Thanks very much to the many readers who have sent in lists of the genre fiction they admire and enjoy. That's the problem with offering any list of "good mystery novels." It's like a list of "good things to do with your time." For each one you include, there are a thousand you leave off. I will probably post (and update) a list of suggestions ... although, for the reasons mentioned above, that's an open-ended challenge that maybe I should skip. In any case, three brief points:
1) I kick myself for having forgotten to mention Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, a very short book I defy anyone to forget. (High class endorsement, from Stanley Kubrick: "Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.") Also, perhaps strangely, the John D. MacDonald "Travis McGee" novels. "Strangely" because these have been so widely popular, Sidney Sheldon-style. But the character does stick in your mind -- mine, at least.
2) MacDonald, with his 20-odd books in the Travis McGee series, illustrates the built-in tragedy of the genre novel. To work as a business proposition, any good character or setting should be turned into a series; but considered as literature, almost all series peter out. That is why I mentioned previously that I enjoyed the first few Easy Rawlins books, the first Inspector Rebus books, the early Patricia Cornwell books. As a reader, you do get the point after a few and are ready for another conceit. A reader, Don Friedman, pointed this out in a note:
I find that most series run out of steam long before the author ends them. The best genre fiction has a delicate balance of plot, character and writing style. As authors move deep into a series, they seem to run out of creative energy in the plotting and shift the emphasis to greater detail and development of the recurring characters.
Fortunately there are a lot of new series to sample.
Friedman also makes a good point, based on a wonderful book by Charles McCarry:
I recently read McCarry's "Tears of Autumn". His simple, economical style reminds me of what I dislike about so many of the contemporary genre writers. When McCarry has Paul Christopher travel from one location to another, he doesn't tell you about the taxi ride to the airport, the traveller in front of him in line to board the plane, the meal he has on the plane or what the stewardess wore; he moves Christopher from one city to the next in a couple of sentences. In contrast, so many contemporary writers pad their books with an enormous amount of irrelevant detail. That's why their novels routinely run 600 pages, while "Tears of Autumn" is 270. I find the padding to be incredibly annoying. The best writers in this field know just how much detail or "color" to include.
3) As mentioned previously, I am a big fan of George Pelecanos. In addition to his novels, he has written several episodes for everyone's-favorite HBO series, The Wire. I had not seen a single episode of The Wire in the US; I watched the first two seasons more or less in one sitting after finding them in a pirate video store in Shanghai. Reason I bring it up: the (memorable) hired-gun Nation of Islam killer of Season Two, Brother Mouzone, is reading The Atlantic in one episode. The Atlantic: not just for Ralph Waldo Emerson any more.