Like the blues, slapstick comedy and the .400 hitter, the murder mystery enjoyed its golden age in the 1920s. That was the epoch of Agatha Christie and Ronald Knox, of G.K. Chesterton and S.S. Van Dine. The mystery craze gripped every age, sex and temperament; it spread so wide that it was parodized by P.G. Wodehouse. Back then it seemed possible to believe, as Playwright Anthony Shaffer later joshed in Sleuth, that mysteries were "the normal recreation of noble minds."
The present state of mystery writing does not foretoken a renaissance. By the customary criteria applied to genre fiction--the number of active practitioners whose works have graduated to mainstream best-seller lists or to critical appraisal as "serious" literature--the mystery can offer only Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald and perhaps Julian Symons. Dozens of purported successors to Christie have been proclaimed, largely on the basis of gender, but none has sustained anything like her productivity or cunning. Every publishing season brings a promising debut, but the vast majority of these writers never again produce a book with the freshness of the original. Instead, they go on repeating themselves in ever more pallid imitations. Writers are encouraged in this timidity by their publishers, who find that the most profitable form of mystery is the series featuring a continuing character. This detective may have been organic to the first story but usually obtrudes in the sequels.
Still, the best mysteries being published today offer considerably more sophisticated pleasures than creaking doors, cracks on the head or the discovery of a nude, blond and comely corpse on page 32. This year has already seen hard-boiled volumes by Leonard, MacDonald and Robert B. Parker at the peak of their form, and cunning British psychological thrillers by Robert Barnard, Simon Brett, Ruth Rendell and the American would-be Briton Martha Grimes. The fall has brought a fresh crop, mostly from other hands. The styles range from taut police procedurals to literary romps, from old-fashioned puzzles to breezily constructed thrillers. These days the detective may be a policeman, a private eye or a blueblood amateur, as of old. The detective may also be a prying journalist, a homosexual, a woman or an eight-year-old boy. Among the best now on bookstore shelves:
Safekeeping (Penzler; 202 pages; $15.95) and Fletch Won (Warner; 265 pages; $14.95) display the astonishing range of Gregory Mcdonald. After winning two Edgar Allan Poe awards (1975 and 1977) for the first books featuring the raffish investigative reporter Irwin Maurice Fletcher, Mcdonald declined into extended archness of phrase and plot. He found his way again in last year's Flynn's In, featuring his other series character, Boston Police Official Francis X. Flynn. The film of Fletch, starring Chevy Chase, was a summer comedy hit, and Fletch Won continues the upbeat pace. Here the brash young man is observed in what Hollywood calls a "prequel," an adventure that takes place at the start of his career. Mcdonald has a discerning ear for the cocky conversation of youth and an eye for its pratfall bravado.