The Made Men of Mystery Fiction

There’s a phenomenon in mystery/thriller fiction… I call it "The Made Men." These are authors who wrote several terrific books…a string of career-making, break-out, wonderful books which have made them icons/leaders/celebrities in the genre…but have been writing  mediocre (or worse, far worse) books for the last few years. And yet, each new book from one of these authors is treated as if it’s another masterpiece, and the hyperbole used to describe the author and his work gets grander with each new release.

Are reviewers in a trance? Are readers under a spell? I don’t know. But I must be one of the few who didn’t get hypnotized. 

My theory is that for some special authors,  once you reach a certain status in sales and critical acclaim, from that point on you are untouchable. You are a genre "Made Man" (though this applies to female authors as well) and seemingly no matter what you write, you are held in the same high regard by critics and readers alike. I recently read the latest book by one of these authors and am dumbfounded that anybody could have ranked it as a masterpiece…or even particularly good. It certainly didn’t come close to matching his previous work (by the way, just because I say "his," don’t assume I am talking about a male author). So why all the praise? Made Man, that’s why.

Am I way off base?  Or am I simply a lousy judge of good writing? Or is it sour grapes on my part? Or am I on to something here? Your thoughts are welcome.

32 thoughts on “The Made Men of Mystery Fiction”

  1. Robert B. Parker is the obvious example, but I think he gets his fair share of criticism, especially for his Spenser series. A few of Robert Crais’ books have had a lukewarm reception. And there are many bestselling authors who never received much critical acclaim to begin with. Offhand, though, I can’t think of any who get good reviews that they really don’t deserve.

  2. I don’t read a lot of fiction (weird, I know) but every time I give some bestseller a shot, I find that I’ve picked something late in an author’s production, and it has sucked. Two that stick out are Patricia Cornwell’s “Isle of Dogs”, which was supposed to be funny but was merely dimwitted, and “The Blue Nowhere” by Jeffrey Deaver, which had one of the dumbest endings in memory.
    I’ve noticed the phenomenon you describe in the genre fiction that I’ve read: the first few books from an author are good, but then the money starts rolling in (*cough* Piers Anthony Xanth *cough*) and they start cranking them out.
    It was ever thus.

  3. I’ve seen this as well. I recently read a series of books by a certain author that, while not critically acclaimed, was well-known in his/her genre. I enjoyed them immensely and picked up a new book by this author, the start of a new series, and dropped it after the first chapter. I can only imagine that the book was published on the strength of the author’s name because it was utter junk. I’ve stopped buying books based on the author’s name. I’ve usually got a few minutes in the bookstore to read the first chapter. I’ve got to be sold on it or it’s going back on the shelf, no matter who wrote it.

  4. My pet peeve is the female detective series that fall into the romance novel trap of having a heroine torn between two suitors. Gag. I have never known a real woman who, when given two men to choose between, didn’t know which one she wanted more. She may have wanted both, but the novels don’t allow that choice.
    Ruined more than one good series. Ugh.
    Note: Janet Evanovich is a prime offender, but I find her books funny and read them only when I’m in a generous enough mood to forgive their flaws. Also, she used to write romance, so she probably does it better than most.

  5. Without a doubt there are “made authors.” I heard years ago that Joyce Carol Oates wanted to see if her books were being published because of her name or their merit. So she submitted something under another name and it was rejected. I was told she then admitted to the publisher that it was her work and he bought her script. I’m not certain if that’s a fact or a myth, but it’s very believable.

  6. On a related topic, I’m amazed at some of the out-of-print garbage that well known authors offer up for reprint. Their name has survived the original release of the poorly written title, but then to flaunt their permanence, they re-release the title. Would that I could only enjoy some of that permanence first. *~)

  7. Michael Connelly is a prime example. He hasn’t had a good book in years and yet they keep calling him a modern master. His last Bosch was truly terrible. Harlen Coben is another.

  8. The big one for me was Neal Stephenson. The “Quicksilver” series is so ASS AWFUL that I couldn’t make it past page 100 of the first book. Almost all the long time Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, Diamond Age fans wanted to throw the new series into a garbage can but those books still sell like hotcakes.

  9. Anonymous, it’s no wonder you don’t post your real name, since you clearly don’t have a clue. If you’re going to spout nonsense, you should at least take the credit for it. Connelly’s a great writer, one of the very best around and the latest Bosch book was a gem.
    As for the big name writers who do turn out some real crap, I think they get their share of criticism. James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, et al all get lousy reviews. Doesn’t mean they don’t sell, of course, but then most readers have undemanding taste.

  10. I have not read Michael Connelly’s newest book and probably won’t (burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice shame on me). I was referring to the last one where The Poet came back and the one before with the guy from Blood Work. Both books just made you realize how much better The Poet and Blood Work are than his recent books.

  11. Lee-
    I don’t think you are a lousy judge of good writing. I just think that reading is subjective. I have only read one James Patterson book and I did not like it but I know people who love his stuff–especially his new books. That Deaver book, The Blue Nowhere, that someone mentioned above as being total crap–I loved it! I am sure there are many writers that I love that others hate. It is all opinion. I do agree with David that the big names do get their fair share of criticism–especially from other writers. (I am not sure if it is sour grapes or not.) I do know that for everyone who hates a book there is someone else who loves it. For example, I think Connelly’s latest stuff is his best ever. And I have read them all. So does my husband. And yet this guy above doesn’t. It is all subjective.

  12. I wonder how much of the made men problem is bad writing vs lack of editing? I’ve read about authors who become arrogant and uncooperative with editors and I suspect many poorer books are the result.

  13. Well I suspect serious sour grapes here. The only Connelly book I have is The Poet, and the only Grisham book I read I liked so, I’m with David on this one: anon doesn’t know what he’s talking about and is a vanity author I believe. The authors he hates will be crushed.

  14. I think the other thing is that author’s styles do change over time. A few years back I read all of the Patricia Cornwell books then in release and really enjoyed them. Sort of stopped with that odd guy in Paris. My niece loves the newer books, gobbles them up. She checked out one of the early ones, but didn’t like it as much.
    I won’t talk down the new ones to her, it just wouldn’t be right.
    PS Currently reading THE RULE OF FOUR. All of the bad stuff everyone said about DA VINCI CODE seems to actually apply to this book. But the new grad we just hired loved it. Go figure.

  15. In many ways this is a “brand” issue–author as toothpaste.
    Readers get comfortable with the brand and keep coming back. Every author has good periods and bad, but readers somehow forgive that because they have made a connection they are emotionally loathe to break.
    They keep buying because they’re hoping that the NEXT one will be back to what they expect.
    It took me several books past Matarese Circle to swear off Ludlum even though they got pretty bad…and it is possible to argure that everything after Gemini Contenders was crap … yes I know some will argue that ALL of his stuff is crap …
    OTOH, when Ken Follett changed genres and started into the historical schtick, I punted immediately because I do not like that form.

  16. Darn, PM Rommel, you beat me to her!
    But Lee’s quite right–it happens all too often, unfortunately, to some genuinely fabulous authors.
    Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings, Laurie R. King are all some of my faves whose first books held me in thrall and I still read and re-read…but their later installments in both series and solitary novels just weren’t as compelling.
    Could this truly be some depreciation in the author’s writing, (due to sloppiness, overconfidence, or exhaustion) or could this be merely the reader’s perception (due to boredom with the author’s work/plots/style?)
    I wonder…


    How many times have you read a book which didn’t live up to its reviews? Lee Goldberg theorizes that some writers are “made men.” That every book they pump out receives glowing write-ups, whether deserved or not, simply because of t…

  18. If you’re going to read Connelly’s book, consider this a spoiler warning.
    Connelly’s latest book wasn’t his worst, but I don’t think it was his best, either. Well-written, with some nice bits, but if Connelly wants us to feel for the victims, he’s got to stop talking about Bosch.
    Take “The Closers.” We got a nice scene with the mother who still lives in the house her daughter was kidnapped from, and a bit with the father whose life spiraled downhill.
    Then there’s a lot about Bosch and the investigation and his life now that he’s exorcised his demons.
    Then we jump to the end with the revelation of the murderer (nicely done, that), and the twist, which wasn’t particularly shocking or involving, because we didn’t get a chance to know the people involved.
    He’s nowhere, nowhere near as bad as Patterson, Parker and Cornwell. Good, readable book, but a masterpiece? Spare me.

  19. Bill-
    I felt for the victim and her family in Connelly’s latest. I think he did a great job of that. Once again, this proves my point–reading is subjective. One person’s comment and review is not a statement of fact, it’s just an opinion.
    I read reviews but I don’t think they persuade me very much. I read one book a week usually. I buy them new. I never buy an author just because I liked them in the past. I always look at the individual book to decide. I rarely read everything by one author. So I don’t buy into the brand concept idea.

  20. One last comment to Lee’s original concept about Made Men. I do think that readers are more likely to buy a book from a name they recognize than from an unknown. That probably goes for every product out there. So there most definitely is an advantage to becoming a well known author–name recognition. But buying a book once does not mean becoming a fan of that author forever. Most people can decide whether they like something or not. I will continue to believe that the readers who keep buying Grisham, Patterson, etc… do so because they enjoy those books–not just because they are being led by the nose.

  21. I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy, and the deterioration in quality is alarmingly frequent. I get the impression that the guilty authors reach the point where their work isn’t being edited any more – I guess they’re successful enough to insist that it’s printed as they wrote it. While early novels are tightly plotted and well written, later works are sloppy, laden with poor grammar, trite phrasing, and repetition that should have been caught in the first draft. I am frequently tempted to go to town with my red pen, then send the book back to the publisher.

  22. Arthur C. Clarke. He said he was retiring from writing after “Imperial Earth,” which was really a padded, mediocre novelette. Unfortunately, he came out of retirement with things like 2010 and then the farmed-out books co-written by others.
    A lot of writers have a kernel of originality that is good for one or two books. Then everything else is variations on the original, with diminishing returns. I think of William Gibson. Neuromancer and his story collection Burning Chrome were great. After Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, I just got bored by the repetition.

  23. Lee, found your blog via your brother Tod’s and I find your subject matter and writing equally thought-provoking and interesting.
    My take: The Made Man has been a problem with literature since Mainstream Literature existed. Once a writer succeeds and becomes famous, later works can be less than and often still get a free pass and get published, because either a) the publisher feels the work will get by on the athor’s name recognition and fanbase or b) the publisher doesn’t put the work under the scrutiny other works receive because of the author’s success and stature.
    I’m sure there have been crap books by Hawthorne, Hemingway, Vonnegut and so on that got published because they’re Hawthorne, Hemingway, Vonnegut and so on. Write good books that people read and publishers tend to give you the benefit of the doubt, even if later books aren’t good nor read.

  24. This MADE MEN Theory has its problems:
    The only answerable questions are questions regarding matters of measurable or ascertainable FACT, such as “What is the capitol of Equador?”
    In realms of art, literature, thrillers, romance novels, novellas, and other matters of subjective taste, there is only opinion — and that’s a fact.
    In the music industry, there is a theory that audiences abandon a popular composer/performer when they begin their period of artisitic maturity. The audience *prefers* the less refined, less mature, “tribal dance music” of the Beattles to Abbey Road. Critics and pundits didn’t buy “I want to hold your hand” nor did they gobble up “I,the Jury.”
    So, when the new Lee Goldberg novel comes out and a former loyal fan is dismayed by what they perceive as a tragic drop in its “warm witty wise and wonderful” quotient, is it because Lee’s style has matured, altered, advanced, and he has branched his brilliance into realms of literary experimentation beyond the ken of the fan, or did the publisher get conned by Lee’s agent to buy drek, did Lee write drek on purpose? We don’t know. We only know if we like it or not. I recall a few years back in the midst of many rave reviews and an ongoing discussion of my book, MAN OVERBOARD, a woman posted to DL that she didn’t like the book at all, thought it was a bunch of hype, etc. etc. I simply replied, “we can both agree that we both hope you enjoy my next book more than you enjoyed Man Overboard.”
    So much of what makes a book good, great, horrid, trash, or spectacular is time and taste sensitive that no objective answer could possibly exist. My personal hope is that if there are MADE MEN OF MYSTERY, that I become one. Right now I’m suffering from angst and depression over PW’s QUILL awards not even recognizing the existance of True Crime as a category. Hell, George Anastasia was almost murdered by his topic. I think that alone bespeaks volumes

  25. “And yet, each new book from one of these authors is treated as if it’s another masterpiece, and the hyperbole used to describe the author and his work gets grander with each new release.”
    I’m trying to think to whom this applies. Certainly not Patterson or Grisham, say–nobody considers them more than competent stylists. We’re just talking mystery/thriller? Chuck P? Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard. Pelacanos? Victor G, who according to Kirkus ‘writes with white-hot intensity, Shakespearean insight, and lips like Angelina Jolie’? PD James? LeCarre?
    Throw us a friggin bone, Lee. All of a sudden you’re pulling punches?

  26. I stumbled upon this site as I was in the process of doing some online research. I totally agree with your observations. I have also read reviews that glowed over a particular work and wondered if I’d actually read the same book the reviewer had!

  27. Until I was drafted to serve on two different judging committees (Shamus and Edgar) this year, I reviewed mystery novels for Mystery Scene Magazine. One of the benefits of that gig was the opportunity to read works by relatively unknown authors on the ascendant. Many of these books were gems, far superior to anything Parker has put out since A Catskill Eagle – and I proudly proclaim myself to be among Parker’s most exuberant fans.
    As I read these books critically, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of the authors. The answer was simple – publishing is a business, run strictly on a bottom-line mentality, and a bad book by Danielle Steele sells much better than an excellent book by unknown Melvin Lipschitz. With publishing companies giving new and emerging authors fewer titles to ‘make it’, and with mid-list authors being dropped like used kleenex, the only business option left open to the major publishers is to fall back on their marquee brands. The result – drivel from people who used to write outstanding prose. When you have to pump out a book every six months to keep ahead of the curve, it’s hard to focus on quality.


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