- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
My plea for today is “Tear Down That Wall, Mr. Publisher.” I’m talking about the almost universal practice of ghettoizing mystery/detective novels, putting them in a category away from so-called “literary” fiction, for some obscure reason calling to my mind Malvina Reynolds’s immortal song “Little Boxes” about post WW II suburbanization.
Until that day comes we’ll have to rely on tomes like “Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels” (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, 560 pages, $29.99) a wonderful anthology that quickly demonstrates how artificial the distinction between “genre” and “literary” really is. The essays in the book are arranged chronologically, with early writers like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe and Metta Fuller Victor appearing early in the book.
Metta who??? Karin Slaughter writes that American Metta Fuller Victor (1831-1885) was not only a pioneer crime writer, she also created the dime novel category that was the predecessor to the mass market paperbacks that were so important to writers like Mickey Spillane. In 1867 Victor also published “The Dead Letter” which has the honor of being the first full-length detective novel in the U.S. penned by a man or a woman. A true pioneer, virtually unknown today!
If you’ve seen the two movie versions of “Cape Fear” — the 1962 one directed by J. Lee Thompson, and the 1991 Martin Scorsese version — you’ll be particularly drawn to the contribution of Jeffrey Deaver on “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald that was turned into the two movies. MacDonald (1916-1986) is probably more famous for his Travis McGee novels, featuring the eccentric in the extreme Florida detective who lived in a boat called The Busted Flush. Deaver shows how different the novel was from both of the “Cape Fear” movies — and why it deserves to be read today.
In their foreword, the editors write:
“Why does the mystery novel enjoy such enduring appeal? There is no simple answer. It has a distinctive capacity for subtle social commentary, a concern with the disparity between law and justice, and a passion for order, however compromised. Even in the vision of the darkest of mystery writers, it provides us with a glimpse of the world as it might be, a world in which good men and women do not stand idly by and allow the worst aspects of human nature to triumph without opposition. It can touch upon all these facets while still entertaining the reader.”
The editors — mystery writers themselves — have commissioned essays from 119 writers from 20 countries to write why they like a particular book and how it influenced their own work. Among the essays:
Michael Connelly on “The Little Sister” by Raymond Chandler
John Connolly on “The Black Echo” by Michael Connelly
Kathy Reichs on “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
Mark Billingham on “The Maltese Falcon”by Dashiell Hammett
Kathryn Fox on “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell
Dennis Lehane on “The Last Good Kiss” by James Crumley
Chris Mooney on “Mystic River” by Dennis Lehane
You get the picture: more often than not contemporary writers like Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane not only contribute essays but are themselves the subject of appreciative essays.
When I mentioned the book to Shelly Reuben, a good friend and the Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based author of outstanding fiction that I’ve read, loved and reviewed — books like “Tabula Rasa,” “Spent Matches”, “Origin & Cause”, “Weeping,” “Julian Solo” and “The Skirt Man” — fiction that I refuse to ghettoize — she supplied me with this anecdote:
“I remember that when Tabula Rasa got published, we had expected Barnes & Noble to buy a gazillion copies. But their only response was…”What is this? It’s not a mystery,” and they bought almost none.
“Before my agent sold it to Harcourt, I also remember one publisher rejecting Tabula Rasa because it was a mystery, and they had wanted a literary book. The next day, another publisher rejected it because it wasn’t a mystery, and was too literary.
“If I let this stuff tear me apart, I’d be a mess. So…I just count my lucky stars for reviewers (and friends!) like you, and then I start to write the next book.”
* * *
The beauty of “To Die For” is that it works for newcomers to mystery fiction and those like me who’ve been around long enough to remember when Mickey Spillane’s novels came out in 25 or 35 cent paperbacks. Yes, I’m that old! In his essay on Mickey Spillane’s 1947 “I, The Jury” Max Allen Collins writes how important mass market paperbacks were to Spillane and other writers like James M. Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”) and — my suggestion — Erskine Caldwell, himself the subject of an essay by Allan Guthrie on his 1929 novel “The Bastard.” Growing up and scanning the books at our small town Rexall drugstore, I was more interested in the flashy, sexy for the time, cover art of Caldwell’s “God’s Little Acre,” to be perfectly honest! Blame it on raging hormones.
The publicity material accompanying my review copy calls “To Die For” “the most ambitious anthology of its kind yet attempted.” I can’t argue with that. In fact, this is the only anthology of its kind I’ve come across, with essays revealing as much about the appreciators as the appreciated. Writers of color like Walter Mosley and Donald Goines, and woman writers as diverse as Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Millar, Kathy Reichs and Anne Perry — among many others — get their proper attention and respect in this book.
About that great divide of “literary” vs. “genre” I noticed that editor John Connolly addresses it in his essay on “The Chill” by Ross Macdonald. Connolly writes: “….James Lee Burke, who remains, I believe, the greatest living prose writer in the genre. The other, now deceased, is Ross Macdonald….Burke taught me that the language of mystery fiction can aspire to the language of the finest literature, that there really should be no distinction between the two. A genre novel is not a poor relative of literature because it is a genre piece: it is poor only if the writing is poor and its reach is so modest as to count as the barest flexing of a muscle. There is only good writing and bad writing.”
I couldn’t phrase it better myself after decades of omnivorously devouring all types of writing and, for the last few decades reviewing books of all kinds.
John Banville — who has written both “literary” novels that have earned him the famed Man Booker Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize — and using the pen name Benjamin Black, six crime novels — discusses the literary vs. genre issue in his essay on Georges Simenon, the Belgian creator of Inspector Maigret and probably the most prolific writer in history. Banville writes that Simenon made a distinction between his genre fiction — books that Graham Greene called “entertainments” — and “what he called his romans dur, literally “hard novels” like ‘Act of Passion” (the novel that Banville examines).
On a personal level, I practice what I preach, not categorizing a novel as “literary” or “genre.” I’m with the above comment by John Connolly: “There is only good writing and bad writing.” Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn-Chee Navajo police books and George V. Higgins’ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” — to name just two of my favorite authors that are included in this anthology — are as good as good writing can get.
So get your hands on this book and devour it. It’s a valuable resource and at the same time a great browsing book.
About the editors
John Connolly is the author of Every Dead Thing, Dark Hollow, The Killing Kind, The White Road, Bad Men, Nocturnes, and The Black Angel. He is a regular contributor to The Irish Times and lives in Dublin, Ireland.
Declan Burke was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1969. He is the author of Eightball Boogie (2003) and The Big O (2007). He is also the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century. He lives in Wicklow with his wife Aileen and baby daughter Lily, and hosts a website dedicated to Irish crime fiction called Crime Always Pays.