Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Mount Rushmore of Mystery and Crime Fiction

Scott D. Parker   

Yesterday morning, as I am wont to do most weekdays, I watched MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show. Over my cup of, um, joe, I enjoyed watching the two hosts discuss the American presidency with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, and Evan Thomas. The host, Joe Scarborough, asked the three authors which presidents they would put on the "modern" Mount Rushmore.

For those of y'all that don't know, the current Mount Rushmore has the likenesses of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, four of America's greatest presidents. The ones the historians named are obvious--FDR and Reagan--while they debated who should fill the other two positions.

That got me thinking: who would be on the Mount Rushmore of Crime/Mystery fiction? Sticking to four, here are my choices.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - While Washington (1st president) made the real mountain, I would not put Edgar Allan Poe on the Crime Fiction Mount Rushmore. Sure, he invented the mystery story, but he only wrote 3 tales. Doyle was not the next one on the list (Wilkie Collins was certainly a prime mover), but, to me, he was the one who popularized the idea of a mystery story. And, of course, he created perhaps the greatest fictional detective ever in Sherlock Holmes. For over 125 years, Holmes and Watson in the pages of Doyle's stories have lived on and endured and, with modern reimaginings coming along, it's probably a safe bet that they'll last another 125 years.

Agatha Christie - If Doyle popularized the mystery story, Christie perfected its formula. The puzzle-type mystery was the story at which Christie excelled, and her shadow looms large over all those who came after her. Add to this two extraordinary detectives--Poirot and Marple--and Christie's place on the mountain is, um, set in stone.

Dashiell Hammett - For all the good the previous two English authors did for mystery fiction, there was a certain level of unreality to it all. Christie's poisons and Doyle's trained snakes, while entertaining, seem a bit esoteric. Crime, as any cop or beat reporter knows, is committed by normal people for normal reasons: money, sex, power. As has been famously said by Raymond Chandler, "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse." Hammett brought a rough, American sense to crime fiction, ushering in the hard-boiled era of mystery fiction and, for all intents and purposes, split the genre into "mystery fiction" and "crime fiction." Like Christie for the mystery side, Hammett's shadow covers just about all hard-boiled writers in his wake. Plus, he gave us the quintessential hard-boiled detective (Sam Spade) and the quintessential man/woman team (Nick and Nora Charles). Throw in the Continental Op and you've got a powerful quartet of stars.

Raymond Chandler - Crime and Mystery Fiction, for all the talent that can be brought to bear in the writing of the tales, still suffered from a lack of flourish. Chandler was the author who showed that lyrical, artistic prose and crime fiction could go hand in hand. When we think of voice overs in movies, with the typical tough guy language replete with the occasional simile that really sings, you can thank Chandler. He showed that crime fiction could also be literature, and he did it with finesse. That his major creation--the PI Phillip Marlowe--is, with Hammett's Sam Spade the quintessential type of private detective is just further proof of his impact in the field.

Those are my four for the Mount Rushmore of Crime/Mystery Fiction. There are, of course, other ones that are important--Robert B. Parker comes to mind for "saving" detective fiction--but, like John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Lyndon Johnson, and George H. W. Bush, merely being important doesn't get your face on a mountain side.

What do y'all think?


Anonymous said...

Isn't that MSNBC "Morning Joe" show targeted for liberal minded people?

Scott D. Parker said...

Well, Joe Scarborough is a former Republican Congressman from Florida and his co-host, Mika Brzezinski, is the daughter of Z. Brzezinski, Carter's national security advisor. Be that as it may, the guests on the show are a nice blend of people all across the political spectrum.

But the Crime Fiction Mount Rushmore is apolitical. I was just using the TV show as the background that prompted my thought about mystery fiction's greatest authors.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am disappointed they chose Reagan who got us into most of the troubles we are suffering now.
My husband, who studies this, would say that no President since Roosevelt has been very good. Not very good at all.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Excuse me. He would say Obama has been about as good as he is allowed to be. Too soon to put him on Rushmore though

Anonymous said...

Obama? You're joking, right?

Anonymous said...

Roosevelt is actually the president that got us into most of the troubles we are in now.

Anonymous said...

"Obama has been about as good as he is allowed to be"
What the hell does that mean? He's the President, he had both the House and the Senate on his side for most of his time in office. We are better than this, need a change.

Scott D. Parker said...

And, in retrospect, I'll leave off the genesis of an essay and just write the essay. I have zero problem discussing the American presidency (thnk FDR and Reagan both deserve to be on Mount Rushmore 2, because of what they did and despite their flaws), but what do y'all think about the Crime Fiction Mount Rushmore?

Dan_Luft said...

Wow that conversation devolved pretty fast.

I would choose Westlake (young Westlake with more of that founding father, early 70s hair).

Though he's only been gone a short time his influence on both the hardboiled and humorous sides of crime fiction has been immense.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

Erle Stanley Gardner.

The guy created Perry Mason, after all, as iconic a figure as you can get after Sam Spade and Inspector Poirot.

Ricky Bush said...

John D. MacDonald.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting essay including what prompted it. :)