A few years ago someone even compiled a list of the hundred greatest novels of all time, and I’m still trying to work out why. Why should a novel be the greatest, or even appeal to me at all, just because three well-known writers, a Booker Prize winner and a handful of broadsheet reviewers decide they liked it more than anything else they read, or it got two more votes than the next most popular of the thousands voted for by the customers of a particular bookshop chain?
And now the Crime Writers Association (like a British Mystery Writers of America, who also once did what I’m about to describe) has decided to poll its members in order to decide on the best mystery novel of all time; to achieve this, it has compiled a shortlist of the ten. The result will be announced (pause for fanfare and drum roll) on November 5th. We have bonfires and fireworks over here on November 5th; I’m happy to report they’re completely unconnected with this poll.
But honestly – best mystery novel? Of all time? Speaking for myself, and only for myself, I often have trouble deciding which is my favourite of the books I read this month, never mind in the entire history of fiction writing.
The poll has caused a certain amount of dissent. Controversy, even. Shock, horror. Not. Are we really supposed to be surprised?
I’m still waiting, and I suspect will go on waiting for the rest of my born natural, for someone to offer an adequate definition of best, or greatest.
Who decides? Who, exactly, thinks their opinion is so definitive, so superior to that of the rest of us ordinary mortals, that they’re entitled to present it to the world as some kind of criterion of excellence?
Here, just for the record, is that shortlist of ten in the running for ‘best’ mystery novel.
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Excellent novels every one, I’m sure, though there are two I haven’t read (and wouldn’t choose to) and only one I’ve read recently enough to feel competent to comment on. And just as an aside, though perhaps a relevant one, that one, the Reginald Hill at the top of the list, was recently the subject of an animated discussion between me and a fellow Reg fan, as to whether he had surpassed On Beulah Height with The Woodcutter.
So, six hundred plus CWA members are required to vote on these ten, and only these ten, to decide on the greatest ever crime novel. I used to be in the CWA, and if I still were, I’d abstain. Loudly. I’m sure each of the six hundred plus will have his or her own favourite which they feel very strongly indeed ought to be on the shortlist. What if, like me, there are some they haven’t read and wouldn’t choose to? And two Christies? Two Chandlers? Isn’t that a little greedy, when so many authors are left out?
The point of this rant? Why do people bother to produce these lists? I can’t even see that they’d be effective marketing ploys; at least two on this particular list are out of copyright, and others are surely out of print.
More importantly – descriptions like best and greatest are subjective at best, misleading at worst, and they do little for the average reader’s confidence in his/her own judgement.
I shall (naturally!) be posting my own list of favourite books of 2013 when the end of the year approaches, and look forward to seeing the ones my fellow bloggers may opt to compile. But the key word there is favourite. Not best, and certainly not greatest. As I say to every single writer whose work I’m asked to provide feedback on – mine is the opinion of one person.