mantel I think it has survived the test of time; it is all set in a cop’s hospital room as he gets a steady supply of historical texts to sort through. Richard III comes alive again. What struck me most was how well written it was—like real words that are fun expand your vocabulary rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator. That said, I probably won’t have much call to use Tonypandy …

Sayers The Nine Tailors I found not to be for me—too dull and her characters not gritty enough, in this book at least.

Then the really pleasant surprise was Vine’s The Dark Adapted Eye. As a psychological thriller writer hear was where what I read and write originated. A wonderfully engrossing book about a damaged family and its secrets—she kept you in by telling you her aunt was hung for murder right from the start, throws a dozen names at you, and then you have to piece it together as she takes you through time. Another example of not pandering to the lowest common denominator—these days we seem to have to know who everyone is as soon as they are mentioned. Sitting with the unknown isn’t such a bad thing…

But back to the lists—made now over 20 years ago. About time I think for a reconsideration. Maybe only one book from an author to make way? Or just accept some may be better than those on that list. From the last 20 years what would I add?

In the Unexpected 1 I’d add Donna Tart’s the Secret History and in Unexpected 3(Action) group, Lee Child would be a definite. Take your pick which one—the 8th Jack Reacher, The Enemy, was my favourite and with a serial killer, no doubt it fits this genre. Here I would also add Steig Larsson’s Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44.

Then I think I’d add a Modern Classics. This would be tricky. James Patterson? I guess (earlier, not later books). But I’d have to have Elizabeth George, Val McDermid and Tana French. Maybe Nikki French and Michael Robotham. What to do with Lynda La Plante? Tess Gerritsen? Kathy Reichs? Patricia Cornwell? Linda Fairstein? So many authors, so few spots! And not enough time to read if I keep blogging…


About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has 30 clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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1 Response to The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time: Are the Oldies Still the Goodies

  1. Not sure where this would fit in your classification system, Anne (which I like very much!) – but I’m currently reading Girl Waits With Gun and enjoying it hugely. The characters are well rounded, believable and interesting, there’s plenty of anxiety for their fate and lots of insight into the time in which it’s set (1914-15, in the US, a time when silk factory owners had way too much power, I’m discovering). Bonus – it’s loosely based on real people and events. Highly recommended!


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