Adam Somerset delves into a collection of essays from mystery writers celebrating their favourite mystery novels in his review of Books To Die For.
The subject of the ‘Great Welsh Writers’ television series for 11th March was Ken Follett. It was a feeble, fawning plod of a programme, bulked out with footage from a feature film that had nothing to do with the subject. It had a smell to it of a box-ticking, out-of-London quota that needed filling.
There is an art in what Ken Follett does. The programme-makers employed merely an off-screen voice and offered no sense of real engagement with the books. The Key to Rebecca and The Man from St Petersburg are plain exciting. The Third Twin is an unsettling tale about multiple cloning. Night over Water kept my spirits up over several days of being marooned in the dreariest place I have ever known.
Ken Follett does not feature in Books to Die For, although he might well have done. The definition here of ‘mystery novel’ is elastic. One hundred and twenty-one practitioners have written crisp essays on the books that hold special meaning for them. It starts with Poe and ends with Mark Gimenez. Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretzky, George Pelecanos and Ian Rankin are both contributors and subjects for appreciation. Val McDermid, John Harvey and Jo Nesbo are all contributors, writing on Reginald Hill, Peter Temple and Jim Thompson respectively. Their own creations, Tony Hill, Charlie Resnick and Harry Hole, await a future edition.
The criterion asked by the editors of their writers is ‘passionate advocacy…the single book that they would press upon you.’ It is not a survey, and every reader will feel their own sense of omission. Rebecca, In Cold Blood, Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Byatt’s Possession are in, but John Dickson Carr and Ngaio Marsh are not. Stieg Larsson and Lee Child have not yet made it. Carl Hiaasen’s writing is probably too rich in black comedy to fit easily alongside. I missed Nicci French; that partnership’s first twelve books are unique in their blend of woman protagonist, sense of place and focus on a particular psychological pathology. The book sweeps over one hundred and seventy years of writing, but misses out on Edgar Wallace and G K Chesterton. The Four Just Men and The Hammer of God resonate with this reader decades after their reading.
The genre has always had its friends and its not-so-friends. George Orwell did not care at all for James Hadley Chase in his essay ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish.’ Raymond Chandler and Edmund Wilson were critical in their essays ‘The Simple Act of Murder’ and ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ Gore Vidal included some skewering of Trevanian and Frederick Forsyth in his essays that dissected, with much relish, the best-seller list current at the time.
But in the opposing camp Jonathan Raban made a visit to John D McDonald in his native Florida habitat. The Travis McGee books in his view ‘created a heartbreakingly vivid portrait of a jungly Eden, spoiled and besmirched by human vanity and greed.’ My own grandfather did theology by day and Freeman Wills Croft and Michael Innes by night.
With such a huge selection the essays vary in degree of autobiographical detail, critical appreciation and personal tribute. But they are the view from the practitioner. The term ‘gender instability’ occurs once, but the emphasis is on effect and style, craft in narrative and complexity of structure. The essay on The Spy who Came in from the Cold stands out alone as a piece of nonsense, the approach probably forced upon the author, sadly, in his second role as a professor of literature.
Original passages of prose are quoted generously, and the writers pick out the literary qualities. Metta Fuller Victor was the genre’s first woman author with The Dead Letter written in 1867. Sara Paretzky sees in Bleak House the germs of Ed McBain, Anne Rice and Patricia Highsmith. John Banville finds prefiguring echoes of Lolita in Georges Simenon’s Act of Passion written eight years before. Harlan Coben in ‘Tell No-one’ switches between first and third-person narrator. Peter James rightly notes that Brighton Rock closes with one of literature’s greatest last lines ever.
The autobiographies of the subjects, as befits the genre, are honed to the essential. The lives are cited to cast light on the fiction. Clarence Cooper Jnr, author of The Scene (1960), was a heroin addict and died alone and penniless in a New York City YMCA. Donald Goines began writing while an inmate in Jackson Penitentiary, Michigan. Edward Bunker was ‘a criminal for the first half of his life…the youngest ever inmate to be incarcerated in San Quentin.’ The father of Caleb Carr of The Alienist stabbed a man to death and was helped, recounts Reggie Nadelson, ‘by the writer Jack Kerouac to dispose of the body.’ James Ellroy’s mother was victim of an unsolved murder. Adrian McKinty says that Patricia Highsmith started ‘a somewhat mean-spirited, standoffish, young adult’ and ‘in middle age her misanthropy morphed into full-blown anti-Semitism and paranoia.’
Other writers were more privileged. James M Cain was the son of a professor who always corrected his grammar. He claimed his biggest literary influence was a bricklayer named Ike with whom he spent time as a child. Edward Crispin was nom de plume of musician Robert Bruce McMillan whose compositions include ‘An Oxford Requiem.’ The name was borrowed from Michael Innes, another academic with a side-line in crime-writing. The thrillers by Poet Laureate C Day Lewis, not mentioned here, include The Beast Must Die which was the source for one of Chabrol’s best films. Nicolas Freeling of the Van der Valk series was cousin, says Jason Goodwin, of Erskine Childers of Riddle of the Sands fame.
The range of locations extends far beyond the obvious US-British heartland. Italy, France, Spain, South Africa, Turkey, Japan, Scandinavia obviously, all feature. Zoe Ferraris with her Saudi Arabia-based series is not here – she must make that austere country grimace that she was ever granted an entry visa.
As for the investigators they come in every size and shape. Jack Reacher is well-known as a giant of six feet seven. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe exceeds three hundred pounds in weight in some books. Another big guy, Gutman in The Maltese Falcon may have his roots in the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, a case on which Dashiell Hammett reported. Joseph Hansen’s insurance man Dave Brandstetter, was the genre’s first investigator to be gay. Wilkie Collins’ Inspector Cluff is revealed here as fiction’s first investigator to reach for the help of the magnifying glass.
Phil Rickman writes of Margery Allingham that ‘She uses light and texture like a good film director.’ No literary genre is so intertwined with the history of cinema. George Pelecanos is producer and writer for The Wire and Treme. The Postman only Rings Twice is so honed down that it comes close to pure dialogue. An unfamiliar title like Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day becomes less so with its other title Topkapi. John D McDonald’s The Executioners, with that most nightmarish of villains Max Cady, is reprinted as Cape Fear. Richard Stark’s The Hunter becomes John Boorman’s Point Blank and later the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback. Eddie Muller quotes in full the coffee pot scene from The Big Heat as originally written by William P McGivern.
The films Mystic River and Shutter Island – the most-undervalued in the Scorsese canon – are linked by author Dennis Lehane, another writer who is both contributor and subject. Megan Abbot draws out the differences between the Nicholas Ray film and Dorothy B Hughes’ novel of In a Lonely Place – ‘the most influential novel you’ve never read’. In the film Dixon Steele is dignified as being a successful writer. In the book he is a jobless, hustling playboy.
References to Wales are but occasional. Belinda Bauer’s compellingly original Blacklands is probably of too recent a date. A reader who makes the return to Colin Dexter’s early books will be surprised to find a Lewis who is Welsh, middle-aged, balding and overweight, and Morse’s senior in age. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a regular visitor to his friends the Baskervilles. The family home then was plain Clyro Court and is now the Baskerville Hall Hotel.
Kelli Stanley has a lot of respect for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. She reckons her unblinking eye for aberrant human nature to be equal to that of Clarice Starling. But this sizeable anthology reveals that the bucolic background of St Mary Mead is exception rather than rule. The genre at its peak imbibes great drafts of reality. Dickens wrote several essays about the real-life Charles Field from detection’s earliest days. When his fictional Inspector Bucket dons a disguise, melts into a crowd, spies on a suspect, his methods are all based on the real activities of Field.
The assassination of Irish Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins is the basis for Liam O’Flaherty’s The Assassin of 1928. (A contributor makes mention that Sweden’s murdered foreign minister had been a close personal friend). James Ellroy in American Tabloid brings in, among many, Hoffa and Hughes, Hoover and Jack Ruby, Sinatra and Monroe. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux in The Tin Roof Blowdown drives into a New Orleans where the bodies from Hurricane Katrina float.
Books to Die For is a great, gorgeous wallow of a read. But it has two aesthetic merits. To read it is to feel the world as bigger, fresher, more pressing. And there is the spur to action- time to blow the dust off Toxic Shock and revisit Paretzky’s multi-textured Chicago. I had given up on James Lee Burke on account of some nasty violence. Books to Die For persuades me to look again. Josephine Tey is clearly an author of importance. Ruth Rendell is represented by A Judgement in Stone. It is a good choice and vies with A Fatal Inversion and The Keys to the Street as her very best. George V Higgins is author of a book entitled On Writing. ‘Probably better read,’ writes Elmore Leonard, ‘after one has become a published writer, rather than before.’
The editors contribute a crisp seven-page introduction. They discern the virtues of the genre as ‘a distinctive capacity for subtle social commentary; a concern with the disparity between law and justice; and a passion for order, however compromised’. All are on display in spades, of the Sam variety, naturally.
Books To Die For