BOOKS TO DIE FOR: JOHN CONNOLLY and DECLAN BURKE, eds : a review

BOOKS TO DIE FOR

This is a delicious book, a veritable Wisden of Crime Fiction. The megastar of Irish Crime Writing, John Connolly, has teamed up with one of the rising stars, Declan Burke, to edit an anthology which brings together over 100 of the world’s best crime and mystery writers to nominate and write about their favourite book in the genre. The result is a hefty tome – 700 plus pages – that entertains, educates and stimulates.

The list of  contributors constitutes virtually a roll-call of today’s top mystery writers who overwhelmingly and enthusiastically  agreed  to participate by choosing  just one work by one author of particular importance to them.  Their choices  range from Poe to the present , covering  major and not so well known artists in the field, presented and analysed with a fresh eye. Some subjects get two contributions (Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Dickens), while some of the contributors are themselves the subject of articles (Rankin, Lehane, Pelecanos, Leonard, Connelly)!

All the types and themes of crime and mystery fiction past and present are represented including the eccentric high IQ and wealthy amateur sleuths, solving mysteries which the plodding police cannot, as well as the hard-boiled private eyes at the coal face of street crime.  Two thirds of the contributions cover the more cerebral and reflective authors and works of the last half century.

We get fascinating insights into the minds of the contributors, how they think, what influences them, even what inspired them to write. The essays are deep and informative, with fresh modern appraisals of both work and author. For the reader there is the added bonus that, as the editors point out, where a favourite author is the subject of an essay, chances are that the reader will enjoy the work of the essayist also. The result, not just one but two lists of books and authors to be read.

The editors also acknowledge that there will always be some to take issue with what is not there or even the particular book chosen from an author’s work. Take Raymond Chandler, where neither The Big Sleep nor The Long Goodbye make the cut, with Michael Connelly (a big Chandler fan) focussing instead on The Little Sister, because that book was more personal to him. Many of the contributions are in similar vein, inviting the reader to explore the designated author more thoroughly.

The selection is mouth-watering. The editors each have two choices, with  John Connolly selecting Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo, featuring Harry Bosch, and Ross Macdonald’s The Chill, with his  hero Lew Archer,  the subject of an incisive and sensitive biographical essay. Declan Burke chooses Liam O Flaherty’s The Assassin, a much underrated novel, and George Pelecanos’ ( the Washington D.C. writer and co-producer of “The Wire”)The Big Blowdown, ” a crime novel that can make you cry.”

Among the other Irish contributors, John Banville picks Simenon, though not a Maigret, but rather one from the darker side of the oeuvres, “Act of Passion,”  possibly the only Simenon work to be written in the first person. Colin Bateman picks on  one of Robert  Parker’s Spenser novels, explaining that when he wrote Divorcing Jack, Spenser was the model, Parker the style. Tana French writes about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and its strong influences on her, with the characters driving the plot, rather than vice versa. Eoin Colfer picks The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips, dubbing it a comedy classic and  genuinely hilarious as well as excellent crime noir.

Many British writers stick with their own. Peter Robinson picks Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters Du Maurier, Val McDermid Reginald Hill and Ian Rankin (Black and Blue chosen by Brian McGilloway) Derek Raymond. Mark Billingham revisits The Maltese Falcon, what many consider the greatest mystery novel ever,  cautioning against the iconic screen portrayal by Bogart( Houston’s preferred choice, George Raft,  far closer to Hammett’s original Sam Spade). Elmore Leonard picks The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which he describes as a revelation. Leonard, famous for his dialogue, learned from Higgins and considers the book “makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew.” Praise indeed.

Jo Nesbo chooses Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, reflecting on the author’s sad decline as well as paying tribute to his best work, an influence on  Nesbo’s own.  Kathy Reichs  picks The Silence of the Lambs, inter alia because of the use of a strong woman as the lead. This was not, though, the landmark Reichs asserts. Sara Paretsky launched  V.I. Washarski , her iconic and feisty Chicago detective in 1982, a giant leap in the development of fictional  female detectives. Indemnity Only and Toxic Shock are subjects in the book, while Sara herself contributes a superb essay on Dickens’ Bleak House, focussing on his social conscience and compassion for the poor.

Just a taster.  No need to look any further for a Christmas present, though beware,  this is a book that fans will rush to acquire.

September 2012

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