It’s that time of year again: You need presents — and quickly. May I suggest, to paraphrase Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, that there’s nothing like “a real book”?
Start with mysteries. If you thought Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was dazzling, wait till you read her masterpiece, And Then There Were None . The Folio Society offers to-die-for illustrated editions of both.
Readers who prefer short, sharp shocks will want In the Shadow of Agatha Christie , edited by Leslie S. Klinger (Pegasus), which collects “classic crime fiction by forgotten female writers: 1850-1917,” and The Realm of the Impossible , a hefty anthology of ultra-clever howdunits compiled by John Pugmire and Brian Skupin (Locked Room International). Comparably essential is All But Impossible (Crippen & Landru), the fourth collection of Edward D. Hoch’s Sam Hawthorne stories — as devious as John Dickson Carr, as cozy as “Murder, She Wrote.”
Of course, you can’t go wrong with any of the British Library Crime Classics (Poisoned Pen), most of them introduced by Martin Edwards, president of Britain’s Detection Club. For Coachwhip Publications, Curtis Evans — the leading American scholar of the fair-play detective story — has recently rediscovered The Roger Scarlett Mysteries, novel-length puzzlers written under this pen name by Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page (the latter a late-1930s book columnist for The Washington Post). Sourcebooks, in its turn, has just reissued Francis Duncan’s seasonally appropriate Murder for Christmas and two other 1940s mysteries featuring Mordecai Tremaine, a tobacconist (!) turned amateur sleuth. And certainly Trump-era Washingtonians will be drawn to The Big Book of Rogues and Villains (Vintage), in which Otto Penzler gathers tales of Raffles, Fu Manchu and scores of other charming or heartless master criminals.
Three current mystery novels should particularly appeal to those of a bookish or historical turn of mind: Con Lehane’s witty Murder in the Manuscript Room is his latest 42nd Street Library Mystery (Minotaur), and Bonnie MacBird’s second Sherlock Holmes adventure, Unquiet Spirits (HarperCollins) smoothly blends “whisky, ghosts and murder.” Not least, Peter Lovesey — the dean of English mystery novelists — remains as ingenious as ever in Beau Death (Soho), wherein Detective Peter Diamond discovers what may be the murdered remains of the 18th-century rake Beau Nash. Or are they?
Tantalizingly described as “a murder mystery with supernatural elements,” R.B. Russell’s She Sleeps (PS Publishing) is the much-anticipated first novel from an author widely admired for his “strange tales.” Those who crave additional chills will shudder over The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume 2 , edited by Allen Grove (Valancourt). Focusing on dark and light fantasy by Irish authors, Swan River Press has recently issued both Old Hoggen and Other Adventures , by Bram Stoker, which assembles forgotten stories from the author of “Dracula,” and Mervyn Wall’s A Flutter of Wings , a compilation of shorter pieces by the author of the great 1946 comic fantasy The Unfortunate Fursey (also available from Valancourt, with an introduction by me).
But what if you require a big sumptuous volume to place under the tree? You won’t find anything more breathtaking than SP Books’s facsimile of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s handwritten manuscript of The Great Gatsby, showing the deletions, emendations and reworked passages that eventually produced an American masterpiece. Fantasy fans will likewise covet Centipede Press’s In the Realms of Mystery and Wonder: Prose Poems and Artwork of Clark Ashton Smith , edited by Scott Connors. It’s chockablock with photographs of this major Weird Tales author and his African idol-like sculptures and eerie works of art. If, however, you prefer to see truly ancient artifacts, dig into Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past , edited by Paul Bahn (Smithsonian). Marvel at the picture of Stonehenge on the cover.
Over in Delaware, Oak Knoll Press specializes in books about books, such as Ronald Patkus’s The Privately Printed Bible , which lavishly demonstrates how scores of fine presses have printed and illustrated biblical texts, and the equally impressive History of the Limited Editions Club , by Carol Porter Grossman. The LEC — no longer active — produced illustrated or enhanced editions of literary classics, much like today’s Folio Society. For example, the latter’s new gift edition of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince comes in a slipcase with a matching volume of commentary by Christine Nelson, a manuscripts curator at the Morgan Library.
Three other very different contemporary books combine pictures and text in striking ways. For kids, there is Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr’s The Real McCoys (Imprint), a zany graphic novel about the world’s greatest fourth-grade detective. If I were 8 or 9, I’d be asking Santa for this book. The second is Cartoon County (Farrar Straus Giroux), in which Cullen Murphy reminisces about 1950s and ’60s comic strips and the artists who drew “Beetle Bailey,” “Blondie,” “Popeye” and “Prince Valiant” (this last the work of his father, John Cullen Murphy). The third book, Alive in Shape and Color (Pegasus), edited by Mystery Writers of America grandmaster Lawrence Block, features “17 Paintings by Great Artists and the Stories They Inspired.” Block’s lineup of contributing writers includes Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, David Morrell, Joyce Carol Oates, S.J. Rozan and a dozen others.
But speaking of grandmasters, don’t overlook James Gunn, who has been an award-winning science-fiction writer, scholar and teacher for almost 70 years. Now 94, he looks back on his career in Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction (McFarland). Enterprising SF fans will naturally, and boldly, seek out Michael Sims’s Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Science Fiction (Bloomsbury).
Finally, for the classical music lover on your list, consider three compact stocking stuffers: Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece , by Handel biographer Jonathan Keates; Beethoven’s Eroica: The First Great Romantic Symphony , by the versatile James Hamilton-Paterson (both published by Basic); and, not least, Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians (University of Chicago), in which the cellist Steven Isserlis revisits the romantic composer’s miniclassic and adds his own wise and delightful commentary.
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.