Returning from a conference at Oxford, I couldn't resist the temptation to pick up this wonderful academic mystery once more. I recalled rereading it in the early 1992, after another Oxford conference, but Tinderbox reminds me that I read it last year as well. That, after all, is what commonplace books are for!
What are the best mystery stories of all time? Lists are a suspect enterprise, and I certainly wouldn't want to attempt to rank them in order, but here are some suggestions for five novels that almost certainly belong on the all-time desert-island list.
- Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night
- John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
- Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
- Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Like all such lists, mine tends to be weighted with old writers, but I think I'm fairly safe in placing these five somewhere in the top ten. Interestingly, choosing from amongst one writer's work is less difficult than I'd expected, though one could make a case for Nine Tailors , or for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold , or perhaps for The Long Goodbye .
Identifying the remaining five would take a great deal of thought. What are we to do, for instance, about Agatha Christie, for whose puzzles I don't much care but whose influence was immense? I think Hillerman fits, somewhere, but which Hillerman? I'm tempted to nominate Janwillem van de Wetering's The Maine Massacre, but I'd feel better if any of my Dutch colleagues had heard of his wonderful novels.
But the primary purpose of the inquiry is easily resolved. If there are ten spots on the list, Gaudy Night almost surely deserves one of them.
April 6, 2003 (permalink)