CRIMES OF THE SCENE A Mystery Novel Guide For the International Traveler By Nina King, with Robin Winks and other contributors St. Martin's. 291 pp. $23.95
This book promotes the use of mystery novels, to say nothing of itself, as practical guides to places when you travel abroad. Well, yes. There's no reason to doubt that "The Third Man" can have utility as a street map supplement if you want to ignore the many tours available and retrace Harry Lime's footsteps in postwar Vienna on your own, and there's no disputing the likelihood that "Crimes of the Scene" will quicken your interest in the city and moment in time Graham Greene chose for his haunting story.
But "Crimes of the Scene" is far more valuable as an introduction to fiction of a certain kind, and you don't have to go anywhere to enjoy the full sweep of its pleasures. The intrepid authors have gone virtually everywhere for you. They've combed through thousands of "mysteries" (a category that here includes thrillers, detective stories and spy novels) and in most cases have shrewdly sorted the notable ones into interesting bins.
Each of the book's 21 chapters -- devoted to global region, country or city -- includes an overview, a "reading list" of authors and one or more of their books, and a little appendix of candidate books "noted but not reviewed." In some cases, "close-ups" advise readers about mysteries written in a native tongue.
The book's lead contributor is Nina King, who doubles as editor of The Washington Post's Book World and is described here as having been born in Panama into a military family that moved often (she left Panama at 6 months) and as having "traveled far and wide ever since." The other major contributor is Yale history professor Robin Winks, author of "Modus Operandi: An Excursion Into Detective Fiction." Twelve other lovers of mysteries make lesser but useful contributions.
Forgive the authors the wince-inducing pun that gives their book its title, because it is true in its way to their primary purpose, which "is to serve as a guide to the best and/or most characteristic mysteries of each destination." Moreover, notwithstanding the playful note "Crimes of the Scene" strikes from time to time, the book would be a serious addition to the library of anyone who wants an overview of the mystery-novel world.
Not quite the world, actually. Books that take place in the United States and England are excluded. "So numerous are the mysteries set in those countries that each needs a guidebook of its own," King writes in her wry, thoughtful introduction. "Crimes" also largely omits mysteries not translated into English. "As a result," says King, "this book is weighted toward novels by English and American writers -- and, inevitably, to the outsiders' viewpoints that they bring to foreign lands.' "
Many of the book's descriptions are models of compression. For example, in the chapter covering Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo, by Winks, there's this fully packed entry:
"TREVOR, Elleston. The Pasang Run (NY, 1962). Published as The Burning Shore in London in 1961, this is a top-shelf thriller about a burnt-out case who agrees to be manager of a tiny airfield in a remote part of Malaya. Trevor flew for the Royal Air Force in World War II, and airplanes play a prominent role in all his books, most particularly The Flight of the Phoenix, which was made into a successful motion picture, and his Quiller series, which he wrote as Adam Hall."
It's pleasing to country-hop in the pages of "Crimes" and renew one's acquaintance with, say, a Nicolas Freeling, in the chapter on the Netherlands. But it can be just as satisfying to read the arguments this book's authors make for unknown mysteries. For instance, Winks's inviting description, in his chapter on Australia, of Robert Barnard's "Death of an Old Goat," one of many novels described here previously unknown to me, has persuaded me to go looking for it.
Given the sheer number of books that "Crimes" describes, it's probably to be expected that veteran readers of mysteries will want to argue with some of the opinions expressed or quibble about a particular novel's place in the canon. For example, Len Deighton's "Funeral in Berlin," a splendidly dark tale that seems to me to deserve explication, has been given an awfully casual mention in the chapter on Germany.
In point of fact, the chapter on Germany -- although providing plenty of discerning observations -- is not really a chapter on Germany. The country is represented here almost entirely by mysteries set in Berlin or Bonn. Which means that a book as important as Geoffrey Household's thriller "Rogue Male" -- which may begin and end in a disqualified country (England) but whose plot is driven by a mock assassination elsewhere in Germany -- has fallen between the cracks.
In the end, however, such quibbles don't matter much when measured against the labor that went into stitching together this colorful quilt. Reading "Crimes of the Scene" is akin to coming across an interesting new friend whose opinions may sometimes deserve challenge but whose learning always demands respect. The reviewer is a senior editor at Washingtonian magazine who writes frequently about books, especially action novels and travel literature.