Even before I began reviewing crime fiction for a living, back when I was just a reader with a much smaller library, I was fascinated by books about this genre. Like the motion-picture fans of the early 20th century who devoured each issue of Photoplay magazine, or the omnivores of superstar quidnuncery who continue to keep People afloat, I was curious to know more about the folks—authors, filmmakers and TV producers alike—who brought me my favorite entertainment in all its forms.
Thus it was that I found room on my shelves for biographies of Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chester Himes, Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald. Beside them I arranged copies of Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler’s Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976), Jon Tuska’s The Detective in Hollywood (1978), David Geherin’s Sons of Sam Spade: The Private Eye Novel in the’70s (1980), Richard Meyers’ TV Detectives (1981) and William L. DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). Soon, these reference works were overflowing one shelf and threatening to make a second one sag.
Nowadays my line-up of non-fiction about crime fiction occupies most of a sizeable bookcase. Yet my appetite still hasn’t been quenched—and it likely won’t be, as long as new releases such as the following three continue to see print.
Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke
As much as readers like to select their own literary diversions, they’re also curious to know what novels authors themselves have enjoyed. Which makes this 560-page compilation of tributes to more than 120 memorable works of crime, mystery and thriller fiction so delightful. Edited by Hibernian wordsmiths John Connolly (The Burning Soul) and Declan Burke (who also compiled last year’s study of Irish crime fiction, Down These Green Streets), Books to Die For isn’t fully representative of what’s been published in this field over the last 171 years; notable omissions include Erle Stanley Gardner and Ellery Queen. However, it serves as both a primer on the evolution of the genre and an escort into its remoter corners.
Many of the picks are predictable; Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon wins Mark Billingham’s applause, for instance, while Max Allan Collins pens a paean to Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, Deborah Crombie enthuses over P.D. James’ Cover Her Face, and Joe R. Lansdale shows his love for Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Others are more idiosyncratic, such as Laura Lippman’s choice to write about James M. Cain’s 1942 novel, Love’s Lonely Counterfeit, or Gary Phillips’ remembrance of The Scene, an “unapologetic descent into a dark underworld” of junkies and opportunistic cops, concocted by Clarence Cooper Jr. The most affecting pieces, though, are also the most personal, such as Linwood Barclay’s essay that briefly gushes over Ross Macdonald’s The Goodbye Look before becoming a mash note to that famous author who—unbelievably—agreed to critique Barclay’s unpublished first detective novel; and Joseph Wambaugh’s story about how he talked out a work-in-progress with none other than Truman Capote, the author of In Cold Blood.
100 American Crime Writers, edited by Steven Powell
Full disclosure: I composed several of this volume’s biographical essays. But don’t hold that against it. 100 American Crime Writers is a fervent overview of this area of literature, providing insight into the starts and stumbles and successes of some of its most influential contributors.
Powell provides two essays at the front that recount the development of crime fiction since the mid-19th century and offer context for the author entries to follow. Like Books to Die For, 100 American Crime Writers—at a comparatively slender 392 pages long—will provoke as many discussions about which authors were neglected as who was included, and in such a consciously encyclopedic creation, the missing may be even more regretfully realized. (Iceberg Slim made it in, but not Stanley Ellin? Ann Bannon but not Anna Katharine Green or Craig Rice? William Faulkner but not Thomas B. Dewey or Charlotte Armstrong?) The 100 entries that do exist, though, appear thoroughly researched and are often plump with obscure nuggets of knowledge: the last time his wife saw “Thinking Machine” creator Jacques Futrelle on board the RMS Titanic, he was smoking a cigarette with millionaire John Jacob Astor; before embarking on a detective-fiction-writing career, William Campbell Gault ran a Milwaukee hotel; the gritty realism of Leigh Brackett’s crime fiction led film director Howard Hawks to believe she was a man, before he hired her to write the screenplay for the 1946 film The Big Sleep. And it’s nice to see the recognition of authors, such as Kinky Friedman and Jonathan Latimer, who’ve leavened this genre’s hard-boiled leanings with humor.
Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961, by Curtis Evans
Forty years ago, crime novelist Julian Symons committed his own crime of sorts: In his genre study Bloody Murder, he dismissed a whole class of early 20th-century British authors—best recognized for crafting fair-play puzzle whodunits—as “Humdrums,” focused solely on literary conundrums and lacking the skills to write stylishly or create compelling characters. Although we often think of that Golden Age of mystery writing as having been dominated by women (Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, etc.), most of those humdrums were actually men who’d come to the field from well-established technical or scientific backgrounds.
Evans seeks in this book to rehabilitate the reputations of three such novelists: Street, an English army artillerist and intelligence officer who published as “John Rhode” and “Miles Burton”; Crofts, a railroad engineer; and Stewart, a chemistry professor who adopted the nom de plume J.J. Connington. All of these gents earned grateful followings during the post-World War I era—especially Crofts, whose Inspector French series (once lauded by playwright T.S. Eliot and others) included The 12:10 from Croydon (1934) and Antidote to Venom (1938). And in Masters of the Humdrum, they and their stories find scrupulous, overdue attention. For the most part, Evans shuns any academic tone in favor of a fan’s passion, guaranteeing that at least a few of his readers will soon be haunting used book stores and the Web in search of the less-than-humdrum novels he cites.