Short-story writer and popular-fiction fan Kevin Mims is back this week talking about seminal years in crime fiction and making a case for the greatest one of all. —Janet Hutchings
What was the greatest year in the history of crime fiction? Obviously the question can’t be answered definitively. You could look at the number of great crime writers born in a particular year. You could look at the number of high-quality crime novels published in a particular year. You could argue that 1841, the year of publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” regarded as the first modern detective tale, is the most important year in the history of crime fiction. You could argue that 1887, the year in which Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance, was the greatest year in the history of crime fiction. Depending upon your criteria, you could probably make a case for any number of years.
Take a look at 1953, for instance. It was the year in which Raymond Chandler published his final novel (The Long Good-bye) and Ira Levin and Ian Fleming published their first (A Kiss Before Dying and Casino Royale, respectively). Also published in that year were Ellery Queen’s The Scarlet Letters, Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral and A Pocket Full of Rye, John Dickson Carr’s The Cavalier’s Cup, Roald Dahl’s Someone Like You, Rex Stout’s The Golden Spiders, and Jim Thompson’s Savage Night. What’s more, 1953 brought the debut of several excellent thrillers for the stage, including Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, and Emlyn Williams’ Someone Waiting (which was the source of the classic 1957 film noir Time Without Pity).
To make my case for 1975 as the greatest year in the history of crime fiction, I will first direct your attention to Publishers Weekly’s list of the ten best-selling novels in the U.S. for 1975. The number-one bestseller of the year was E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. You could classify the book as a literary novel or historical novel, but it is most definitely a crime novel as well, one that mixes historical figures (Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, etc.) with a cast of equally fascinating fictional characters. Two murderers figure prominently in the story. One is wealthy and white (Harry Thaw, the real-life killer of famed New York City architect Stanford White); the other is a black musician named Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who goes on a killing spree after a dangerous run-in with a group of racist firemen in New Rochelle, New York, indirectly leads to the death of his fiancée. By the end of the novel, only one of those two killers has escaped being punished for his crime (I’ll let you guess which). Despite stiff competition from a lot of well-known crime writers, Doctorow ended up writing the single most chilling sentence to appear in a crime novel that year. As one of his characters is being tommy-gunned to death by New York City cops, Doctorow writes: The body jerked about the street in a sequence of attitudes as if it were trying to mop up its own blood. Try getting that image out of your head.
Number two on the 1975 bestsellers list was The Moneychangers by Arthur Hailey. Like many of Hailey’s other novels (Airport, Hotel, etc.) the novel is an exploration of an entire industry (in this case, banking). Banks, of course, are filled with money. And, money being the root of all evil, a novel about banking is sure to be filled with crime. One of Hailey’s main characters is Miles Eastin, a bank teller who goes to jail for committing fraud. In jail he is gang-raped. When he gets out of jail, his former employers at the bank hire him to go undercover and infiltrate a gang of credit-card fraudsters. It works for a while, but when the fraudsters figure out that there is a spy among them, things go from bad to worse for poor Miles Eastin. The Moneychangers isn’t a banking novel with a bit of crime in it. It’s a crime novel with a bit of banking in it.
In third place on the list we find Curtain by Agatha Christie. This was the last Agatha Christie novel published during her lifetime (she died in January of 1976) and the last appearance of Hercule Poirot in the Christie canon. This combination—last book the author saw into print, last canonical appearance of the author’s most famous creation, and huge bestseller—makes Curtain one of Christie’s most important works.
In fourth place on the list of 1975’s bestselling novels we find Judith Rossner’s Looking For Mr. Goodbar, one of the most famous crime novels of the decade. Inspired by the real-life murder of New York City schoolteacher Roseann Quinn, the book spent 36 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (three of them at number one) and sold over four million copies. The film rights were sold for $250,000, a huge sum at the time.
In fifth place on the list is Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys. Not only is this my favorite of Wambaugh’s novels, it’s one of my favorite novels of the decade. With its dark, anarchic humor it owes more to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 than to any previous police procedural. It is a stone-cold masterpiece of American crime fiction. In 1995 the Mystery Writers of America listed it among the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. I consider it among the top 25 crime novels ever written.
In sixth place on the list of the best-selling novels of 1975 is Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed, a great World War II crime thriller. This one made the British-based Crime Writers Association’s list of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. It has sold more than 50 million copies over the course of its long life, and was turned into a successful film in 1976.
Irving Stone’s fact-based The Greek Treasure, the seventh best-selling novel of 1975, is not a crime novel. It does, however, include a search for a lost city that many experts believed to be fictional until archeologist Henry Schliemann actually found its ancient burial site. So there is mystery and adventure aplenty in the novel, even if it doesn’t really qualify as a mystery novel.
In eighth place we find The Great Train Robbery, probably the least typical novel ever to come from the imagination of Michael Crichton, who is best known for his techno-thrillers. Like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, this novel was inspired by a real-life crime, in this case the Great Gold Robbery of 1855 (too bad Crichton didn’t title it Looking for Mr. Gold Bar). This is my favorite of Crichton’s many novels and one of my favorite novels of the 1970s. Crichton himself directed a 1978 film version of the story, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture.
The final two books on Publishers Weekly’s list of the best-selling novels of 1975 were James Clavell’s epic historical novel Shogun, and Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, a literary novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
Never before or since, have so many top-notch works of crime fiction appeared on a year-end list of bestsellers. The coming years would bring plenty of best-selling crime novels from the likes of Mary Higgins Clark, John Grisham, Scott Turow, and others, but the biggest sellers of the remaining decades of the twentieth century would be romance novels by Danielle Steel and others, horror novels by Stephen King and Anne Rice, historical fiction by Jean Auel and James Michener and the like, Tom Clancy Cold War thrillers, and so forth.
Of course, the literary history of a particular year is determined by more than just the bestseller list. Plenty of excellent crime novels that didn’t make the Publishers Weekly list were also published in 1975. One such book is Where Are the Children?, the debut suspense novel of the aforementioned Mary Higgins Clark. Though it wasn’t a huge bestseller initially, it rapidly became one of the best-known thrillers of the decade and is listed at number 50 on the MWA’s selection of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. The novel has been through at least seventy-five reprints and by now has probably outsold every one of the best-selling novels of 1975, with the possible exception of The Eagle Has Landed.
Also on the MWA list of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time you will find Elizabeth Peters’s Crocodile on the Sandbank and John D. MacDonald’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky, both of which were published in 1975. It was also the year that Colin Dexter’s iconic Inspector Morse character was introduced in the novel Last Bus To Woodstock. Martin Amis’s second novel, Dead Babies, a spoof of Agatha Christie style country-house mysteries, was published that year. Thomas Harris, who would later become the grandmaster of the serial-killer thriller (The Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, etc.) made his debut as a novelist in 1975 with the publication of Black Sunday, a thriller about an attempt by terrorists to turn the Super Bowl into the site of a massacre. Not only did 1975 bring us Agatha Christie’s last Hercule Poirot novel, it also brought us Rex Stout’s final Nero Wolfe novel, A Family Affair. Stout died in October of that year, just six months after the book’s publication. Roald Dahl’s 1975 novel Danny, The Champion of the World was included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Young-Adult Books of All Time. It’s also a crime novel about a game-poacher and his son and how they try to pull off the granddaddy of all poaching capers. Amazingly, none of the great 1975 crime novels I’ve mentioned so far won the Edgar Award for the Best Novel of the Year.
The year 1975 also brought the death of P.G. Wodehouse. Though rightly regarded as the greatest comic novelist ever to write in English, Wodehouse was also a crime novelist. In fact, many of his novels have some sort of illicit caper going on among all of the other madcap shenanigans. Wodehouse’s first novel, The Pothunters, was about the theft of valuable sporting trophies at a private boys school. One of the most memorable characters in his Blandings Castle cycle of stories and novels is The Empress, a prized pig who gets stolen or kidnapped in nearly every book in which she makes an appearance. Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, the final Wodehouse novel published during his lifetime, is a comic caper about the kidnapping of a cat and an attempt to fix the outcome of a horse race. Bertie Wooster, having been wrongly accused of the kidnapping, is bound and gagged while the police are fetched. Jeeves masquerades as Bertie’s attorney in order to win his release. In the U.S. it was published on April 14, 1975, exactly two months after Wodehouse’s death on Valentine’s Day.
Curiously, though several prominent crime novelists died in 1975, no major crime novelists appear to have been born in that year. Of course, people born in 1975 are currently in their mid forties and there is still plenty of time for one of them to emerge as the Elmore Leonard or Mary Higgins Clark of Generation X. The 1970s arrived during an era of rising U.S. crime rates that began around 1960 and lasted until 1991. Since then, for a variety of reasons (an aging population, lower poverty rates, stricter policing, longer prison sentences) crime rates in the U.S. have largely been in decline. This may account for why so many contemporary writers who were born in the 1950s (Michael Connolly, Laura Lippman, Patricia Cornwell, Lee Child, etc.) seem drawn to gritty realistic crime dramas reminiscent of the best work of the 1970s. In addition to all the assassinations of the era, the 1960s were punctuated by numerous high-profile crimes, such as Alice Crimmins’ murder of her two children (the inspiration for Dorothy Uhnak’s novel The Investigation), the murder of Kitty Genovese (inspiration for a lot of fiction, including Uhnak’s The Witness), and the Tate-LaBianca murders (which have been inspiring books and movies for more than fifty years, most recently Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The Girls, and Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood). By the 1970s, this trend had become thoroughly entrenched in American popular culture. Writers who lived in big cities were often intimately acquainted with crime. Joseph Wambaugh was a former LAPD sergeant. Dorothy Uhnak spent fourteen years as a New York City transit cop before turning to crime writing.
If you want to make a case for some other year being the best in the history of crime fiction, I’m eager to hear your arguments. But as for me, I’ll take 1975. It was a great time to be a crime-fiction fan. Even if they didn’t release a book in 1975, a lot of legendary crime writers were active at the time and the paperback racks of supermarkets and department stores and airport gift shops and even actual bookstores all across America were filled with titles by the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Dorothy Uhnak, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, Bill Pronzini, Dick Francis, Chester Himes, Margaret Millar, Ross Macdonald, P.D. James, Tony Hillerman, Martin Cruz Smith, Ngaio Marsh, Stanley Ellin, Ira Levin, Len Deighton, Mary Stewart, Frederick Forsyth, Brian Garfield, and many, many others. What’s more, I still had all my hair, very few lines on my face, a closet full of bell-bottomed jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, and could participate in playground basketball games for hours on end without getting winded. How could it ever get any better than that?