Sunday, September 29, 2013

You People Slay Me! Books to Die For (2012)

a landmark collection?
Modestly subtitled The World's Greatest Mystery Writers On The World's Greatest Mystery Novels, Books to Die For (2012) swept three of the four mystery awards for best critical work this year, taking the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity.  How does BTDF live up to its august reputation?

To be sure, BTDF has succeeded in providing a lot of people with what they clearly wanted: a book with lots of modern mystery writers (the front flap says 119; the BTDF website says 120) writing essays on a lot of books (I count 121).  On the jacket one finds the telling statement that the book contains "a series of personal essays that often reveal as much about their authors and their own work as they do about the books that they love."

However, if BTDF is meant to be more than a collection of personal testaments from mystery writers and to be a lasting survey of the greatest mystery novels throughout the history of the genre--and we're told on the jacket flap that it's "the most ambitious anthology of its kind yet attempted"--it falls short in some significant ways, in my view.

For a book that includes essays on so many books, its overall coverage of the mystery genre is seriously truncated, leaving gaping holes of neglect in its coverage of older books, as well as its coverage of writers, often women, working outside the hard-boiled/noir/procedural traditions.

Co-editors John Connolly and Declan Burke* write in their Introduction to BTDF that "the mystery novel has always prized character over plot, which may come as some surprise to its detractors."  Although this statement is demonstrably incorrect, it does give a good hint to the thinking of the co-editors. The mystery's "provision of entertainment is not the least of its many qualities," Connolly and Burke cautiously allow.

*(Additionally Ellen Clair Lamb is BTDF's "assistant editor."  On Lamb's twitter page she dryly notes that she is a "writer, editor, researcher" and "all-purpose minion to several authors you probably heard of").

In BTDF the modern "crime novel"--though the co-editors use the term "mystery"--is privileged over the "mere puzzle" (a term I use repeatedly in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery to portray the dismissive attitude of many modern mystery writers and critics toward puzzle-oriented detective novels).

Mysteries are defended not on the ground that they can be good tales, as the late critic Jacques Barzun long argued, but rather on the ground that they can be great literature. To quote the editors again: "those who dismiss the genre and its capacity to permit and encourage great writing, to produce great literature, are guilty not primarily of snobbery--although there may be an element of that--but of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fiction and genre's place in it."

well, he's not exactly Peter Wimsey 
Given the chary view of puzzle-oriented mysteries evinced in the Introduction--might there be an element of snobbery in it?--it should not be surprising that only two of the 121 works in BTDF come from the 1920s, the great decade of the unabashed puzzle-mystery.

And the two books that are included from the twenties are almost hilariously inapposite, at least judged by the reigning aesthetics of the mystery genre in that decade: Liam O'Flaherty's The Assassin and Erskine Caldwell's The Bastard (later on, from the 1960s, we get Truman Capote's great true crime study, In Cold Blood).

If you expect to find in this book such names as S. S. Van DineEllery Queen and John Dickson Carr (all actual detective novelists), think again.

The coverage provided in BTDF leaves something to be desired, if you are a fan of classic mystery. Let's break it down:

1841-1902 (7)
1903-1927 (0)
1928-1943 (17)
1946-1958 (14)
1960-1969 (18)
1970-1979 (16)
1980-1988 (11)
1990-1999 (28)
2000-2008 (10)

Yet the few critical reviews of BTDF on Amazon have faulted this book for including too many old books!  By "old," do they mean anything before 1990?  Probably so.  As it is, however, nearly a third (31%) of the books come from 1990 and afterward, compared to just 6% from 1841-1927 (we get nothing at all from 1903 to 1927, evidently the mystery plague years to judge from BTDF: not R. Austin Freeman, not Melville Davisson Post, not Mary Roberts Rinehart, not E. C. Bentley, not even G. K. Chesterton, surely one of the most literary writers of detection who ever lived--and there are short fiction collections by others included in BTDF).  Even from the Golden Age of detective fiction (stretched to go up to 1943) come merely 14% of the books.

I do not like thee, G. K. Chesterton?

From 1841 to 1958, a period of nearly 120 years, we get the same number of books as we do from 1990 to 2008, roughly the last twenty years.  31% of the books come from before 1960, 69% 1960 and afterwards.  Can this really be a fair representation of the mystery genre?  I am sure that it is gratifying to many modern crime writers (and their most devoted fans) to think so, but some of us may, with all due respect to the now, differ about this.

For the classical mystery fan it gets worse when one looks at the actual books included. From the Golden Age of detective fiction, we have, in addition to aforementioned The Assassin and The Bastard (not quite drawing room they!):

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key
Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase
Leslie Charteris, The Holy Terror
Paul Cain, Fast One
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Rex Stout, Too Many Cooks
Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male
Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
James M. Cain, Love's Lovely Counterfeit
Leo Malet, 120, Rue de la Gare

Of the seventeen books listed, all of three, I believe, could be considered classic mysteries: the Sayers, the Christie and the Stout.  Hard-boiled/Noir accounts for twelve (including O'Flaherty and Caldwell), then we have a Gothic (Rebecca) and a traditional, Golden Age thriller (the Saint collection The Holy Terror).  From the era of its greatest flowering the classical detective novel gets barely enough succor to constitute life support.

But what about the late forties and the fifties, when the classical detective novel was still hanging on pretty well?  We have, of the fourteen books included from this period:

Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop
Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair
Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar
Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke

The Franchise Affair
one of the few genuine classical
detective novels to die for?
This is really an even more paltry selection, from the classicist's perspective.

The Crispin novel is the one from the period where the ingenious yet whimsical author most set aside coherent plot in favor of madcap humor ("it is not for his plots that I love Crispin," tellingly writes Ruth Dudley Edwards, who penned this essay).

Brat Farrar is more a thriller, I would say, as is The Tiger in the Smoke (none of Allingham's wonderful true detective novels are included).  Of these titles, really only The Franchise Affair offers readers the delights of true ratiocinative detective fiction.

What do we get after 1960, in the way of classical detection?  Well, P. D. James makes a brief appearance with her debut detective novel, Cover Her Face.

Then there's Ross Macdonald's The Chill, which has a classical plot in hard-boiled (or semi-hard-boiled) dress, and Macdonald's wife, Margaret Millar, with her tricksy A Stranger in My Grave, though it was marketed as a novel of psychological suspense.

Later in the decade, we get Christie's Endless Night, also more a psychological crime novel, Ross Macdonald's The Goodbye Look and Peter Dickinson's bizarre Skin Deep.

In the 1970s, there's Colin Dexter's Last Bus to Woodstock, almost this volume's last classical gasp.  From 1992 I see Margaret Maron's Bootlegger's Daughter, from 1993 Jill McGown's Murder...Now and Then (an excellent, pro-puzzle essay by Sophie Hannah) and from 1998 Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height, which looks about it (if I missed something, let me know).

Michael GilbertH. R. F. KeatingPeter Lovesey and Robert Barnard do not appear. Ruth Rendell, one of our most accomplished modern detective novelists as well as a psychological crime novelist, is represented by A Judgment in Stone, a crime novel in which we know from the start who the murderer is, as well as the victims.

So it is no exaggeration to say that BTDF shows a bias against the classical detective story. As Michael Dirda conceded in his (favorable) review in the Washington Post:

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....Don't even think about most of the contemporary authors who regularly attend Malice Domestic.*

*(this observation from Dirda makes the BTDF's winning of the Agatha even more ironic)

But what do the few essays on classical detective novels actually have to say about the books? Let's take a look.

But first, let's start off with the barely covered Victorian and Edwardian era in BTDF, for some clues to where we are headed in the Golden Age.

one of a good number of
Golden Age mysteries with
a policeman as lead sleuth
In her enjoyable essay on Charles Dickens' Bleak House (an entry not as classifiable as a genre mystery novel as a number of works by Dickens' contemporary Mary Elizabeth Braddon, none of which are included in BTDF; but then Rita Mae Brown picks the even more inappropriate Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities!), Sara Peretsky writes:

Later crime writers, from Conan Doyle to Dorothy Sayers [Sayers wouldn't like it that her "L." was omitted!--TPT], turned professional police into stolid lower-class men who needed constant help from Holmes or Peter Wimsey to solve their cases.  It wasn't until the second half of the twentieth century, with the cops of the 87th Precinct, or police like Dalziel and Pascoe, that the skilled police detective came back into vogue.

I think Peretsky may actually be a bit unfair here to Sayers and her character Inspector Parker, but she's also unfair more broadly to the entire Golden Age, which actually did have intelligent police protagonists, such as Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn (admittedly rather hard to distinguish form Lord Peter), Henry Wade's Inspector Poole, J. J. Connington's Chief Constable Clinton Driffield, Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant, E. C. R. Lorac's Inspector Macdonald, G. D. H and Margaret Cole's Superintendent Wilson, Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French, and numerous Edgar Wallace sleuths.

In her essay on Metta Fuller Victor's The Dead Letter, which makes it into BTDF rather than anything by the more accomplished mystery writer Anna Katharine Green, Karin Slaughter (author of several number one bestsellers we are pointedly reminded) complains that Metta Fuller Victor and Anna Katharine Green have been "forgotten to history" and of "literary historians, who mostly concentrate on Edgar Allan Poe...then skip straight to Dashiell Hammett, as if fifty years of American crime writing had never existed."

Surely Slaughter means more like eighty years, but, in any event, this seems to me an unfair charge against genre historians.  Probably were it not for them, Karin Slaughter herself--along with many of us, to be sure--would never even have heard of Metta Fuller Victor as a mystery writer.

One thing academic scholars have been doing most assiduously the last fifteen years or more is resurrecting Victorian-era women mystery writers, in the U. S. and other countries.  And as for Anna Katharine Green, she was never "forgotten" in good mystery genre histories, even back in the Golden Age.

Woman Gone Missing
(at least from Books to Die For)
Slaughter continues: "The world of fiction--especially crime fiction--has a tendency to ignore the contributions of women, no matter how popular they become."

Given some of the omissions in BTDF--among older women writers no Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Mary Fortune, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Mignon Eberhart, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Gilbert, Christianna Brand, Elizabeth Ferrars, Craig Rice, Charlotte Armstrong, Ursula Curtiss, Shelley Smith, Celia Fremlin, etc.--this is an ironic charge (Slaughter herself notes the problem the BTDF editors had in finding contributors "to talk about female writers").

Certainly it is not true of the classical detective novel, as far as genre histories are concerned. The British Crime Queens get a tremendous amount of favorable attention in genre histories (certainly more so than they do in BTDF, Josephine Tey excepted).

Speaking of which, let's move on to the Golden Age (and beyond).

With her essay on Sayers' Have His Carcase, Rebecca Chance pens one of the high points of the book, in my view (under her actual name, Lauren Henderson, she also contributes an excellent essay on Christie's Endless Night).

Peter and Harriet in Have His Carcase
a good howdunit puzzle to go with the love interest

Chance praises Sayers' inclusion in the novel of "tide tables and a fiendishly complicated code (this is the type of thing for which the "Humdrum" detective novelists about whom I write were known; Sayers, incidentally, in Have His Carcase thanks John Street for helping her with all the hard parts, as she puts it).  Chance values the howdunit sort of book that Sayers tended to write as much as the pure whodunit. She also prefers the Sayers novels where "the solving of a crime has more weight than the sexual tensions between the two main characters [Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane]."  Amen to that!

In her essay on Murder on the Orient Express, Kelli Stanley writes that "the novel is far more than a logic problem" and praises Christie's psychology and darkness.  Personally, I think a far better example of Christie's "darkness" is And Then There Were None, about which Stanley also writes (though not in an independent essay); she's certainly right about this brilliant mystery novel's overlooked noirish quality. However, there's no need to apologize for Christie's amazing skill with "mere puzzles."

Or maybe there is, when BTDF includes condescending asides like this one, from Joe R. Lansdale's essay on Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, where he dismisses the "thousands of stories about dead people in the parlor where it's all solved in the end as if it were a crossword puzzle."

Louise Penny, in her essay on Tey's The Franchise Affair, similarly strains to disassociate her subject from "mere puzzles": "Like the best crime novels, it's not so much about the crime as the people involved."  Well, it is true that Tey has exceptionally good characters in this novel, but, when I read it, I was on tenterhooks wondering what the solution would be!  In part that's a function of good characterization, but it's also the function of a good plot, which "the best crime novels" should have, in my view.

In his essay on Allingham's The Tiger in the Smoke, Phil Rickman opines that "Margery Allingham was probably the first writer to outgrow the so-called Golden Age of the crime novel."

Margery Allingham
first to "outgrow" the Golden Age?
This tendentious sentence is full of error to my mind.  Most certainly Allingham was not the first writer to "outgrow" the conventions of the Golden Age (what about Anthony Berkeley Cox, for example--not that you find an essay on him in BTDF).

But what is this "outgrow" business? More of the idea that puzzle-oriented mysteries are for children, or those who think like them, I suppose.

Yet in truth super-highbrows like T. S. Eliot loved the stuff.  Also, no one claims, surely, that the 1920s and the 1930s was the Golden Age of the crime novel, but rather of the detective novel (which it indeed was).

Rickman also writes that The Tiger in the Smoke is out-of-print, yet it appears to me that in England a Vintage edition, in print since 2005, is still available, while in the United States a Felony & Mayhem edition has been in print since 2010. Marge is doing quite all right for herself, actually.

The Crime Queens collectively get a gratuitous kick, however, from Declan Hughes, in his essay on Margaret Millar (a writer I too really admire). Hughes pronounces that Millar "was the greatest female crime writer of the twentieth century" (has Hughes really read all the female crime writers of the twentieth century?).  He then pronounces that for characterization and delineation of "class, race and sexual manners" she leaves the Crime Queens "for dust."  Hughes also has this observation, which made me smile:

If Jane Austen had landed in Southern California in the 1940s, reacquainted herself with the Gothic conventions she had pastiched in Northanger Abbey, read some Freud, and tried her hand at crime fiction, she might have written like Margaret Millar.

That's a lot of ifs there, Declan!  Perhaps if Jane had had a sex change operation, married a much older woman, gotten fired from her job and developed a major drinking problem, she might have written like Raymond Chandler.  Let's just let Jane be Jane.

all well and good, but her books needed some murders
Jane Austen, the Margaret Millar of the 19th century?

In her essay on P. D. James' Cover Her Face, Deborah Crombie (a best-selling author, we once again are pointedly reminded) allows that "While a few of the Golden Age detectives were policemen, perhaps most notably Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn, they were also aristocrats...."  Well, this is true of Alleyn, but not so of other Golden Age policeman protagonists that I recall (see those listed above).  You actually cannot always generalize from the Crime Queens to all Golden Age British writers.

Crombie observes that murder is not taken lightly in James' first detective novel, "an attitude that marks a departure from most Golden Age whodunits."  I find this statement rather sweeping.  It ignores or insufficiently credits the important changes going on in the classical detective novel in the 1930s.

Crombie concludes that Cover Her Face is "a bridge between the enjoyable but workmanlike whodunits (with the exception of the Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L. Sayers) of the years between the wars, and the evolution of the British detective story into its modern incarnation, the detective novel, which can take its place with the best of today's literature."

Was Dorothy L. Sayers really the only Golden Age British mystery writer who wrote genuine literature, like modern mystery writers today (like--to throw out a name completely at random, of course--Deborah Crombie)?  Is Sayers' Whose Body? a better novel than, say, Margery Allingham's Dancers in Mourning, Nicholas Blake's The Beast Must Die or Michael Innes' Lament for a Maker? I am not persuaded by Crombie's bare assertions.

In his essay on Nicolas Freeling's Gun Before Butter, Jason Goodwin indelicately observes that Freeling "belonged to a generation [of writers] that spat out Agatha Christie and her fellows, and admired Chandler."  Although actually Freeling had some nice things to say about Sayers' fiction (and some scabrous things to say about Allingham's), those sentiments certainly are reflected in BTDF, despite the presence of two Christie books. The inclusion of a few Golden Age greats in this book feels largely likely tokenism, a slight attempt to redress a huge imbalance in favor of modern/hard-boiled/noir/procedural crime fiction.

last seen puzzling
It is of course perfectly legitimate for anyone to produce a book with this sort of (or any other) aesthetic tilt, which may well generally represent the views of a great majority of modern crime writers; and I'm sure many people have immensely enjoyed BTDF.  And, to be sure, some of the essays in the book are very good (for example, Minette Walters on Rebecca, Megan Abbott on Dorothy B. Hughes' In  a Lonely Place, John Connolly on Ross Macdonald's The Chill and Bill Pronzini on Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel, one of the longest pieces in the book and universally praised).

Nevertheless, from my perspective as a classic mystery lover, I find BTDF a disappointment because to me it represents a lost opportunity. I would have preferred what President Obama in another context calls a balanced approach.*

Many BTDF contributors may be dubious of this assertion, but it actually is possible to admire both Christie and Chandler, to think both authors are great creative artists.

As noted above, even some of the few contributors on classical detective novels in BTDF seem eager to distinguish their special gal or guy from those other "mere puzzlers." The new Poirot mystery writer, Sophie Hannah, in her interesting essay on the late Jill McGown is as bold as the book gets in defending the puzzle: "If, like me, you're a structure freak, if you believe the puzzle aspect of crime fiction matters, read her," Hannah writes, with some commendable passion, of McGown's work.

Hannah's particular preferences (and her unabashedly expressed enthusiasm) are unfortunately rather rare in BTDF, however.  When I got to Paul Charles' essay on Colin Dexter's Last Bus to Woodstock and on page 278 read the line "Dexter's books are essentially puzzles," I found myself wondering, how in the world did Dexter's detective novel ever get to be a book that is to die for?

*(And it's not just classical mystery that is neglected among the "old"--i.e., earlier than 1960--books. Besides the comparative absence of the post-WW2 psychological suspense novel associated so much with women writers, there is the invisibility of such brilliant, noirish plot constructors as Cornell Woolrich, Joel Townlsey Rogers and Fredric Brown).


  1. You haven't actually sold this one to me! I think I will pass to be honest. I suppose any anthology would struggle to please everyone.

  2. I'd have been less critical of the omissions if the book didn't include so many essays and weren't purporting to be some sort of a landmark survey. It just has too many limitations unless one is mostly just a fan of procedural/hard-boiled/noir and gritty modern realism. For having so many books, it didn't seem to me that there really was that much variety. I like all sorts of crime books, but I do have a partiality to classic crime and it was disappointing to see that get such short shrift.

  3. I'll certainly be avoiding this one like the plague. It confirms my suspicion that most modern crime writers are ashamed of their own genre.

  4. I may have to find a copy of this, to add it to my blog's "100 books to die before you read" section! An excellent assessment filled with useful scholarship; thanks for your overview. My experience is that books like this rise quickly and are forgotten quickly; the problem is, they elbow more scholarly work out of the way in awards competitions.

    1. Thanks, Noah, I thought I would wait until the awards hubbub died down. I don't want to give a sweeping negative view of the book. There's a lot of stuff in it. Had it been more marketed as a book on modern noir, say, that would be another thing. But it's coverage of classical mystery is disappointing, no getting round it. Really surprised this won the Agatha.

  5. A terrific review Curt - it is very clear where the editors were coming from which, wherever one's particular proclivities lie, makes it a highly partial view and very, very far from the comprehensive book that they puport to be delivering. It is very sad to see such an a-historical view being taken, seemingly without apology (Dirda certainly seems to have hit the nail on the head) - I remember when their initial list went online as my (negative) reaction to it was pretty much the reason i decided to start blogging. Very nicely done (in) sir, if I may say so ...

    1. Thanks, Sergio! I thought it was time I write about it.

  6. What bothers me most about this book is the celebrity cachet it exudes. The whole thing smells of marketing tricks. It's laughable to think of it as some kind of "ultimate" guide when the only people who contributed are "bestselling" mystery writers. I'd never buy a book about the genre by a bunch of writers who only applaud themselves and pat each other on the back. The lack of acknowledgement of the pioneers of the genre, the disinterest in the past, and the absent recognition of writers who did it first is not only disheartening it's a bit despicable.

    1. Yes, I'm not at all clear on why being a "bestseller" makes you more of an authority on mystery genre history!