Is there a well-regarded classic mystery that you’ve read and didn’t see what all the fuss was about? Why not?
by Paul D. Marks
I want to thank Cathy Ace for citing Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as a classic mystery she had issues with. As every graph of this post except this one was written prior to her piece you’ll see why I owe her a debt of gratitude to be the first to publicly take the Christie heat. Though I guess my not seeing the fuss in Christie goes way deeper than hers. So I’m ready to start shaking in my hobnail boots.
As Susan said on Monday “This week’s question is perfectly designed to get us all on the wrong foot with readers, writers, and obsessive fans.” Well, I like a good fight as much as the next person. And I like a classic mystery as much as the next person. And I’m going to assume that when we say “classic” here we’re talking dead writers. ’Cause we sure don’t want to piss off anyone who’s still living, do we?
And instead of focusing on one book, how about one author, so get your slings and arrows ready: I don’t like reading Agatha Christie. Now, it’s been a long time since I have but I clearly don’t feel the need to go back to her. It’s not that I don’t like her stories, I do. But the style of writing is not one that I enjoy reading.
But, instead of dwelling on the negative and turning an army of Christie fans into haters who will then have to feel horribly guilty, go to a shrink, spend tons of money, and still feel guilty, how about I mention some classic books that I do like and end the week on a more positive note. The style I prefer is more hardboiled, gritty and urban. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s where I’d go first.
Here are some choices, all of which have been turned into movies for good or ill. And even though you might have seen the movies, maybe check out the books too or vice versa. My purpose here isn’t to analyze each novel, just to give a shout out to some I like, so if you haven’t read them you might want to give them a shot, since I know you have nothing but time on your hands and no TBR pile next to your bed:
Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player) (1956), David Goodis’ magnum opus. I’m a huge Goodis fan. Came to him through the movies, the Bogart-Bacall film, Dark Passage, based on Goodis’ book of the same name. Geoffrey O’Brien said of him, “David Goodis is the mystery man of hardboiled fiction. ... He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and small‑time thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own. ... He was a poet of the losers. ... If Jack Kerouac had written crime novels, they might have sounded a bit like this.” And I would agree. So if you’re just feeling too bubbly and happy one day, read a Goodis book. That’ll bring you down a notch. On the other hand, it might also make you appreciate all the good things in your life more. And by-the-by, I think the novel of Down There/Shoot the Piano Player is much better than the Truffaut movie based on it.
Black Money (1966). Ross MacDonald is one of my favorite mystery writers. And Black Money is one of my favorite books of his. Right now it appears that the Coen Brothers (of Blood Simple and Fargo fame) are set to write and direct an adaptation of the book. I’m not sure if I love or hate this idea, but it’ll be interesting to see the final result. You betcha.
The Grifters (1963) by Jim Thompson. Thompson wrote a series of hard-assed noir novels and even a handful of screenplays, including The Killing and Paths of Glory for Stanley Kubrick—there’s a match made in someone’s idea of heaven. And he led one hell of an interesting life. This one’s a nice mother and son story, just the kind of family story that warms the heart and the barrel of a gun.
Double Indemnity (1936). James M. Cain practically invents noir with this book and the film that followed. Unfaithful femme fatale, shady insurance guy, trains, crutches, murder and anklets. What more could you ask for?
Build My Gallows High (1946) by Geoffrey Homes (a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring) is the basis for one of the all-time great film noirs, Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer as the most alluring of all femme fatales. The screenplay had an uncredited assist from one James M. Cain, among others—something I know oh so much about...
And just about everything by Raymond Chandler and Hammett.