Indefatigable mystery bookseller/editor Penzler (The Big Book of Jack the Ripper, 2016, etc.) has assembled—wait for it—a collection of 15 stories linking murders to books, originally commissioned between 2011 and 2013 as feuilletons distributed by the Mysterious Bookshop.
Despite the name-brand roster of contributors, this is a very mixed bag, like so many of the bags readers and characters alike bring home from used bookstores. Jeffery Deaver’s tale of government agents bent on assassinating a villainous Mexican bibliophile is ingenious without being memorable. Bookcases crush booksellers to no great effect in Nelson DeMille’s (twisty and lightweight) and William Link’s (a guilty noir pleasure). C.J. Box, Peter Blauner, and Thomas H. Cook all root their tales in the history of World War II: Blauner’s duel between the dying Sigmund Freud and a would-be Third Reich blackmailer has the intensity of a good tennis match; Cook’s counterfactual anecdote makes much of a surprise that won’t surprise most readers; Box’s Western contribution to wartime intrigue defies classification or belief, even if it’s all true. Ken Bruen is tiresomely tough (lots of one-word paragraphs), Andrew Taylor tiresomely literary. Reed Farrel Coleman and Loren D. Estleman recycle familiar formulas with professional briskness; Max Allan Collins’ completion of a Mickey Spillane story inflates the formula without varying it. Laura Lippman, Anne Perry, and David Bell provide promising premises that peter out gracefully and often touchingly. Even the prize here, John Connolly’s Edgar-winning tale of a book lover who stumbles onto the strangest library in the world, is more notable for its lovely proposition than its execution.
No matter. Readers who love books will love reading about books, the people who love them, the people who kill for them, and the people who kill with them—often the very same people.