Book World: ‘Books to Die For,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda
By Michael Dirda,
BOOKS TO DIE FOR
The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels
Edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke
Emily Bestler/Atria. 537 pp. $29.99
This is not your mother’s list of favorite mystery novels. Nor is it one that acolytes of the well-constructed whodunit will much care for. None of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes is included in “Books to Die For,” and few of the masters of Golden Age puzzles. Neither are the mistresses of the modern “cozy” anywhere in evidence. If you’re a fan of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, Ngaio Marsh, Dick Francis or —more surprisingly—Kenneth Fearing, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich and Chester Himes, you won’t find their praises sung here. Don’t even think about most of the contemporary authors who regularly attend Malice Domestic.
Apart from a few nods to iconic figures like A. Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey and Rex Stout, “Books to Die For” emphasizes the hard-boiled masters (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Paul Cain), the pulpmeisters of Gold Medal paperbacks and their ilk (Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald, Harry Whittington, William McGivern, Mickey Spillane, Charles Willeford), naturalists of the criminal milieu (Donald Goines, Derek Raymond, Clarence Cooper Jr., George V. Higgins), and nearly all the contemporary sensei of brilliant, poetic, gut-wrenching novels about violence and corruption in modern society: James Ellroy, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Richard Price, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin and Daniel Woodrell, among others.
While editors John Connolly and Declan Burke prefer to use the word “mystery” rather than “crime novel,” I do think most readers associate the former with puzzles and weekend diversion and the latter with fiction addressing “the complexities of human motivation” and the social ills around us. Very loosely speaking , the old-style mystery or detective story is relaxing; the new-style crime novel is upsetting. The argument implicit in most of the essays included in “Books to Die For” is almost always the same one: “X” is no mere entertainment; it is an exploration of human darkness.
In fact, Bill Crider might be describing at least half the titles honored in these pages when he summarizes Harry Whittington’s “A Night for Screaming.” This novel, he says, sets its main character in “a really bad situation, one from which escape seems impossible. But as bad as things might appear for the protagonist in the beginning, they get even worse. And worse. And then worse still.”
As you might expect, the contributions to “Books to Die For” vary widely in quality. For instance, Bill Pronzini, best known for his Nameless Detective series, writes so enthusiastically in praise of Elliott Chaze’s “Black Wings Has My Angel” — about an ex-con, a high-priced call girl named Virginia and a robbery gone wrong — that I immediately ordered a copy. Jeffery Deaver offers a superb essay on John D. MacDonald’s “The Executioners” and the two “Cape Fear” films it inspired. Megan Abbott’s account of Dorothy B. Hughes’s “In a Lonely Place” — a source text for the serial-killer novel — makes this classic sound not only compelling but also just what she claims: a book that “says more about gender trouble and sexual paranoia in post-World War II America than perhaps any other American novel.”
On the other hand, Lee Child simply mumbles some inconsequential remarks about Kenneth Orvis’s “The Damned and the Destroyed” and leaves one with no real sense of the book. Erring on the other extreme, Allan Guthrie, lauding “The Bastard,” by Erskine Caldwell, lays out the entire shocking plot. Somewhat sheepishly, Elmore Leonard dusts off, for still another go-round, his familiar (and admittedly excellent) encomium to George V. Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Elmer Mendoza’s eccentric fantasia on John le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” ultimately seems overly personal and self-indulgent.
Still, there are 119 contributors here, from 20 countries, and the general standard of the essays is high, most of them arguing for the depth and sophistication, the literary quality, of their chosen book or author. As the editors note in their thoughtful introduction, serious crime novelists do tend to be secret, or not so secret, moralists. In the headnote to Jo Nesbo’s rave for Jim Thompson’s “Pop. 1280” — chosen instead of the notorious “The Killer Inside Me” — Geoffrey O’Brien is even quoted as calling Thompson our “Dimestore Dostoevsky.”
Without a lot of fanfare, “Books to Die For” also points out that memorable European crime fiction existed long before Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. Qiu Xiaolong champions the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, both as mysteries and critiques of Sweden’s capitalist society. James Sallis quotes enough from Jean-Patrick Manchette’s “3 to Kill” that I want to find it in French. Cara Black proves comparably good on “120, Rue de la Gare,” by Leo Malet, whose novels are nearly as popular in France as those of Georges Simenon — who, in his turn, is represented by “Act of Passion.” According to John Banville, a score of Simenon’s novels “can stand beside, or look down on, the work of Camus, Sartre, or Andre Gide.” Perhaps my favorite essay of all is Elisabetta Bucciarelli’s on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s psychologically and ethically complex “The Pledge.” There’s a paperback in this house somewhere, and I really must find it.
The best use of a volume like “Books to Die For” may finally be to remind readers — and publishers — of the many important authors or titles that merit rediscovery. For instance, introducing “A Stranger in My Grave,” Declan Hughes declares that its author, Margaret Millar, was “the greatest female crime writer of the twentieth century.” Arguable, to say the least, especially when one thinks of Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell (all represented here). But Millar is partially neglected because she happened to be married to, again in Hughes’s words, “the greatest male crime writer of the twentieth century,” Ross Macdonald. Again very, very arguable, but at least Macdonald’s work is a lot easier to find at the bookstore. Don’t miss “The Chill,” rightly called a masterpiece by John Connolly.
While the titles chosen for “Books to Die For” range in date from 1841 (the Dupin stories of Edgar Allan Poe) to 2008 (Mark Gimenez’s “The Perk”), each does seem to deserve its place in this hall-of-fame volume. Moreover, despite the preponderance of noir, one can still read Ruth Dudley Edwards on Edmund Crispin’s madcap “The Moving Toyshop,” Laurie R. King on Peter Dickinson’s “The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest,” Paul Charles on Colin Dexter’s first Inspector Morse novel, “Last Bus to Woodstock,” and Val McDermid on the much-admired Reginald Hill’s “On Beulah Height.” In short, “Books to Die For” is, even given its biases, as good a collection of short essays on crime fiction as one is likely to find.
But who, you wonder, landed the honor of writing about the finest American mystery of the past 40 years? Dennis Lehane. The book is, of course, James Crumley’s “The Last Good Kiss” — absolutely unforgettable, utterly heartbreaking.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.