Who writes the best detective fiction?


By Guest Blogger, Terry Ward

I became a devotee of Sherlock Holmes in my early teens, attracted by Conan Doyle’s colourful characters in interesting social situations, climaxing in Holmes’ apparently logical solutions. Then, in my early twenties I went on to read the published work of Raymond Chandler, having already watched the black and white films of Humphrey Bogart, who often portrayed the laconic private eye in many of Chandler’s stories.

In the last two decades I have followed the detective genre in China, Russia, Germany, the U.S.A and Britain. I try to avoid novels which are very violent, or which resort to macho dialogue about guns or cars. Books concerning serial killers do not attract me, because I want realism or – at least – plausibility.

Several American writers currently dominate crime fiction with their tight prose, complex plots and lively pace. My favourite authors are Michael Connelly and Sarah Paretsky. Connelly was formerly a reporter in Los Angeles, but has since written two dozen books, mostly featuring Harry Bosch. At the end of his books there is always a sense that even though the crimes have been solved, the political and social system which produces the crime continues. This is also very much the milieu of Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, a feminist private eye who also engages in social work.

Dennis Lehane has written some interesting stuff, especially his earlier novels; I’ve also enjoyed James Lee Burke’s two dozen police books set in New Orleans. Then there’s Martin Cruz Smith, who has a Russian detective called Arkady Renko. The setting is contemporary Russia, and the series starts with Gorky Park, which made a memorable film.

The only British writer I consider in the same league as these is Ian Rankin, although in comparison his plots are often pedestrian, particularly in the early novels.
The British writers I prefer are those who rely on a foreign or even a historical setting.

For instance, Philip Kerr has a series based in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s featuring Bernie Gunther, a policeman who is anti-Nazi and who just manages to survive while backing the good guys. Two new writers who have replicated Kerr’s approach are David Downing, whose books feature John Russell, a reporter in Nazi Germany and William Ryan, whose books are set in Stalin’s Russia, with Alexei Korolev as his hero. In all three cases I’ve found them all the more convincing because the historical background – as far as I can tell- is broadly correct.

Good detective fiction does not require a murder per chapter to keep the reader’s attention. The best work, I maintain, can provide a reasonable take on different societies, while still being entertaining and full of suspense. Viewers of recent detective series set in Scandinavia and shown on BBC4 will no doubt concur.

3 thoughts on “Who writes the best detective fiction?

  1. Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.

  2. Yes, thanks for that, Elizabeth. It’s always refreshing to find a writer who doesn’t just rely on plot and character but who knows how to be innovative with language and description too. (Even if some of the similes are better than others!)

  3. This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four. I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame

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