Thursday, April 2, 2015

An Analysis of the Lists of the Best Mystery Novels

A History of Mystery: Top Mystery Novel Lists. 

In 1990, the Crime Writers' Association (CWA), based in England, presented a list of the top 100 crime novels of all time. In 1995, the Mystery Writers' of America (MWA) undertook a similar task, compiling their own list of the top 100 mystery novels. Companion guides were published for both the CWA and MWA of these lists with a synopsis and essays.

Both of these venerable organizations were beaten to the punch by Shukan Bunshun magazine of Japan which, with the help of the Mystery Writers of Japan (MWJ), published a list of the top 100 all-time best Western mysteries in 1985 which they followed up with in 2012. At the same time they also included separate surveys of the best Japanese mysteries.

Although today, everyone makes and posts lists, these represent historical documents, illuminating the mind-set of the selectors and providing insights into what was considered the best of mystery writing. 

I am going to make a series of posts which analyze these lists to see what they say about the worldwide impact of the mystery genre and its most recognized authors and works. I have no intention of critiquing the lists for which authors are included and which are neglected.

I believe the following lists represent the first time they have been sorted by author.

CWA 1990 (in ranked order) (by author)
MWA 1995 (in ranked order) (by author)
MWJ 1985 (in ranked order) (by author)
MWJ 2012 (in ranked order) (by author)

Comparisons and Exclusions

First, although the compilations stressed novels, these rules were broken. The British list includes Conan Doyle's The Collected Sherlock Holmes Short Stories and Poe's Tales of Mystery & Imagination. The British list also includes Deighton's trilogy, Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match, as a single entry. 

The American list includes a short story/novel compilation with The Complete Sherlock Holmes, a novel, short story, and poem compilation in Tales of Mystery & Imagination, and short story collections in Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey, Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown, and Maugham's Ashenden. 

The Japanese list includes individual short stories, short story collections and the Millennium trilogy by Larsson (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc.) as single entries.

To compare lists, I have made the following choices. First, short stories and collections will not be considered. It is likely that many more collections would have been chosen if this were part of the selection criteria up front. 

Secondly, I have excluded works translated to English. These lists leaned so heavily on English-first works, that it is clearly the mission of the selectors. For example, I believe it unlikely that the CWA would exclude Crime and Punishment if they were compiling the best mysteries worldwide. Indeed, the CWA included only one novel originally written in a foreign language (Eco's The Name of the Rose). The MWA included three. The MWJ, whose goal was noted as Western mysteries, included six translated to English language novels in their 1985 list and eight (counting Larsson's Millennium series as one entry) in 2012.

With these minimal exclusion criteria, the CWA has 97 novels, the MWA has 92. The 1985 and 2012 iterations of MWJ list have 85.


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  2. Thank you for sorting these lists by author. I find that immensely useful. And you're right to call bullshit on the 'complete works'. In what world does Raymond Chandler deserve 4 spots on a list and AC Doyle just 1? Preposterous. Agatha Christie has four too, but by that standard, she should have at least ten. And no purported "international" mystery list is complete without mentioning Keigo Higashino.