Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What Constitutes a Classic in Crime Fiction?

Someone said on a post last week that perhaps Elmore Leonard was not really a classic mystery writer. Is it Golden Age writers that wear that hat?

How would you define "classic?" Is it an age thing? Is it a style thing? Is it the number of books sold thing? Is it a longevity thing? Is it " in the eye of the beholder"  thing?

What makes a book a classic? (To me Elmore Leonard would qualify.)

13 comments:

Graham Powell said...

Are we talking about authors or particular works? I think that you can call either one a classic but the criteria would be different. For an author, they'd have to stand above their contemporaries in some way. Their books would have to be widely acknowledged as being "better".

But for an individual book, even unremarkable authors can write classic books - either superior examples of their form, or ground-breaking originals. My own example would be Joel Townsley Rogers, a good but not great author who with THE RED RIGHT HAND produced a classic of the ultra-paranoid mystery.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Interesting distinction, Graham. It dates to a post where I asked what classic crime writers haven't your read. But as you point out, classic works can be produced by writers whose main body of work may not be classic.
So for today's purpose what constitutes classic in crime writers?

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

When I think classic "mystery" writers I do think more Golden Age. Leonard is a crime writer but for the most part there isn't the "whodunit" element of the earlier books.

Charles Gramlich said...

I guess when I think classics I think older stuff, Christie, etc. But there isn't any logical reason for that.

Roger Allen said...

There is a logical reason for thinking of older books as classics: they've lasted, which means they have some valuable quality.
The interesting distinction is between classics in crime fiction and works of crime fiction which are classics - the ones that cross over from genre.

Richard Robinson said...

My first definition of "classic" is golden age, and I think that's a good definition. Mostly British authors. There are also classics in other mystery genres; Hammett and Chandler wrote some classic hard-boiled mysteries, for instance, and there are some cozy classics by American authors as well as thriller, spy, legal, etc. But I have a hard time with new or newer books being "classic", and I don't believe there can be such a thing as "an instant classic".

Dana King said...

Depends on whether we're using "classic" as an adjective or a noun. "Classical" music has come to mean more than music written in the Classical period. If we mean "classic" to refer to the period, then we're looking at Christie and her peers. The other definition of "classic" (serving as a standard of excellence : of recognized value) then THE MALTESE FALCOEN, THE LONG GOOD-BYE, etc. have to be included.

Graham Powell said...

Dana, your rather excellent typo in your comment makes me want to see what the Coen brothers could do with The Maltese Falcon. They already basically did The Glass Key.

Dana King said...

Oops. Thanks, Graham. I'll be here all week. Please remember to tip your waitress...

Mathew Paust said...

I would say individual works. Coming immediately to mind for me are The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Then again, thinking author, coming to mind immediately for me is Arthur Conan Doyle.

J F Norris said...

I can't help but think of classic equating with age. Whether it's classic rock, classic literature, or classic crime fiction none of it can be called contemporary, IMO. For me classic crime fiction is always going to include the older books of the 30s 40s and 50s with maybe a nudge into the early 1960s.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess I will somewhat disagree. I would eliminate the last thirty years perhaps from consideration but would put JACK RETURNS HOME (GET CARTER) in 1970 as a classic. Also EDDIE COYLE'S FRIENDS (Higgins), some of Elmore Leonard, Derek Raymond's Factory series and others. I think it's age but also a book that is especially well-written, or does something new or especially originally.

Margot Kinberg said...

That's a hard question, Patti. To me, both Elmore Leonard and Agatha Christie count as authors of classic crime fiction. But they're really of course quite different. I think it has to do with the enduring quality of their work.