The WH Smith poll: The Best Crime Writers of All Time chosen by you!

Posted: February 23, 2015 in Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Book Awards, England, Golden Age of detective fiction, notes, polls, Reginald Hill, tv crime fiction

P1020051I have always considered crime fiction awards and polls very useful for introducing readers to writers and books that they haven’t read.  Even if one doesn’t agree with the choices made by the judges, or general public, the results are usually quite fun. But they do have to adhere to certain basic standards like sanity. If we judge the best crime writers simply on all time sales there is obviously only one winner with Agatha Christie a long way ahead of the number two, and James Patterson back in third place.

Do you know who number two is? 

WH Smith has a list 107 crime fiction authors in order of merit, and I do worry about my ageing eyesight, because I cannot see Colin Dexter’s name anywhere. Some of the voting was quite astonishing with S.J.Watson, who up to date has only published one book, at 65 ahead of Stieg Larsson 68, Lindsey Davis 69, Elizabeth  George 70. That one book may be very very good, but surely S.J. has to produce more than one book to merit a position among the best crime writers of all time.

Television exposure does not seemed to have helped some fine authors with Ann Cleeves at 90, Ellis Peters at 89, Andrea Camilleri at P102004884. I am ashamed to find that I haven’t even read any of the books by the numero uno on the list, Peter James. His detective Roy Grace works in Brighton, a town I used to know very well, as three of my mother’s sisters lived in Hove, the adjoining seaside resort. I will have to remedy my omission as “he won the crown effortlessly by an incredible number of votes.”

He must be very good to streak ahead of  Agatha Christie at 5, Raymond Chandler at 47, Michael Connelly at 32, Reginald Hill at 48, and Patricia Highsmith at 52. I would suggest that if the poll had asked readers to name their “favourite” five crime fiction authors it might have produced a more interesting result. 

By the way the number two  all time best selling crime fiction author was Georges Simenon. 


  1. Philip Amos says:

    Why 107?? Well, to the point. I seriously and strongly suspect that this weird list is nothing more than a list of the crime fiction novels that sell the most at Smith’s airport, hospital, service station, etc., outlets. Like similar displays in pharmacies, supermarkets and the like, the selection is usually decidedly random, a decided oleo of the known and not so much so. With limited choice but captive markets at Heathrow or Gatwick, quite possibly all will sell well over time, the better-known names inevitably likely to sell the best, though this may be purely because of name-recognition, not recognition of quality. I haven’t read Peter James either, but he is a mega-seller. S.J. Watson has a second book coming out this year. His first appeared in 2011, but he seems to have made a mini-career out of its promotion and success. Really, this list is just more of W.H. Smith’s piffle.

    Some readers may remember that this discriminating outfit once listed a book about the monstrous Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl as one of the ‘Top 50’ books one might give dad on Father’s Day.

    • crimeworm says:

      This isn’t the best-selling in WHSmith, but those voted for on social media. I note Norman says, TV doesn’t seem to have helped, citing Andrea Camelliri (sorry if I’ve spelt that wrong) as an example – but his adaptations are shown on BBC4, which I think probably caters to a different audience than WHSmith. I personally think the list is absolutely dreadful; complete tosh!

  2. I must admit I was surprised to see Peter James heading any kind of poll – not that I think he’s particularly bad (I read a couple of the Roy Grace books early on and they were OK, though they did not inspire me to keep going) but of all the crime writers there are he seems a peculiar one to rise to the top. If we’re talking modern & popular I’d have thought someone like Lee Child would have pipped him (not thatI’m a fan of Jack Reacher but I know he is popular with male and female readers which is something of a rarity).

    But I take these kinds of polls with a grain of salt. There’s a bookstore chain here who does “Australia’s favourite writer” polls every year or two and the results never seem terribly scientific.

  3. Norman Price says:

    Thanks Bernadette and Philip for your comments.

    I think the longer the list the more stupid they become, but of course there are so many crime writers that someone is bound to be forgotten.
    I didn’t notice Georges Simenon, Colin Dexter, Peter Temple, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo on that list so it is impossible to take it at all seriously.

    Of course getting inside the mind of judges and those who reply to polls is difficult. Back in 2009 I rated the six shortlisted novels for the International Dagger 1down to 6, and number 6 won!

  4. Philip Amos says:

    Thank you for an interesting post, Norman — as ever. I think we may say that there were no judges in this case. I suppose one may call it a ‘poll’, though how it came about they do not say — I must suspect slips of paper in those stores, the stores that sell these authors. But even then, worth noting that the poll asked for names of best detectives, underrated writers, and novels most suitable for movie adaptation. I can’t tell if that influenced the oddity of it all, if it went unnoticed, or if it were ignored. If followed, it would make a nonsense of the title of the list.

    I think perhaps you (together with our beloved Maxine) know more about my acquaintance with crime fiction than anyone. Heaven’s knows, I have my blind spots and lacunae, but I look at the top twenty on this list and see four I don’t know from a hole in the ground and six I’ve given chance but wouldn’t thereafter touch with a bargepole…But does it matter? Well, yes, in a way it does, for it misleads potential readership, which means more readers for, say, Karin Slaughter, a once quite excellent writer who went right off the rails, while perpetuating the neglect of a plethora of truly top-drawer, in some cases great, crime novelists who have never received the attention, the sales, the kudos they deserved — we’ve touched on that rather infuriating problem often. If I replaced half the top thirty only with Scandinavian writers it would be a far more worthwhile list that it is.

    • Norman Price says:

      I also had not even heard of some of those writers. I remember telling translator Reg Keeland [Steven Murray] when he rushed into WHSmith in Bath and could only find one of his translations a Karin Alvtegen, no Mankells or Stieg Larssons, that it wasn’t a “real” bookshop.
      This was back in 2009 before the Stieg Larsson phenomena took off.
      But I think that list confirmed my view.

  5. Kathy D. says:

    After looking at that list, I give up. Any list that does not have Fred Vargas on it or Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo or Sara Paretsky or Donna Leon is one that has no validity for me. I mean gee, Fred Vargas, a genius, who always writes original stories, nothing trite or boring.
    And there are some real pulp fiction writers there who play to gratuitous violence, have no
    character development, etc.
    So I say nay to this list.

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