CRIME NOVELIST Kathy Reichs says: “Writing a book is a purge, at the end you’re empty, out of ideas, out of inspiration” yet the experience of reading is exactly the opposite, “a binge”. Yes one may know, as Colin Bateman admits, that a favoured genre “receives no respect” or, like Agatha Christie’s writing, is “too commercially successful to be taken seriously”, but what about it?
Readers love what readers love, and for those who love mystery novels Books to Die For is the ultimate buffet.
An anthology of verve, heft, and no small ambition, this volume gathers 120 of the world’s leading crime writers to discuss their favourite mystery novels in a series of short essays. As editors John Connolly and Declan Burke say in a brief but cogent introduction, this is not “a pollsters’ assembly of novels compiled with calculators and spreadsheet”; it is in fact something altogether more rewarding, the equivalent of a sit-down with master practitioners of the genre, the books which authors from Elmore Leonard to Val McDermid to Lee Child “would press upon you” if you encountered them in a bar “and the talk turned (as it almost inevitably would) to favourite novels”.
The result is a series of personal responses, potted histories of the genre’s development, and meditations on the influence of greats such as Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Macdonald, along with recollections of how the authors first encountered the books in question. With the plainspoken prose of the crime novel reflected in these essays, what Joseph Finder says of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) is true of Books to Die For as a whole.
There is “never anything arch or artsy or self-consciously clever about it”. In fact, through the small nuggets of autobiography, here the reader is liable to learn as much about the lives of their favourite novelists as about the work which they admire in turn.
Eoin McNamee’s essay on David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999) begins with a memory of a train ride through Scotland, interrupted by multiple suicides on the track, thereafter progressing through “a malign outworking of the parapolitical swirl of British politics”. Ian Rankin’s take on Derek Raymond frames a lovely aside about a party at the Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road (“all the usual suspects were there”) while Leonard Padura’s introduction to Spain’s Manuel Vázqueze Montalbán begins with an “endless” stay in Angola, “almost beyond the boundaries of time and mostly living in fear”.
A strong native field including Eoin Colfer, Ken Bruen, and John Banville — who has some claim to having written one of the great Irish crime novels in The Book of Evidence (1989) — is balanced by an international who’s who of bestsellers and trendsetters. Books to Die For gives us J Wallis Martin on Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Wambaugh on Truman Capote, Deon Meyer on Ed McBain, Maggie Orford on JM Coetzee … a frenetic turnover of big names which may sound overwhelming but which, consistently, coalesces into the banter of expert fans informally discussing what they love the most. It is impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm.
Connolly and Burke — deeply involved with the genre as both critics and novelists — both contribute essays, with the latter offering an historical perspective on a novel which might otherwise have been overlooked, Liam O’Flaherty’s The Assassin (1928). A “revenge fantasy and a paranoid thriller” that “feels like reading Patricia Highsmith’s take on Crime and Punishment”, The Assassin, like many of the novels discussed in the early portions of Books to Die For, stands as “a bridge of sorts between the 19th and 20th-century crime novel”.
Though the editors eschew the canon formation approach, it is difficult to ignore patterns and transformations such as these (and, later, the “forensic revolution in popular culture” largely attributable to Patricia Cornwell, Thomas Harris, and Kathy Reichs).
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Books to Die For is thus divining the essential elements of the modern mystery from the selection on offer. In Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (2001) we find “Shakespearean tragedy played out on cracked sidewalks“; in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels we have an emphasis on stories which “are essentially puzzles”; in Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981) we hit upon “the quintessence of the genre, telling the best possible story in the best possible way”.
Linage too has long been a crucial aspect of crime and mystery’s identity, something Connolly and Burke’s contributors are happy to acknowledge. Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla, for example, in being caught between one world “wealthy and ordered, the other chaotic and beautiful”, emerges from Michael Robotham’s essay as the prototype for Scandinavian heroes such as Lisbeth Salander, Harry Hole, and Kurt Wallander.
Moreover, Miss Smilla embodies “the gulf between the classes” which has so long been the bread and butter of crime writing, an unease born of “the detective’s freedom to pry into the lives of his social superiors”.
In such a light, the novels discussed here are less a fiction of mystery and murder than they are a literature of the everyman, the morality plays of centuries past filtered through the urban squalor of the late 1800s. Crucial progenitor Charles Dickens receives two nods, for Bleak House (1853) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859), as does Arthur Conan Doyle — influenced by Poe’s “brilliant but eccentric” detective Dupin — for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). While Dickens offers the genre a heart, Doyle is one of the first to accentuate its brain.
Certainly his approach has been passed down to the present, not just through writers but also through a contemporary audience whose lives — like those of Holmes and his successors — are “spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence”. Connolly and Burke’s anthology is a hefty reward to the continued passion and commitment of such a readership. The essays they have shepherded to publication all stress the literary qualities which detractors often say the genre lacks: memorable characterisation, stylistic merit, and psychological acuity.
Yet in challenging these misconceptions, crime fiction’s architects don’t just rehash old arguments, they instead pursue new perspectives on mystery’s capacity for subtle social commentary, its concern with the disparity between law and justice, and its passion for order, however compromised.
By securing the participation of grande dames and young guns alike, Connolly and Burke have ensured that their anthology transcends mere curiosity to serve as a robust defence of a fiction which tackles the ugly, messy nature of the world head on.
Part celebration, part list of required reading, Books to Die For will thrill the individual mystery lover as much as it will prove an essential reference for the shelves of lending libraries. A vast, comprehensive undertaking, it is that rare breed of anthology of interest to both the initiated and the newcomer. Indeed, like the ideal mystery novel itself, this is a page-turner with an addictive quality.
* Dr Val Nolan lectures on 20th century and contemporary literature at NUI Galway.