Letters

Yes, detective novels are lousy -- if you're too lazy to search out the good ones! Mystery readers (and quite a few mystery writers) strike back at Ben Yagoda.


Salon Staff
January 9, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read "The Case of the Overrated Mystery Novel" by Ben Yagoda.]

My father used to tell me never to trust anyone who says never. As in Ben Yagoda saying he's off mystery books for good after deciding through his own first-person research that today's mystery novels don't cut it against the glorious past of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. No one would argue that Macdonald and Chandler are the standard by which most of us mystery writers strive, but to denounce the category completely is the same sort of self-righteous snobbery that ghettoized the genre in the first place. There is a lot of crappy detective/mystery fiction out there. A lot. But there's plenty that is good and wonderful and of literary import. Yagoda doesn't see anything of value because he's obviously not looking for it.

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-- E.M. Cosin
[E.M. Cosin is the author of "Zen and the City of Angels" and "Zen and the Art of Murder."]

No wonder Ben Yagoda is fed up. He needs to look past the airport racks once in a while. A few gems to seek out: Joe Lansdale's Hap & Leonard series (East Texas good ol' boys, except one's black, gay and tough as hell, and the other's a self-doubting hippie karate expert; their crime-fighting tends to be accidental and less than strictly legal); Dan Simmons' Joe Kurtz novels, "Hardcase," "Hard Freeze" and "Hard as Nails" (think Parker from the Richard Stark novels, except younger and slightly less sociopathic); and, if you can find it, Ken Layne's crime thriller/media satire, "Dot Con." There's a lot more out there, but that's just off the top of my head.

-- Jim Treacher

"Yagoda is full of baloney," I said to the blonde.

"Really, sport?" She gave me a slow half-wink.

"Heck, yeah," I grunted. "There are at least three mystery writers -- and I'm talking post-Chandler now -- who are still worth their salt.

"Like who, sport?" She was stroking my cheek now, standing in close. "Is this really so important?" she breathed.

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"You bet it is," I said, pushing her away. "First there's John D. MacDonald, one of the finest craftsmen who ever plied the trade; you read his Travis McGee to learn how to do it. Then there's Elmore Leonard. Sure, the plots are fluff; but when he's on his game, the dialogue is more real than real life."

"Dig it," she whispered, and tried to kiss me. I moved my face away.

"And James Lee Burke -- where does Yagoda get off dissing Dave Robicheaux? The guy is a true male archetype of our times. And the way Burke writes about Louisiana is somehow sensuously beautiful --"

"Yeah," she said, "like me," and kissed me.

Her lips were soft. A little too soft. "-- but it never skimps on the ugliness and violence that pervades his world there," I finished, and took a quick step backward.

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She had the knife in her hand, the hand that had been behind my back.

I shot her, twice. Two little red-rimmed holes. Her expression hardly changed as she went down.

What a world. I hated to do it. But it was the only way I was going to get a chance to sit back down and finish "Jolie Blon's Bounce," and still have time to take another look at "Glitz" and "The Turquoise Lament."

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And a guy's got to do what a guy's got to do.

-- Chuck Fager
[Chuck Fager is the author of "Murder Among Friends," "Un-Friendly Persuasion" and other books.]

Gee, Ben, I don't disagree with your take on the mystery novel, but I hate to be left out. I haven't written a lot of novels or won a bunch of prizes, but I think my books stand nicely next to Chandler and Macdonald. Give us guys on the side a chance to be included. Or insulted.

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-- James Crumley
[James Crumley is the author of "The Final Country," "Bordersnakes," "The Mexican Tree Duck" and other novels.]

Ben Yagoda's scathing indictment of the current crime and detective fiction genre struck me as curiously self-serving. Yagoda outlined his case against this current crop of writers by selectively "cherry-picking" evidence to support his case like he was Dick Cheney's chief of staff, running a shadow intelligence operation out of the Office of the Vice President. To wit:

How can any discussion of detective fiction that claims "it all started" with Raymond Chandler proceed with even a modicum of credibility and not even mention Dashiell Hammett? Championing Chandler without referencing Hammett is the literary equivalent of stating that Raymond Carver "invented" minimalism, forgetting completely about a man named Ernest Hemingway. Reasonable people can argue the relative merits of both sets of writers, but one cannot credibly argue on any level that Hammett and Hemingway should not be included in the discussion.

Furthermore, Yagoda gratuitously includes Elmore Leonard in his discussion (apparently because he doesn't think much of him), claiming that his main characters are serialized enough to warrant inclusion. But if you are going to include Leonard, then I think you have to include George V. Higgins and, particularly, James Ellroy, both of whom are far superior writers than virtually everyone on Yagoda's hit list. Higgins' first novel, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," can stand "toe to toe" -- to steal Hemingway's favorite comparative metaphor -- with anything Macdonald or Chandler wrote.

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Lastly, how can Yagoda claim to "have read them all" and not mention Walter Mosley? So by omission, Yagoda lumps Ellroy, Mosley and Higgins in with Robert Parker and Michael Connelly? Come on. As we've seen with our current administration, credibility is diminished exponentially when facts that don't fit your thesis are simply omitted.

-- Robert Haswell

I cannot believe that Ben Yagoda's article stating that "the American detective novel ... is devoid of creative or artistic interest" is on the same site that features Charles Taylor, who is the only writer I see these days that has any interest in elevating the modern mystery novel from the realm of fiction to that of literature. I have loved Taylor's interviews with Val McDermid and essays on the merits of the modern mystery, but reading Yagoda's excellent article I couldn't help wondering: If Yagoda and Taylor ever see each other at a bar or in the Salon offices, are they going to fistfight?

-- Russell Mead

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So Yagoda's complaint is that few contemporary mystery novelists are geniuses. That's brilliant. Neil Simon isn't Shakespeare. Sebastian Junger isn't Herman Melville. You get the idea.

-- John McCloskey

It's unfortunate that Yagoda, in making such a sweeping appraisal on the state of the mystery novel, refers to such a narrow group of best-selling mystery novelists. While it's clear that his attack is on the "big guns" of the genre, his implication is that the modern mystery novel in general is overrated and that mystery novels today pale in comparison to the classics of the genre. He really needs to look deeper into the genre and he'll discover some outstanding writers who don't get the six-figure advances but who challenge the genre in new and exciting ways. Perhaps it's the public's current preference for mystery novels and the way these books are marketed that are the real issues, and not the state of the mystery novel itself. It's also unforgivable that Yagoda lumps Elmore Leonard into this group of mystery writers, as Mr. Leonard, by his own admission, is a crime writer, and has never had a private eye protagonist.

-- Jason Starr
[Jason Starr is the author of "Hard Feelings," "Tough Luck," the forthcoming "Twisted City" and other novels.]

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I read Ben Yagoda's article "The Case of the Overrated Mystery Novel" with a great degree of amusement, though probably not the kind the author intended. I could not agree more with his assertion that virtually all of the current authors recognized as being at the top of the motley heap of today's genre are greatly overrated. They are -- and I've never figured out why some of us rise to the top and some of us don't, when 90 percent of us all write at the same level (which is to say, competently enough, but without much originality of voice or subject). God knows Yagoda is also right about the mutual literary masturbation that goes on today in the form of author quotes. That's why you won't see my name on more than three books (all quotes given early in my career) and why I refuse to ask any of my many author friends for blurbs. Frankly, I think begging them to buy me a drink seems a much better use of all of our energies.

To take Yagoda's earth-shattering discovery that choosing a book because of its blurbs leads to nothing but disappointment as a basis for declaring that "the American detective novel may be commercially viable, but it is devoid of creative or artistic interest" is just plain idiotic. Just because Yagoda is too clueless to know that marketing forces drive what books are displayed on most bookstore shelves today -- and that literary merit exists only in a handful of dusty tomes championed by your ever-optimistic independent bookstore owner -- does not mean that our genre is devoid of original, evocative and astonishingly relevant books. Don't blame all of us, dude, if you're too lazy to get out there and find them.

I am not the least bit surprised Yagoda hasn't run into a truly good crime fiction book by a contemporary author. I'm surprised any get published at all. As I told another writer friend recently, editors buy you because you're different -- and then they spend the rest of your career trying to turn you into everyone else.

Why are there so many bad books out there? For starters, because very few people in this business -- not editors, not bookstore owners and not even readers -- seem to have the patience, time or willingness to read a book for its merit. Everyone wants a hook, an instant marketing label, a neat category to fulcrum an author into so that they can make the buy-or-pass decision and then move on to the next book in a never-ending quest for the next Big Thing. And no one wants to take a chance on something truly good, because then it would be too different.

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Secondly, not one reader in 100 these days really wants a good book that makes them think. We live in a dumbed-down country filled with people raised on the mediocrity of television who want to remain blissfully stupid yet are driven by an overwhelming need to assure themselves that they are not stupid. They don't want a book that makes them think too much, or examine their feelings too closely or, worse yet, look inward at their own apathy and their role in how the world around them has evolved. They want entertainment, they want a way to kill time, they want their shallow views validated with shallow prose, they want to experience faux-emotions as quickly as possible (which means they damn sure don't want subtlety) and they want a nice twist at the end so that they can imagine they've guessed it before their co-workers or neighbors did. They want to be able to finish a book and say, "Aha! I knew who it was 40 pages before the end!" (Yeah, you genius, you and 70 million other people!)

Yagoda seems to find it discouraging to be a crime fiction reader these days. Hell, he should try being a crime fiction writer. More specifically, he should try being a writer who is dismayed with the quality of the genre -- just as he is -- and who despairs at the literally dozens of mediocre titles published each month that only serve to obscure the rare good ones. He should try telling himself every day that the measure of a good writer is not in how many copies he or she sells, but in how well you connect with your own world of readers and truly get your message across.

It's almost impossible to sell a book that takes a distinct stand on our society as Chandler did. And then, once you do manage to sell it -- when sales verify that not too many people really want to read such a book -- it's damn near impossible to keep writing good ones. It takes walking away from once-a-year, multiple book contracts; it takes rejecting virtually every measurement of success treasured by peers you respect; and it takes a hell of a lot of guts to declare that you are simply going to write the best book you can write and who the hell cares how many copies you sell? Yet doing that is the only way you're going to buck the marketing juggernaut that dumbs us all down and the only way you'll ever produce a truly good book.

There are some crime fiction authors trying to do that right now. My book club here in Durham, N.C., discovers such authors all the time. But we do not discover them by reading blurbs. We do it by actually opening the cover of a book and reading a sample chapter of it, or going online and asking other intelligent people for recommendations, or heading out to consult our local librarians because, God bless them, they may be the only people in the book business left to whom literary merit actually counts.

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I could tell Yagoda who some of these authors are, but as punishment for that cheap shot he took at S.J. Rozan, I'm not going to. As penance, I think he deserves to do the work for himself. You see, I hang out with the same guys S.J. hangs out with and I've got some bad news for the faint of heart among us: Yes, goddamnit, they do talk that way.

-- Katy Munger
[Katy Munger is the author of "Better Off Dead," "Bad to the Bone," "Money to Burn" and other novels. She reviews mysteries for the Washington Post.]

Ben Yagoda's article on the modern crime novel mentions a number of acclaimed crime novelists (including Dennis Lehane, George P. Pelecanos and Robert Crais) without indicating that he's actually read them. I'd like to publish an article in which I say, "I tried something by that DeLillo and that Rushdie and that Franzen, and I didn't like them. Modern literary novels by such writers as Jeffrey Eugenides, Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon are also not worth my time. They have blurbed some authors I didn't like, who have won some awards. Hemingway did it better 50 years ago." Such an argument would be laughed off the page, but somehow, tarring all genre novelists with the same brush based on limited experience is perfectly fine?

Just one example: Yagoda fails to take into account the series aspect of the detective novel. The only book he discusses in detail, "City of Bones" by Michael Connelly, is indeed a late installment in a long-running series. The character of Harry Bosch has evolved over the years by subtle degrees that can be appreciated by readers who have been following the series over time. Would anyone tune into, say, "The Sopranos" for the first time in the third season and blame the writers because he didn't "get" it?

Nothing says that Yagoda has to like contemporary crime fiction. He's entitled to his opinion, but he shouldn't try to pretend that it's an informed one.

-- Carrie Pruett

Yagoda doesn't even touch Dennis Lehane in his article on the state of hard-boiled fiction. Lehane's work (his series Kenzie/Gennaro fiction, at least) is a cut above all the work discussed in his article (particularly the reprehensibly repetitive Bosch books), and deserves the accolades people give it. He's stopped the series to avoid dilution, and while "Mystic River" and "Shutter Island" aren't particularly great, he's still a buy-on-sight author for me. It's also telling (to me, at least) that the only books I've kept from the genre are his, Chandler's and Dashiell Hammett's.

-- Nathan Lundblad

It seems, along with recent comments by A.S. Byatt about Harry Potter, that we are talking just as much about class as we are about what Yagoda calls "literary values." Beyond the simple opposition of commercial success vs. true literature, there lies an undercurrent of smugness.

Maybe if Mr. Yagoda wasn't wearing his New Yorker sweater so visibly, his words would be easier to swallow. To add to his running sports metaphor, I'm not sure I would even be allowed to be play ball in his sports complex.

-- Hilesh Patel

I wholeheartedly agree with Ben Yagoda's disillusionment with the mystery novel. I have just read all of Chandler's work over the past two months for the first time. Having completed that, I went looking for more. I read Charles Taylor's "Murder in Midwinter" piece and went out and bought an S.J. Rozan and a Reginald Hill. I made it through the first few pages of each before giving up -- the writing in both was excruciating after having read Chandler (I guess it's excruciating anyway). I have read widely in the fantasy genre and see much the same patterns. Fantasy also has a lot of raving and blathering over each new trilogy even though it's the same tedious story told over and over. There are maybe two writers who could be considered to possess literary quality in the fantasy genre, Gene Wolfe and Mervyn Peake. No, not even Tolkien makes it -- he is a superb technician in creating a big epic with a big back story, but his prose is mediocre at best. Maybe the sheer weight of his popularity has shoved him into the canon but this doesn't actually elevate the quality of his writing.

So it seems that 99 percent of all genre fiction is trash. Can the same be said of contemporary literary fiction? I don't think so (though much of it isn't something I'd like to read). But what causes this difference? It is a different type of writer who is attracted to writing in the genre, vs. one who is attracted toward writing in the general literary arena. This may select for the more intelligent and gifted writers ending up in the literary field, because they quickly perceive the limitations of the genre. But there is another consideration -- the expectations of the reader.

There are conflicting objectives between genre fiction and literature. In genre fiction the reader is expecting an escape from reality and the genre writer writes to this need. In a literary work the writer is trying to render reality the best they can (or in some way make a statement about reality). The literary writer isn't concerned about the need of his reader to be distracted from reality. The literary work may even rub the reader's face in some bitter aspect of reality that the reader would rather avoid. It is the flight from reality that gives genre fiction its inherent mediocrity. Even if you aren't a highly gifted writer, as long as you stick to some aspect of reality in creating a literary effort it will likely come off as a "respectable" work. But it would take an incredibly rare and gifted writer to write in the genre and make it into the literary realm. The challenge of providing an escape while at the same time effectively building on a foundation of reality is simply too difficult a feat for the vast majority of writers.

-- Benjamin Derstine

This opinion piece has a huge, glaring omission: Can you say Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett? Perry Mason and Sam Spade?

It's inconceivable that an author would attempt to deconstruct today's mystery authors without at least a passing nod to these two giants. Hammett led the way with "The Maltese Falcon" (1930) and Gardner followed with his Perry Mason series ("The Case of the Velvet Claws" being the first in 1933). Hammett also wrote "The Thin Man" and many short stories, and Gardner wrote the Cool an, Lam and the Doug Selby series. Chandler's first novel, "The Big Sleep," was published in 1939, by which time Gardner had written 13 Perry Mason novels, three Doug Selby novels and 20 books overall, in addition to hundreds of short stories.

Raymond Chandler is undoubtedly a fantastic writer. However, to suggest that Chandler is the "greatest" writer in this genre is opinion, and certainly open to debate; to assert that "Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald did it first" is to simply ignore history.

-- Mike Westberg

Ben Yagoda's "The Case of the Overrated Mystery Novel" is, to put it bluntly, a lazy bit of cheap sensationalism, written and published because making fans angry is the surest way to provoke responses and make it look like the writer has written something "edgy" and "important."

Yagoda's laziness is evident in that he picks only the easiest targets. Connelly's "City of Bones" is probably that writer's worst book, chosen because it would have been impossible to do such a hatchet job on Connelly's classic, "The Black Echo."

Further, while the headline mentions Dennis Lehane, Yagoda's article doesn't touch upon his work at all. Nor does he mention Robert Crais, except to note that Crais provides a blurb for another book. George P. Pelecanos is also mentioned only in passing. None of the U.K. crime fiction writers (Ian Rankin, Ken Bruen, Stephen Booth, et al.), people who are doing some of the best work in the genre, is even mentioned.

It's all a bit of a cheat, really. It's easy to dis a genre if you ignore its best work by its best writers.

-- Dusty Rhoades

Ben Yagoda is tired of warmed-over angst. Apparently, the best thing he could think to do about it was to warm over some of his own. Woe is Ben; he can't find a detective novel that makes him feel like he did in 1969.

Now, I enjoy and admire some of the mystery writers he derides -- Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, S.J. Rozan -- but I won't claim that makes their work literature. Some is, I think, and some isn't, but that's a debate for a day with fewer deadlines. What I do find strange is this: If he kept finding himself disappointed by Janet Maslin's recommendations -- or by cover blurbs, though I doubt any published writer is naive enough to believe those -- why didn't he stop heeding them and go exploring on his own? That's what educated, interested people do. They don't just buy what they're told. There's a whole genre out there, Ben, and Maslin doesn't have the time, taste or space for all of it. You've skimmed the surface and buzzed off, complaining about the lack of depth.

You're also not thinking too clearly about literature. For example, you say romanticized, sentimentalized characters run counter to literary values.

Really?

Read "The Brothers Karamazov" lately? Think maybe there's just the merest smidge of romanticization and sentimentalization there? A smidge? One leetle smidgeopovich?

But that was a cheap shot. Everybody knows "The Brothers Karamazov" is literature, so everything in it is good. But "Winter and Night," that's just a mystery -- and one that doesn't make you feel like you did when you were ... how old, again, in 1969?

"The Boston Globe [you wrote] called the book 'very well-written, displaying Rozan's ability to describe place and weather.' I don't know about you, but I'm always in the market for a good weather novel.)"

Snarky. Very snarky. Read any Steinbeck lately?

I'm not saying any old mystery with weather in it is "The Grapes of Wrath." Even "The Grapes of Wrath" apparently isn't "The Grapes of Wrath" -- after all, there are those pesky romanticized characters. So Steinbeck is out too. Dead as Dostoevsky. But no, my point isn't that mysteries are all masterpieces; it's that you make some really weird assumptions about what can't be literature.

Regarding your vow that you are "off these books for good," I don't think anyone will mind. You've skimmed the surface. Now buzz off.

-- Keith Snyder
[Keith Snyder is the author of "The Night Men," "Coffin's Got the Dead Guy on the Inside" and "Trouble Comes Back."]


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