Books to Die For – John Connolly and Declan Burke (editors)

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Earlier in 2012, I was involved in an interesting discussion on the crime fiction blog of Mrs Peabody who had declared herself ‘all autopsied out’.  There, contributors considered developments in both the appearance of the serial killer and the autopsy scene (US terminology, ‘post-mortem’ for the UK) in crime fiction.  Later in the year, an article by Otto Penzler in Publishers Weekly caused some consternation – heating up its reply section and causing a stir on a forum I frequent.  Well, he did ask for it when he said, “It is an inarguable fact that virtually everything of interest and significance in the history of detective fiction has been written in the English language, mainly by American and English authors. This is not chauvinistic, racist, insular, or opinionated; it is merely reportage.”  Until you are sure you’ve exhausted the world’s canons of literature through understanding all native languages or reading reliable translations, how can you draw such a sweeping and ignorant conclusion?

So, when stumbling across a copy of Books to Die For  in my local library, I already had two reasons to dip in: would I find my comments and those of my online colleagues supported within its pages?  After all, the premise of Books to Die For is that a broad range of the world’s crime fiction authors offers up the one book they would recommend to readers.  It’s the book because of the nature of the book itself, or because of the impact it had on the essay-writing author him- or herself, or indeed because of both.  That broad range does include writers who write in languages other than English and it’s interesting to see which novels they champion.  The structure of the book allows us to see the charting of the development of crime fiction over time where Books to Die For starts at the point of origination of the genre today (give or take a few years and a reasonable amount of debate which is documented within its essays) and ends with novels at the contemporary end of the spectrum.

As you might expect, the knowledge base is impressive.  Again, as you might expect, the quality of the essays varies, but the vast majority of those I read are pretty superb.  (I have not read them all.  Yet.  This is a reference for dipping into after all, and it makes the best tray of crime canapés that you are likely to come across.)

Do not be fooled that is something only for the occasional dipping either.  It has a very gripping quality.  Oh those crime canapés are short and sweet, so you can have another one, can’t you?  And then another.  And another.  And so on.  In bed one night I finally put the book down at 3am.  I needed some sleep but  my mind was racing all the same, full of novels I’d read many years ago and some popping up as the building blocks in the construction of a new ‘must read’ shopping list.  For Books to Die For will do that to you: evoke treasured memories and have you running for more, more, more.

Books to Die For will appeal to the new reader as well as the seasoned reader of crime fiction because that chart of history throws up some key and very exciting novels from their day.  In an age where we see quite a lot of derivative drivel served up, Books to Die For will direct you to the groundbreaking originals.  If you then follow up you’ll realise you’ve been reading pale imitations, and you’ll discover who the masters and mistresses of the genre’s wealth actually are and why.

Burke and Connolly have used their introduction to competently pre-empt and bat off the roars from the pedants that ‘X isn’t in it’.  This is a book based on ‘passionate advocacy’ asking the authors ‘…to pick one novel, just one, that they would place in the canon’.  But there is a wee flaw in delivery of their premise.  If each author is championing only one book, why do Messrs Burke and Connolly, along with Lauren Henderson (using Rebecca Chance, her pseudonym) have two entries?  I advocate that our fine editors should be forgiven here; they probably didn’t want to miss another ‘something special’ and the cake is all the richer for those three indulgent extras.

And the results of my immediate and urgent dipping?  Those interested in the Mrs P discussion noted above will find that Kathy Reichs makes a brilliant and informative case for Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, with Kathryn Fox performing likewise for Patricia Cornwell’s Post Mortem.  In the interests of coming from the left with suitable curve balls for Mr Penzler, Michael Robotham takes a curious turn with his case for the Danish Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  Now settled in the UK, Chinese author Diane Wei Liang looks to Japan and Natsuo Kirino’s Out for her ‘one book’ of passionate advocacy.  Fellow Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong, now domiciled in the US, makes a strike for Sweden with Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.  Turkey’s Mehmet Murat Somer stays on the domestic front with Perihan Mağden’s Escape.  Some proof, if we needed it, that the Penzler assertions leak from the bucket.

In the less urgent dipping that followed, it was simply fascinating to read the authors’ choices – some very surprising and some anticipated.  There were a few unfamiliar authors (to me) writing about well known authors and vice versa.

Where an author writes about the impact their choice has had on their own writing and/or writing career it can provide captivating insight.  Mark Billingham writes of the importance of acknowledging when a series character is becoming tired, for example.   I mention this as I thought the timing of his first standalone was spot on, branching out to prove breadth and create new interest before his series character Thorne could be perceived as heading that way.  (Thorne devotees continue to prove that time has not yet come, but Billingham has this one in the bag: his writing career is following a similar path to Michael Connelly’s, building assuredly and cannily.)

With just over two months to go to Christmas, forget the fattening of the goose and ensure that all crime aficionados’ shelves are trembling under the weight of this tome (for it is a very weighty tome).  Books to Die For should be an essential part of the crime aficionado’s reference library.  And those shelves will not tremble for long as Books to Die For is far too tempting to delay the reading process.  It will keep you awake well into the early hours; I can vouch for that with my 3am shift.

One last point: if you want to give dear old Aunt Mabel a copy – or anyone suffering with arthritis or similar afflictions – do consider the ebook format.  Books to Die For is a hefty book and it can be tiring on the hands, especially when it gets the reader within its grip, which is a given when you start reading.

To the editors and contributors (at every level) for this tome: you have done us proud in the world of crime fiction.  For that I thank you from the bottom of my bloodied ‘implements to kill’ drawer.