Book review: Death Sentences

Edited by Otto Penzler

Book review: Death Sentences

THE physical book may be under threat from the digital revolution and its e-books, according to perceived wisdom, but book collectors and bibliophiles are in far more immediate danger of being wiped out.

At least, that’s the recurring theme in Death Sentences, a collection of short stories edited by Otto Penzler and written by 16 crime and mystery authors who are, according to Ian Rankin’s introduction, ‘masters of their craft’.

Jeffrey Deaver, John Connolly, Nelson DeMille, Laura Lippman, CJ Box and Anne Perry are some of the household names in a collection revolving around books.

It’s an amusing conceit. We tend to imagine that book lovers, librarians and bibliophiles of all stripes are quiet, gentle folk.

In Death Sentences, however, book lovers are bludgeoned to death by their precious tomes, crushed by falling bookshelves, shoved down library stairs while holding a tottering pile of research volumes, or blown to bits by a bomb smuggled into their private library.

When they’re not the actual murder weapon itself, books provide one or more elements of the crime writers’ beloved triumvirate of means, motive and opportunity.

Some of the authors play the concept for wry comedy. William Link’s pulpy throwback to the hardboiled days of the Black Mask magazine, Death Leaves a Bookmark, features a police detective called olumbo.

Nelson DeMille’s The Book Case — one of two stories that features falling bookshelves as the murder weapon — offers a jaunty tone of murder investigation in a crime fiction bookstore, in which the sardonic police detective, John Corey, notes the bestselling writers on display, “such as Brad Meltzer, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Nelson DeMille, and others who make more money writing about what I do than I make doing what I do.”

Others take a more serious approach. Set in London in 1938, Peter Blauner’s The Final Testament is narrated by Sigmund Freud, and tells of how Freud is approached by a Nazi agent who wants to blackmail him into putting his name to a piece of propaganda about the Jewish people.

Some stories refer to the Nazis. Set in the American northwest, CJ Box’s Pronghorns of the Third Reich is as bizarre as its title suggests, and true into the bargain.

Thomas H Cook’s affecting tale What’s In A Name? offers an alternative history of the 20th century, and features an aspiring but ultimately unpublished author with a very potent name. Meanwhile, The Book of Ghosts by Reed Farrel Coleman, which tells the tale of the morally conflicted Holocaust survivor Jacob Weisen, is one of the finest of the collection.

Given that the vast majority of authors are readers so deranged by books that they are themselves maddened into writing, the stories also offer fascinating glimpse of the authors’ personal obsessions.

Laura Lippman’s quirky The Book Thing takes her series private eye Tess Monaghan (and Tess’s baby daughter Carla Scout) into the colourful world of children’s bookshops, where she is commissioned to investigate a very unusual crime.

Anne Perry’s The Scroll is as influenced by the horror genre as it is by crime and mystery, and centres on an ancient vellum scroll that hides a dark secret in its Aramaic script.

Where many of the stories revolve around valuable and precious books, David Bell’s Rides a Stranger concerns itself with a tattered Western paperback.

The Mickey Spillane story It’s in the Book, finished here by Max Allan Collins, sees Mike Hammer in pursuit of a dead Mafia don’s old ledger, its secrets a threat to the president of the United States.

There are two Irish contributors. In the first, Ken Bruen brings his unique style to bear on New York and a young Irish-American’s bitter relationship with his father, a former NYPD cop.

When the father dies and unexpectedly bequeaths his son The Book of Virtue, the son has to reassess what he knew of his father, and his own life’s direction.

By contrast, John Connolly’s The Caxton Lending Library and Book Depository is an elegantly wrought tale of dull Mr Berger, who late one evening sees a woman step in front of a train — and yet can find no trace of her on the track. . (I should declare an interest here by saying I have co-edited a book with John Connolly; the fact his story won this year’s Edgar Award for Best Short Story is testament to its quality).

The most vulnerable victim in the collection — the plethora of murdered booksellers, readers and bibliophiles notwithstanding — is the physical book itself.

Whether the writers make explicit their concerns about the e-book revolution, as Laura Lippman does, or contextualise the veneration of the physical book — or vellum parchment, say, or a hand-stitched volume written by Hernando Cortez — the message is the same: the book, regardless of the story it tells, is a valuable artefact in its own right, and e-books, even if they tell the exact same story, lack cultural heft, physically and metaphorically.

The mood is summed up by Andrew Taylor’s The Long Sonata of the Dead, a beautiful tale set in the labyrinthine stacks of the London Library. “It’s the real, printed book that matters”, our hero, a writer tells us. Though his subsequent actions are less than savoury, it’s very hard to consider him entirely immoral.

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