An Awesome Blast from the Past

Courtesy the Rara-Avis mailing list, a TIME Magazine piece on the state of mystery fiction from 1978:

They are the insomniac’s solace, the commuter’s opiate, everymitty’s

escape from idiot box and cuckoo’s nest. Novels of crime, mystery and

suspense are by far the most widely read form of literature in most of

the Western world, and not infrequently the best written. Asked some 35

years ago to name the worthiest American novelist, Andre Gide replied

unhesitatingly: Dashiell Hammett. (Because, said the author of The

Immoralist, Hammett “never corrupted his art with morality.”) Yet few

contemporary critics treat the mystery as anything more substantial

than a mental pacifier; the genre is accorded scantier and less

prominent review space in most journals than the mindless TV special or

the memoirs of unmemorable statesmen.

No wonder, as the redoubtable crime writer Stanley Ellin (The Luxembourg

Run) observes, that “there’s this mystery writers’ syndrome, the

feeling that we’re really not top drawer. We’ve never been mainstream,

we’ll never be nominated for Pulitzers. The word is that Graham Greene

will never be considered for a Nobel because he’s cursed with the

mystery stigma.”

It is a truism nonetheless that future historians may get their surest

handle on today’s world by studying Martin Beck’s Stockholm, the

Amsterdam of Van der Valk and Grijpstra, the England of Merle Capricorn

and Adam Dalgliesh, Inspector Ghote’s Bombay, José Da Silva’s Rio, the

Manhattan of Inspector Schmidt and Detective Steve Carella, Fred

Fellows’ Connecticut, Sam Spade’s San Francisco and Travis McGee’s


The names may change, and some of the handpicked “10 to watch” have become near-canon (like P.D. James and Martin Cruz Smith) entrenched midlist (like Peter Lovesey, Joe Gores) or forgotten (James Coltrane, Pauline Glen Winslow) but the complaints on both sides still stay the same…