Crime fiction titles destined for classic status

August 21, 2012 at 11:00 am (books, Mystery fiction)

What would such  a list look like?



The July 27 Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition featured John Lanchester’s selection of five mysteries that will stand the test of time. (You’ll have to take my word for it that that was the exact title of the article – the online iteration rather annoyingly bears only the title “Five Best.”) Mr. Lanchester, a British journalist and writer, is obviously a man of strong opinions bluntly expressed. His method of praising Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is to slam the author rather strongly -” Her prose is flat and formulaic, her plots are lavishly riddled with holes….” –  before making a grudging allowance for her cleverness.

He then goes on to mete out more or less the same treatment to the author of his second selection, Gaudy Night: “When I say that some of Agatha Christie’s more ambitious contemporaries wrote prose that has gone stale, Dorothy Sayers is a prime example.” As for the novel itself, it is, in his estimation, “a fascinating and at times fascinatingly bad book….”

Lanchester’s third choice is Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. There’s nary a putdown in his annotation of this title. (What a relief!) I’m a great fan of the ten procedurals crafted by this gifted duo, so I was glad to see Roseanna on this admittedly quirky list. Frances has chosen The Terrorists for our next Usual Suspects discussion. I just finished it and liked it a great deal.

The next novel selected by Lanchester is Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith. I haven’t read this; in fact, I haven’t read anything by Martin Cruz Smith, an omission that I should probably remedy.

Last but least is The Broken Shore by Australian novelist Peter Temple. I wrote about this book shortly after reading it in 2007. I recalled liking it despite some reservations, so I went back and reread that entry. Lanchester praises The Broken Shore in particular for its  vividly rendered Down Under setting, rightly observing that  “As the audience for the genre has become more and more global, the books that have done best are those with the strongest and most particular sense of place.”

Now it seems to me that with regard to the first two titles on Lanchester’s list, classic status has already been achieved. (As for me, I’m still reeling from that slap at Gaudy Night, one of my all time favorite novels.) Probably the same could be said of Roseanna, written in 1965 and published here in 1967. The site for the Salomonsson Agency, Swedish publisher of the Martin Beck procedurals, features a tribute to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.


So, moving on from John Lanchester’s somewhat eccentric take on the genre, what titles would figure on a predictive list of future crime fiction classics? Speaking for myself (and who else would I be speaking for in this space?), I nominate the following, in no particular order:

Cop To Corpse and Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey (Really, almost any novel by this master could be creditably placed on the list.) 

Before the Poison and In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter (Several other titles in the Morse series would do equally well. This one was his 1992 Gold Dagger winner.)

Judgement in Stone and A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell (What no Wexfords? I love them all equally and could not decide….)

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine

A Certain Justice and A Taste  for Death by P.D. James

The Zebra-Striped Hearse and The Underground Man by Ross MacDonald

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Suffer the Little Children and The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

   The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith – Also just about any of the Precious Ramotswe novels.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

The Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters 

Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio

An Air That Kills and The Mortal Sickness, the first two novels in the Lydmouth series by Andrew Taylor (They’re the only ones I’ve read so far. I hope to read all of them, in time.)

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly

One of the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker (How I do miss him! Ace Atkins is stepping in to continue the Spenser series, though, and I hear good things about his first offering, Lullaby.)

He Who Fears the Wolf and The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum 

Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block 

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard

Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor     

The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin, a terrific novel that came out in 1946 and should be brought back into print and read and enjoyed by all right thinking fans of crime fiction!

I know – I’ve left out plenty of worthy titles. But this is as  far as I’m going with this for now. I’d be happy to hear from other crime fiction fans on this subject.


For quite a few years now, I’ve been consulting the list of the 50 best mystery novels compiled by Wyatt James, who wrote under the rather quaint nom de plume of Grobius Shortling. ( While at this location, be sure to click on Desert Island mysteries as well. The annotations are brief but insightful.)

Louise Penny

Gianrico Carofiglio

Colin Dexter inscribing my copy of The Jewel That Was Ours at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, 2006

Baroness James of Holland Park (P.D. James)

Robert B. Parker

Tribute was paid to the life and work of Robert B. Parker in a memorial at Boston University. I would like to have seen this exhibit.


  1. Maxine said,

    I’ve read a few books by Martin Cruz Smith when they were first published, ages ago. His first, Gorky Park, was a huge success, largely because it opened a window to a society (Russia in the former Soviet Union) which we knew nothing about, as well as being a great detective story. Polar Star is the follow-up, featuring the same detective, good but nothing like as good as Gorky Park. Then I read a third & gave up after that. I am not sure how Gorky Park would seem now, when times are so different and thrillers set in Russia are two a penny!

    Roseanna is a classic, in my view, but not necessarily on its own, it is best viewed as part of the ten-book Martin Beck series “The Story of a Crime”, which builds up the author’s thesis (an indictment of post-war Swedish society) under the guise of a different crime genre in each one. Brilliant.

    Broken Shore is brilliant. Peter Temple must be about the best writer of all contemporary crime fiction authors.

    As you write, the other two are such old favourites, they make the list seem a bit schizophrenic (golden age or modern?) But all these lists just boil down to personal taste in the end.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for this, Maxine. You’re right about taste being unique to each reader.

      I do remember when Gorky Park came out, what an enormous impression it made. I probably should have read it then. As you say, it might not have the same impact in this very changed world we now inhabit.

      I agree with you about the Martin Beck series. One of my goals as a crime fiction reader is to read all of them, although now that I’ve read The Terrorists – which I thought was just terrific – I’d be backtracking in the series.

  2. Elizabeth said,

    Thanks for this list! I do not know some of the titles.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      You’re very welcome, Elizabeth. I hope you derive some reading pleasure from the list.

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