One evening last week when the new Kubu novel had been put to bed for the day, Stan and I talked about the issue of quality in mystery novels. We started off discussing what we thought quality meant, and ended up wondering if it meant anything at all beyond personal taste. Of course, that’s not an issue restricted to genre fiction; you can ask the same questions about any form of writing, and perhaps any form of art. And the issue isn’t whether it’s commercial or not, although there is certainly a perception that anything that makes money can’t be highbrow enough for literary judges. Henning Mankell is reputed to have commented that John Le Carré is the best writer who will never win a Nobel prize. I’d be inclined to agree.
So what’s the issue? Surely the best quality mysteries are the ones that win prizes and pick up rave reviews in reputable newspapers and journals? Well, it’s relevant to look at some of the prizes. Let me say that I’d give my eye teeth to win one – anything! Even the one for the best second mystery novel set in Botswana not written by McCall Smith. (We are thinking of endowing such a prize.)
Some prizes do involve critics and judges soberly reading hundreds of books and coming up with their considered choice. Do they weigh excellence of writing, believable and interesting characters, depth of plot, and so on? Or do they just decide which book they like?
Some other prizes seem more fun. What about the prize for the mystery that the booksellers most enjoyed selling? Is that because they sold a lot? Honed their selling skills on an awful no-hoper? Really loved the book and enjoyed persuading one other person she would too?
And many prizes seem to be by popular demand. One comment I read on last year’s awards suggested that both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Child 44 deserved to win best first mystery, so it was best to share out the prizes between them. Oh.
Publishers seem to think that quality is determined retrospectively. Find something well enough written to be publishable, and it is high quality if it sells a lorry load of books. They don’t expect to judge that sort of quality in advance. Both our French and Italian publishers published translations of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Neither expected it to do particularly well! On the other hand The Lost Symbol got a really good review in the New York Times, and all the local book sellers have piles of it. But negative comments from mystery readers on sites like 4MA certainly haven’t encouraged me to buy it. And the piles still look about the same height to me.
Stan and I came to the conclusion that it was all a mystery and went to bed. Can anyone help us with this mystery of quality?
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