I admire the mission behind "Books to Die For", edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. Some mastermind has brought together some of the world's finest crime writers from all four corners of the globe. These writers were asked to write a piece on a "book to die for". It's defined as follows: "If you found our contributors in a bar some evening, and the talk turned (as it almost inevitably would) to favorite novels, it would be the single book that each writer would press upon you, the book that, if there was time and the stores were still open, they would leave the bar in order to purchase for you, so they could be confident they had done all in their power to make you read it."
It's an admirable idea, and after all, what could go wrong? Sure, a volume of this sort is bound to contain some omissions, but at least its inclusions should be excellent, and the different viewpoints should cancel each other out. For every author who is convinced that nothing is better than noir you can have one author who is convinced that plotting in the Christie mould is the best policy. For every author who prefers characterization and setting you can have one who prefers plotting and action. And thus, this collection should contain a book for everyone, and at the very least give you a balanced portrait of the genre.
Ha! In a perfect world, maybe. But we live on this world, and in our world we got a highly biased and highly problematic book. Some of the individual contributions are brilliant, but just as many (if not more) are very bad indeed and in only gets worse the further you read.
Let's start with the good stuff, though. Although the Kindle book is pricey, I think it's not a bad deal. Not only is the Kindle edition excellently formatted and proofread, there's plenty of material in this book to at least make the *amount* of material seem like a fair trade. There's also one major bonus in the collection's favour: many of the authors' essays are personal ones that give you an insight into their own writing techniques. This in turn can help influence your reading decisions.
Many of the individual contributions are absolutely brilliant. Some of my favourites included Sara Paretsky on "Bleak House", Kelli Stanley on "Murder on the Orient Express", Bill Pronzini on "Black Wings Has My Angel", Max Allan Collins on "I, The Jury", Linda Barnes on "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", Megan Abbott on "In a Lonely Place"... I'll cut things off here to keep this piece shorter than it might otherwise be. Because, unfortunately, there are plenty of flaws in this collection.
It's very clear that "Books to Die For" is only interested in one type of novel: the hardboiled or the noir. All others need not apply. To give the collection some appearance of diversity, they include not one but two Agatha Christies (my, my, how generous!) and guess who else makes an appearance from the school of plotting? If you guessed Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, or Margery Allingham, you win absolutely nothing. Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop and Rex Stout's Too Many Cooks make token appearances. And that's it from the school of plotting! Bye-bye!
Another thing that makes this book absolutely infuriating is its *major* gaps. It just doesn't give you a good overview of the genre's rich history. It overlooks major milestones in the genre--Trent's Last Case, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, etc. In fact, only two novels are chosen to represent the 1920s, and neither of them can be considered crime novels unless you really stretch the definitions. John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, S. S. Van Dine... all of them are completely overlooked, as though they never existed! We're talking about major contributors to the genre here, and not obscure authors that never had much of an impact!
But do you know what *really* ticked me off about this book? Guess how many books are chosen to represent the 1990s. Go on, I dare you. One? Two? Five? Ten? Nope. The answer is a staggering twenty-eight. In other words, the 1990s get more coverage than the entire genre up to the year 1947!!! WHY??? Most of these books are less than 20 years old, and thus have had almost no time to influence anything in the genre. It may look popular now, but it still hasn't passed the test of time. Many works go unacclaimed in their time and only years later is their importance re-evalued: "It's a Wonderful Life" is a perfect example. Equally, many books are popular in their own time and are entirely forgotten years later. So why does this collection have such a pronounced bias towards modernity, and covers the past largely through books that are close to the style that is popular today?
And then, the closer you get to modern day, the more grovelling is going on. It seems that, starting in the late 70s and continuing into modern day, everyone has changed the genre. Everyone has transcended the genre. Everyone has been a major influence on the genre. Coincidentally, everyone who transcended the genre also writes hardboiled novels or noir! The genre has been transcended so many times that I'm surprised that there is still a genre to transcend!
What I'm trying to say is this: a book can be perfectly good without transcending the genre, whatever that's supposed to mean. (It's an overused phrase without any real meaning, when you stop to think about it.) But too many of these essays are desperate to grovel at the feet of these authors and they throw all reason to the wind: their praise is desperate. Late in the book, an essay with some simple honesty is refreshing. The bad essays by their own wouldn't be too bad, but they're *not* on their own, and *that's* the problem. They're part of a string of essays that all sound the same. This is particularly true when we get to the explosion of women writing mystery stories with women as the detective. Essay after essay tells us that so-and-so broke new ground and did something nobody ever did before, and it sounds like the same essay is being recycled over and over again. Mercifully we're spared the Nordic noir craze of recent years, with only one or two books being covered.
All this frankly gets tiring after a while. You can do this kind of thing a few ways, but no matter how you do it you will end up providing some sort of picture of the genre. "Books to Die For" keeps aiming for those novels that barely qualify as mysteries but which critics and academia can take seriously. The collection, through its inclusions and exclusions, forms a very specific picture of the genre which I'm frankly sick of seeing. It's a symptom of the crime genre in general: it is *desperate* to be taken seriously and panders to the tastes of academia. To paint this picture we must resort to many stupid statements. Many authors feel the need to put down and/or apologise for Agatha Christie when writing their essay, because apparently that makes their work that much more literary. For instance, we find out that Agatha Christie never pushed the detective novel's boundaries, not even in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd--a book that many readers, even today, have not forgiven her for writing!!!
I'm done. "Books to Die For" is an interesting premise, but the overall picture it forms is a failure. It becomes excruciating to read after a while. The book is hugely flawed despite the protestations of the introduction that at least the inclusions should be flawless. It's the inclusions that are responsible for these flaws. I highly recommend some individual pieces, but save your money and borrow it from your local library. This book was nominated for an Edgar, but it frankly doesn't deserve one.
For a book that uses a similar idea and actually gives you an excellent overview of the genre, I recommend Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller's 1001 MIDNIGHTS. It's a bit old, having come out in the 1980s, and so it reflects the genre as it was perceived back then. But the insight into the genre is far more comprehensive than this book, and the various points of view actually do balance each other out nicely.