One day recently, while browsing through my local independent bookstore (yes; I’m lucky enough to still have one of those), I experienced a startling realization: The previously ample reference section—boasting everything from dictionaries, thesauruses and foreign phrase guides to The Guinness Book of World Records and The World Almanac—had suddenly shrunk to one paltry corner of a single shelf. When I asked the shop’s owner what was going on, she told me, “Reference books just aren’t selling the way they once did. Today, people go online now to find their information. They don’t need all those hefty reference texts any longer.”
Heavens to Murgatroyd! (as Snagglepuss exclaimed). Could this be true? Is there no longer a need in our increasingly technological world for traditionally printed volumes of facts, history and cultural esoterica? I know there may never be another new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (its publisher having declared that “The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of percent a year”). But that doesn’t mean less extensive reference tomes shouldn’t continue to be made available, does it?
Not being somebody who wishes to fire up a computer or squint over a smartphone screen every time I need to answer a question, I keep myself generously supplied with reference works. Those include my grandfather’s 1943 edition of Webster’s Biographical Dictionary (which comes in handy whenever I need to identify an obscure artist or politician of yore), The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana (1994), The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988) and a small tower of dictionaries. Don’t expect me to relinquish those at anytime soon.
And then there are all my books about crime fiction and its contributors, some that I consider to be classics, and many of which are no longer in print.
Consider, for instance, Otto Penzler’s 1977 history, The Private Lives of Private Eyes, Spies, Crime Fighters and Other Good Guys. Publisher, anthologist and veteran Manhattan bookshop proprietor Penzler gathered within those 220 pages fairly detailed biographies of 25 characters familiar to readers of crime, mystery and spy fiction, from Lew Archer and Mike Hammer to Jane Marple, Perry Mason, Ellery Queen and the ever-colorful John Shaft. Somebody looking for the lowdown on James Bond’s taste in tie fashions (“He never uses a Windsor knot and dislikes at first sight a man who does”) or how much money Nero Wolfe needed to earn every month in order to maintain his staff, orchids and robust appetite ($10,000) need explore no further than Penzler’s volume, which draws its intelligence primarily from the novels about each of his fictitious subjects. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referred to this work over the years, but enough so that its bright-red cover is fraying a bit at the corners. As my mother used to say, books live to be loved, and this one certainly has been.
Sure, I could probably unearth this same information from the Web. However, I’d spend more time searching, and then be suspicious of whatever I did find (since most of what appears electronically has never passed before the eyes of an editor or fact-checker). And I’d miss the incidental delights of flipping past other biographies, perhaps learning something I hadn’t even known to be curious about—such as Modesty Blaise’s shortcomings as a vocalist (“She cannot sing, ‘even in the bath, because my range is about half an octave’”). One of the great values of reference books such as this one is that they’re worth getting lost in.
The same certainly holds true for Mike Ashley’s Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction (2002). Almost 800 pages long, it contains mini-bios of myriad wordsmiths laboring in this genre, from all over the world. If you want to get better acquainted with an author whose fiction you’ve just discovered—say, Kate Ross (creator of the Julian Kestrel Regency mysteries) or James McClure (the South African author of the apartheid-era Tromp Kramer/Mickey Zondi yarns)—you need look no further than Ashley’s giant, lightly opinionated resource. Here, too, you’ll find background on individual TV crime dramas and films, whether it’s director Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) or the 1971-1977 NBC series McMillan & Wife.
While we’re on the subject of small-screen crime-fighters, I should mention that one of the most-thumbed texts in my collection is TV Detectives (1981), by Richard Meyers. It’s a wide-ranging compendium of information and trivia about the cops, private eyes, espionage agents and amateur sleuths who flickered across American TV sets between the late 1940s and the early ’80s. Meyers writes about hundreds of programs, some of which he diagnoses at length (including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Mod Squad), others that he dismisses with remarks of more caustic brevity. Although there are sporadic minor errors in TV Detectives, sometimes committed in the cause of flippancy, it remains a highly readable effort that belongs in the library of anyone interested in television’s past.
Awarded only slightly less attention over the years is my copy of The Detective in Hollywood (1978), film historian Jon Tuska’s comprehensive study of “the movie careers of the great fictional private eyes and their creators.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re interested in Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes pictures, the various film incarnations of Charlie Chan, the big-screen adventures of Leslie Charteris’ The Saint, or Humphrey Bogart’s standard-setting portrayals of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Tuska treats them all with an attention to detail and context that makes this a valuable record of the genre’s growth as a whole, not merely a book for film buffs.
Among the best-recalled publications of this ilk was Dilys Winn’s Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader’s Companion (1977), an affectionate, 522-page compilation of short essays and witty lists, many of them penned by notable authors or critics such as H.R.F. Keating, Lawrence Block, Peter Dickinson and Stephen King. But a good idea is always worth recycling, and so the success of Winn’s text and Otto Penzler’s work spawned numerous imitations and expansions, among them William L. DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994); The Fine Art of Murder (1995), edited by Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg, Larry Segriff and Jon Breen; Bruce F. Murphy’s The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (1999); Rosemary Herbert’s The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing (1999); Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction (2010), edited by Maxim Jakubowski, and 100 American Crime Writers (2012), edited by Steven Powell, both of which feature contributions from yours truly. British critic Barry Forshaw has even produced two—count ’em, two—backgrounders on the currently hotter-than-a-sauna field of Scandinavian crime writing: 2012’s Death in a Cold Climate and this year’s Nordic Noir.
Is it really true that these volumes and any future such carefully crafted reference works don’t have a place in our contemporary world of online info-surfing? I hope not, for although some people might prefer the barebones brand of facts in which the Web specializes, there are still many of us who prefer to receive our knowledge about crime fiction and other subjects from paid experts with a critical eye and an aptitude for droll prose. At their best, these books are as entertaining as the subjects on which they dwell. The same cannot be said of Wikipedia entries.