A So-Called State of the Mystery Nation

David Montgomery takes stock of the first half of 2008 in mystery, and finds it somewhat wanting:

It seems like a so-so year thus far. I’ve read some good books, but

nothing that’s blown me away. If I had to pick, I suppose the best

thing I’ve read in 2008 is Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict, a book I enjoyed a lot. But it’s not one of those books that makes you jump out of your chair.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t jumped out of my chair in a

long time. I was talking with a friend recently and he said the best

book he’d read so far in 2008 was a book that came out almost ten years

ago, that he’d already read a couple times before. I know how he felt.

Either I’m getting pickier or the crime novels being published these

days just aren’t the best.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good stuff out there (emphasis on good, not great).

A lot of competent books with good writing and good stories. But the

greatness factor seems to be lacking. Surely during a six-month stretch

of time there should be at least one great crime novel published — but

if there was, I didn’t read it.

Now, my first instinct with discussions like these (and the comments section on Montgomery’s post is already pretty lively) is to fall back on the “it depends” axiom. Montgomery primarily reads, reviews and prefers American crime fiction, and more and more of the best books in the genre are being written by British, Irish and European crime writers. Let’s put it this way: all five writers on the shortlist for the 2008 LA Times Book Prize, which Karin Fossum won for THE INDIAN BRIDE, are from outside the US. It’s flukey and based on the previous judging panel’s tastes, but it’s also indicative of where the best genre writing is coming from right now. I couldn’t say how the 2009 shortlist will end up, since I’m only one of three judges on the panel, but if it were up to me and only me, rest assured Europe would be represented.

As for a book not causing Montgomery to jump out of a chair (or, in my phrase book, the Holy Fucking Shit book) that also depends on taste, book selection, mood and other

subjective traits. I suspect my year end list the best of ’08 will be markedly different

(more international, more literary, more unclassifiable) from his, and some of those meeting my HFS criteria will make others

scratch their heads in bewilderment or confusion. (Did anyone else read David Peace’s TOKYO YEAR ZERO last year? Exactly. Sigh.)

But Montgomery’s post comes just after I scoured the 2009 Edgar Award submission lists

(and if your book hasn’t been submitted, tell your publisher to get

cracking) and so American crime fiction’s current state is on my mind –

and what strikes me of particular interest is the possible relationship

between two distinct trends developing over the course of the year.

One, the crop for what will end up being the list for Best First

Novel by an American Author is one of the weakest I’ve seen in years.

Usually I can come up with a dozen or so books I think are

shortlist-worthy but this year, it’ll be a struggle to get even that

close. Unless it turns out Tom Rob Smith has previously undiscovered US

Citizenship (like eventual 2008 winner Tana French), it’s going to take

some doing to get a really strong shortlist of five. Although I’m glad

to see Toby Barlow’s SHARP TEETH on the submissions list because a)

it’s good and b) a werewolf novel written in blank verse should be

nominated by default, dammit.

But the weakness of American debuts is offset by the Best Paperback

Original category. Holy hell, it is strong, possibly even stronger than

last year. Keep in mind that a number of writers debuting last year in

paperback, like Dave White, Jennifer McMahon, Jason Pinter and Toni

Causey are now eligible in the PBO category. Benjamin Black has a

pretty awesome paperback novella with THE LEMUR, and Eurocrime is well

represented with Fred Vargas, Michael Walters, Boris Akunin and Iain

Sansom. Meg Gardiner has five possibilities all by herself. Akashic has

strong entries with Nina Revoyr’s THE AGE OF DREAMING and Abraham

Rodriguez’s SOUTH BY SOUTH BRONX. Dark and gritty fare, whether

published by Hard Case Crime or not, comes by way of Christa Faust,

David Schow, Max Allan Collins, Tom Piccirilli and Duane Swierczynski.

Even Reginald Hill has an eligible paperback original. So unless

there’s a serious WTF nominee, I’ll say in advance I’ll be pretty damn

happy with whatever list of five the Edgar PBO panel comes up with.

So what does it all mean? Probably not much. But if I had to take a

stab, I’d say the health of the genre overall is pretty good,

especially because of the prominent stature of Eurocrime, espionage

fiction and noir. But there might be something afoot on the American

side, on the kind of mysteries and thrillers this country’s writers

have long excelled at, that won’t fully bear out for a few more years.

Then again, maybe it’s all just a matter of arguing perpetually

about taste. I recently caught up with Josephine Tey’s entire backlist,

so perhaps that is why contemporary mysteries of a traditional bent

aren’t faring as well for me. And then there is the current fate of the

book I finished the other day, Matthew Hall’s phenomenal 1997 thriller THE

ART OF BREAKING GLASS. If it were published today as a new novel, it

would probably generate the same number of accolades it did back then

(especially because the book is scarily prescient and not nearly as

dated as I feared.) Naturally it’s out of print and Hall hasn’t had a

novel out in years. Posterity is a fickle beast…