Friday, January 11, 2013

A Book That'll Kill Ya

I admire the mission behind Books to Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. Some mastermind (whose plots make Ernst Blofeld’s look positively humble by comparison) has brought together some of the world’s finest crime writers from all four corners of the globe. These writers were asked to write a piece on a “book to die for”. It’s defined as follows: “If you found our contributors in a bar some evening, and the talk turned (as it almost inevitably would) to favorite novels, it would be the single book that each writer would press upon you, the book that, if there was time and the stores were still open, they would leave the bar in order to purchase for you, so they could be confident they had done all in their power to make you read it.”

It’s an admirable idea, and after all, what could go wrong? Sure, a volume of this sort is bound to contain some omissions, but at least its inclusions should be excellent, and the different viewpoints should cancel each other out. For every author who is convinced that nothing is better than noir you can have one author who is convinced that plotting in the Christie mould is the best policy. For every author who prefers characterization and setting you can have one who prefers plotting and action. And thus, this collection should contain a book for everyone, and at the very least give you a balanced portrait of the genre.

Ha! In a perfect world, maybe. But we live on this world, and in our world we got a highly biased and highly problematic book. Some of the individual contributions are brilliant, but just as many (if not more) are very bad indeed and in only gets worse the further you read.

Let’s start with the good stuff, though. Although the Kindle book is pricey, I think it’s not a bad deal. Not only is the Kindle edition excellently formatted and proofread, there’s plenty of material in this book to at least make the amount of material seem like a fair trade. There’s also one major bonus in the collection’s favour: many of the authors’ essays are personal ones that give you an insight into their own writing techniques. This in turn can help influence your reading decisions.

Many of the individual contributions are absolutely brilliant. Here are some of my favourites:

Sara Paretsky on Bleak House by Charles Dickens
This throws some terrific insight onto Paretsky’s writing, and Paretsky also does a brilliant job of justifying this book’s inclusion. At the same time, she does reveal the solution and as good as the essay  is, it made me realize that Paretsky’s interests do not coincide with mine and so I can amicably pass over her work for the time being.

Kelli Stanley on Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Stanley, a hardboiled author, offers a terrific defense of Christie and says what I have been saying for years about the “cozy” label that is unfairly slapped onto Christie’s work. It’s a terrific essay that has guaranteed Stanley a spot on my reading list in the near future.

Bill Pronzini on Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze
This starts as a loving description of those 1950s paperbacks, before Pronzini zooms in on one with an uninspired cover blurb. But within those covers, Pronzini assures us, is a masterpiece of the genre, and there follows a terrific essay of pure enthusiasm.

Max Allan Collins on I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane
Collins is not only one of Spillane’s biggest fans, he’s also been continuing the Mike Hammer series, most recently with the terrific Lady, Go Die! In this essay, Collins tackles the controversial PI’s debut novel and (persuasively) argues that the novel owes as much to Christie as it does to Hammett and Chandler. He also shows that, no matter what our personal reaction to Hammer may be, he’s had an undeniable influence on pop culture. An insightful and enthusiastic piece.

Linda Barnes on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
This is a terrific piece of enthusiasm, as the essay describes a young Linda Barnes, who has just read The Speckled Band and suspects her father may be attempting to murder her in the same manner as the fiendish Dr. Roylott disposed of his daughters, now that there’s a baby boy and Linda is no longer needed. I loved this essay because it reminded me of my own reaction to the story: not as dramatic as Barnes’, but I was careful of going into a basement on my own after that point.

Megan Abbott on In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
Another terrific essay of sheer enthusiasm, Megan Abbot convinces you that In a Lonely Place is a “book to die for”. Her passion for this book shines through in nearly every word, and she makes Hughes sound like a sister-in-crime to authors like Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong.

I’ll cut things off there to keep this essay relatively short. I could go on and on and mention Mark Billingham’s essay on The Maltese Falcon or Christopher Brookmyre’s essay on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but we’d be here all day and I wouldn’t even get to the collection’s faults. And there are plenty to cover.

I hate to say that, because I sound like Captain Nit-Pick, Crusader Against Slighly-Innacurate Reference Volumes, Defender Against the Dark Domain of Minor Mistakes, Ambassador Against Tiny Omissions!!! My problem isn’t that someone refers to a book as published in 1947 but it was really published in 1948. My problem is that Books to Die For is an inherently flawed collection of essays, and taken as a whole it’s a very difficult book to get through. And it only gets worse the deeper you get into the collection.
Captain Nit-Pick, Proud Companion of The Rephrasing Spider-Man!!!

It’s very clear that Books to Die For is only interested in one type of novel: the hardboiled or the noir. All others need not apply. To give the collection some appearance of diversity, they include not one but two Agatha Christies (my, my, how generous!) and guess who else makes an appearance from the school of plotting? If you guessed Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, or Margery Allingham, you win absolutely nothing. Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop and Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks make token appearances. And that’s it from the school of plotting! Bye-bye!

In case you haven't guessed yet, what makes it absolutely infuriating is that this book has major gaps. It just doesn’t give you a good overview of the genre’s rich history. It overlooks major milestones in the genre—Trent’s Last Case, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, etc. In fact, only two novels are chosen to represent the 1920s, and neither of them can be considered crime novels unless you really stretch the definitions. John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, S. S. Van Dine... all of them are completely overlooked, as though they never existed! We're talking about major contributors to the genre here, and not the little-known 1927 minor masterpiece The Scandal of the Scorched Scarecrow, which only had one printing of 200 copies and which I just invented in my head, but which nonetheless should have had a huge impact on the genre.

But do you know what really pissed me off about this? Guess how many books are chosen to represent the 1990s. Go on, I dare you. One? Two? Five? Ten? Nope. The answer is a staggering twenty-eight. In other words, the 1990s get more coverage than the entire genre up to the year 1947!!! WHY???

Why do I object to this? My reasoning is very simple. Most of these books are less than 20 years old, and thus have had almost no time to influence anything in the genre. It may look popular now, but it still hasn’t passed the test of time. Many works go unacclaimed in their time and only years later is their importance re-evalued: It’s a Wonderful Life is a perfect example. Initial reaction was mixed at best, and only later did it become the holiday classic we know today. Equally, many books are popular in their own time and are entirely forgotten years later. So why does this collection have such a pronounced bias towards modernity, and covers the past largely through books that are close to the style that is popular today?

Put quite simply, the closer you get to modern day, the more ass-kissing is going on. It seems that, starting in the late 70s and continuing into modern day, everyone has changed the genre. Everyone has transcended the genre. Everyone has been a major influence on the genre. Coincidentally, everyone who transcended the genre also writes hardboiled novels or noir! The genre has been transcended so many times that I’m surprised that there is still a genre to transcend!

What I’m trying to say is this: a book can be perfectly good without transcending the genre, whatever that’s supposed to mean. (It’s an overused phrase without any real meaning, when you stop to think about it.) But too many of these essays are desperate to grovel at the feet of these authors and they throw all reason to the wind: their praise is desperate. Late in the book, an essay with some simple honesty is refreshing. One of my favourite essays from this stage is Christopher Brookmyre’s essay on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Adams is hugely respected as an author, but Brookmyre admits quite simply that he’s read the book too many times to keep discovering new things in it. That struck a chord with me—I’ve done the same thing with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a funny movie, but I’ve seen it so many times that I no longer laugh uproariously at every joke. Brookmyre’s sheer honesty that such a thing was possible was far more persuasive than if he’d written that “you’ll discover something new every time, no matter how many times you read it”. And it was the only essay from this last part of the book that made me instantly go to the Kindle store and buy the book in question. The essay has also guaranteed Brookmyre a spot on my reading list in the near future.

The bad essays by their own wouldn’t be too bad—after all, there is some genuine enthusiasm to them— but they’re not on their own, and that’s the problem. They’re part of a string of essays that all sound the same. This is particularly true when we get to the explosion of women writing mystery stories with women as the detective. Essay after essay tells us that so-and-so broke new ground and did something nobody ever did before, and it sounds like the same essay is being recycled over and over again. Mercifully we’re spared the Nordic noir craze of recent years, with only one or two books being covered.

All this frankly gets tiring after a while. You can do this kind of thing a few ways, but no matter how you do it you will end up providing some sort of picture of the genre. Books to Die For keeps aiming for those novels that barely qualify as mysteries but which critics and academia can take seriously. The collection, through its inclusions and exclusions, forms a very specific picture of the genre which I’m frankly sick of seeing. It’s a symptom of the crime genre in general: it is desperate to be taken seriously and I’m sick of it. To paint this picture we must resort to many stupid statements. Many authors feel the need to put down and/or apologise for Agatha Christie when writing their essay, because apparently that makes their work that much more literary. For instance, we find out that Agatha Christie never pushed the detective novel’s boundaries, not even in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd—a book that many readers, even today, have not forgiven her for writing!!!

I’m done. Books to Die For is an interesting premise, but the overall picture it forms is a failure. It becomes excruciating to read after a while. Far less content should have been devoted to contemporary work or more content should have been devoted to the past. Either way, the book is hugely flawed despite the protestations of the introduction that at least the inclusions should be flawless. It’s the inclusions that are responsible for these flaws. I highly recommend some individual pieces, but save your money and borrow it from your local library. This book will probably be nominated for an Edgar, but it frankly doesn’t deserve one.

A far better resource book in this general vein is 1001 Midnights, a book for which Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller are largely responsible, with several other contributors joining the fracas. 1001 Midnights is an enormous book and I haven’t even gotten a quarter of the way through it, but it avoids the flaws of Books to Die For. The different points of view balance each other out and you get a more complete picture of the genre, without losing on any of the enthusiasm. Besides, thanks to its size, when you’re not reading it, it can be used as a doorstop.


  1. I agree about 1001 Midnights. We really need a 1001 Midnights Vol. 2. Or a Catalogue of Crime Vol. 2.

  2. Bill Pronzini's and Marcia Muller's 1001 Midnights had terrific coverage of older books. It's been my privilege the last few years to correspond with Bill and his love for and knowledge of the mystery genre and it roots is striking.

    I've noticed that same phenomenon in these lists tomes, that they tend to skew heavily toward the now. To some extent dead writers compete with living ones and it's to be expected that living writers will usually win out in this contest! But I do think you make a good point that it's hard to synthesize the last twenty years, which isn't so much history as NOW.

    It would be nice if we had some more works on the past, say 1920 to 1940, or 1920 to 1960, and looked at a wider array of writers.

    Just imagine if we reduced the writing of the last twenty years to seven writers, like is often done, more or less, with the Golden Age (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Chandler, Hammett, Cain). Who would be left standing, for goodness sake? That's awfully limiting.

    1. Pronzini really knows his subject, and it's a joy to read his piece. Of course, it's also a joy to read through GUN IN CHEEK, but for slightly different reasons! Either way, you get a piece written by someone who knows his stuff. (Marcia Muller also writes an excellent piece on FADEOUT by Joseph Hansen.)

      It does rather irritate me how the bias is towards modernity and towards the hardboiled/noir style. I've nothing against the hardboiled, but when it comes to plotting vs. hardboiled style, the hardboiled one is far easier to ape. With plotting, you need to come up with a good plot. With the hardboiled school, if you can't come up with a good plot, well, neither could Raymond Chandler, so you're in the clear. (Perhaps that's why more people imitate Chandler than they do Hammett, but they seem to think their styles were identical.)

  3. I said exactly the same thing when this book came out. 1001 Midnights does a better job because it was made up of VARIED contributors: fans, writers, bibliographers, critics, but mostly fans who also happen to be mystery writers. Connolly's book is a marketing gimmick: writers writing about their favorite books. It capitalizes on a fan's love of writers. It's not about the genre at all. It's nothing more than an extension of the style of selling books. "If you like Joe Private Eye than you'll love Harry Hardboiled!" People who buy this kind of book are interested in what their favorite writers like and are most likely not interested in learning about the genre. As you discovered there is nothing to learn about the genre. It's all regurgitation of things already said and said much better and more informed by other real genre devotees.

  4. Oh wait... I'm not done by far! ;^) What you never mention here, Patrick, is how the book came into being. I think it's briefly summed up in Connolly's intro. But I heard him talk about it at last year's Bouchercon where the book sold extremely well. It was John Connolly's idea and he personally contacted the writers. The writers chose their book. He didn't assign them. And in at least two cases he had to write essays himself when two writers failed to come up with their contribution on time. He also had lots of duplicate choices in books. I wonder which titles they were. Do you think four writers cried out all at once: "I want to write about John Rhode! He was amazing in his choice of murder methods." No, it was all: "Jospheine Tey! Please, please!" Seriously. He had multiple requests for a woman who wrote less than ten books. If the overall book is heavy on noir or hardboiled that shows an already obvious trend in what current crime writers enjoy reading and writing and often emulating (but not as well as they think). You will find, if you ever travel to these book conventions (like Bouchercon where many of the writers were first approached about taking part in this book), that more than 90% of current crime writers don't read anything but CURRENT crime fiction. And they know very little about anything published prior to the mid 1970s. In some cases nothing earlier than the 1990s! It's sad, but true. You have to introduce them to some of the best from the past. I'm amazed how many current writers never heard of Ellery Queen or S.S. Van Dine or Margaret Millar or Mignon Eberhart and many, many others who were pioneers in the genre they are making their living at. There are countless writers (and fans) who don't understand references to "inverted detective novel" or "impossible crime" or "HIBK". Current crime fiction is not about detective fiction. It's a dead genre to most writers.

    1. I just had a vision of a policeman grabbing someone by the collar: "Oh, no you don't, my lad-- you're not getting away that easily!"

      I agree with you, and in fact I had to go back on this essay and severely revise what I'd written because it was overly aggressive in making a similar point. It started innocently enough, with a woman complaining about how We Women Are Always Treated Unfairly In Crime Fiction (which of course is why the Crime Queens were chosen to represent GAD), but it only gets worse and worse.

      I finally removed the thought from my review, but here it is again: several of the essays are four minutes or so in length according to my Kindle. These almost inevitably felt like the author dashed off something quickly in order to get some free advertising, and were among the dullest of the book.

  5. Excellent and spot on review! It echoes and articulates the criticisms that I also have about this book - thanks!