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BOOKS TO DIE FOR
by John Connolly and Declan Burke, eds.
Atria, October 2012
537 pages
$29.99
ISBN: 1451696574


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Anthologies are tricky affairs to pull off. It is to our Irish editors' great credit that they have more than succeeded in achieving their goals. The result is a book about crime novels that is both entertaining and educational. It is not a history of the genre, though it does begin with an essay about Poe. Nor is it a comprehensive overview of the subject. There are great holes in the picture it provides. What we do have is an anthology of all new pieces consisting entirely of essays by living mystery writers about other mystery writers, living and dead, or as its subtitle hypes it: "The World's Greatest Mystery Writers on the World's Greatest Mystery Novels." The editors tell us that the charge they gave their contributors was "to pick one novel, just one, that they would place in the canon."

And so we have such unexpected pleasures as Sara Paretsky on Charles Dickens' Bleak House and Mark Billingham on Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. We have Michael Connelly on Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister and Ian Rankin on Derek Raymond's I Was Dora Suarez. We have Dennis Lehane on James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss and Marcia Muller on Joseph Hansen's Fadeout. In a surprising entry Joseph Wambaugh takes Truman Capote at his word that In Cold Blood is a "nonfiction novel" and pays homage to his achievement, in the process revealing a great deal about Joseph Wambaugh.

And that is one of the great pleasures of this anthology: those moments when one not only learns or refreshes one memory about a notable work but also learns something about the essayist in the course of reading her or his appreciation. There is something thrilling about Peter James's opening sentence to his essay: "Graham Greene's Brighton Rock is, very simply, the book that changed my life." Linwood Barclay opens his essay thus: "If it weren't for the font used on the covers of the Bantam paperback editions of Ross Macdonald's novels, I might never have discovered him. And had that been the case, what would turn out to be one of the most important events in my life would never have happened." The rest of the essay is about his developing student-mentor relationship with Kenneth Millar.

Each essay provides a kind of précis of the novel under consideration. I want to stress this point since in most of my review I am going to be talking about the essayists' ideas rather than their plot analyses. With those books that one has already read, one has the pleasure of gaining a double vision: one's own take on the novel and now that of the essayist on the same work. For those works one has not read, the anthology functions as a set of teasers, trailers, to whet the appetite. I took more than a month to finish the anthology, dipping into it a little at a time. In part this stemmed from my desire to savor each essay, not rush my way through. But I also was slowed down by my stopping to reread works being discussed and hunting down books that I became ashamed I'd never read.

How had I missed Ross Macdonald all these years? Connolly convinced me that I had to read The Chill before I could proceed further (and that led to my reading The Galton Case as well). And why had I never heard of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male? Charlaine Harris doesn't mince words: "Rogue Male is an essential novel for any serious reader in the mystery and thriller genres." As a result of George Pelecanos's and Reed Farrel Coleman's essays, Newton Thornburg's Cutter and Bone and Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red await me on my reading table just as soon as I finish writing this review. And though I chose a different Margaret Millar (Declan Hughes chose A Stranger in My Grave), her last novel is on its way to my mailbox.

On the other hand, though Tana French again makes me feel guilty that I've never read Donna Tartt's The Secret History, I seem to be no further along to doing so. Meanwhile, M.J. Rose has convinced me that I really do not want to read Mary Stewart (whom I had always avoided on the untenable grounds that she was my mother's favorite author). And though Kathy Reichs quite convincingly sets forth the reasons I should read The Silence of the Lambs, her discussion only reinforces my decision never to read it nor see the movie. The usefulness of such anthologies cuts both ways.

Before continuing, let's pause to sum up then what we have: 121 essays by 119 contemporary crime writers, covering 110 writers, almost four times as many of whom are men rather than women, who published between 1840 and 2008, the bulk coming from the last third of the 20th century and the overwhelming majority of whom are British and American, though a range of other countries are represented.

The essays also provide much substance of a general nature for us to ponder. Some of it is technical, reminding us of simple truths, such as when Laurie R. King writes that "in crime fiction, we look for the same qualities as in other fiction: character, story, ideas that resonate, and the compelling language in which the story is told." Quite a number of contributors take readers into consideration. As Sara Gran remarks: "We turn to mystery novels not for their answers, but for their questions [...] ultimately, the mystery novel reflects back to us the fundamental state of our own existence: it's a mystery." Liza Marklund's essay about one of the novels in the Nancy Drew series makes us think about the human conditions necessary to the creation of mystery stories when she writes, "You need freedom of speech, law and order, hope, and prosperity to be able to enjoy fictitious crimes and violence."

A sort of unplanned dialogue begins, willy-nilly, between essays. Linda Barnes writes that to her mind "it is the series mystery that offers the ultimate in entertainment. The continuing series promises more than a single tale, more than a glimpse of a moment in time; it offers an ongoing conversation, a relationship with beloved and familiar characters." Against that position, Jeffery Deaver writes, "I probably prefer the stand-alones, and for this reason: while I'm always true to my premise that I write for my readers, the non-series books allow me to push the boundaries of writing for my own enjoyment."

Joe R. Lansdale notes, "I have always preferred first-person narration to any other kind [...] because I could more easily get into the mind of the main characters, and learn and experience events as they did." David Peace, on the other hand, praises Dashiell Hammett in The Glass Key for using as narrator "a third person, subjective voice," explaining that "that, if you care about reading, if you care about writing, matters because it is rare, because it is both objective and subjective, because it is the mark of a genius."

Some of the best essays are elicited from the contributors' considerations of major figures in the genre. Kelli Stanley and Lauren Henderson are particularly good in their separate essays on two different books by Agatha Christie. Though they are both equally appreciative of her technical know-how (the expertise that allows readers to reread her mysteries "for the pure pleasure of watching her lead you down the garden path"), it is her understanding of both her characters' and her readers' psychology that draws their greater admiration. David Corbett movingly salutes James Crumley's world "of crippling sin and unearned forgiveness," while Dennis Lehane compares Crumley's vision to Fitzgerald's in The Great Gatsby. Lehane sums up that "The Last Good Kiss is about castoffs and a search for belonging. It's also about the thrills of wanderlust, drinking, and the American road. It's about writing and whoring and evil so bland and commonplace that it pulls up the barstool next to you and smiles as it buys you a drink."

Writing doesn't get much better than that. And Lehane is not alone in turning his essay into a polished gem in and of itself. Peace on Hammett's The Glass Key is another fine piece of writing. The four essays by Connolly and Burke are right up there with the best. I am over-generalizing, but in an anthology dominated by men, the women essayists particularly stand out. As a rule they seem more empathetic with the goals and the achievements of the authors they examine. And yes, some of the 119 essayists would be better advised to stick to creating fiction rather than analyzing others' work. But the majority demonstrate that they are astute readers and good teachers. Connolly and Burke, along with their assistant editor, Ellen Clair Lamb, should be pleased with the results of their work. Readers certainly will be.

§ A new edition of Drewey Wayne Gunn's book The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film was published by Scarecrow Press, November 2012. He has edited two anthologies himself: The Golden Age of Gay Fiction (MLR Press, 2009) and 1960s Gay Pulp Fiction (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). By the way, he taught at the university from which James Crumley graduated, just missing having him as a possible student by three years.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, November 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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