You know how it goes sometimes. You only mean to read a page or two to get a taste for what a book is like and then find yourself turning pages without realizing it and decide not to stop. I've only read a little bit, but I think Books to Die For, edited by John Connelly and Declan Burke is the book for me at the moment. And yes, it is hard to choose (especially with such a tempting stack of books) and yes, I do want to read more than one of them right now (and may find myself starting another as a matter of fact, since this is nonfiction and I could easily start reading another novel, too...). I love mysteries and crime novels, am very much in the mood for them at the moment (but then really, is there a time when I'm not in the mood for them?), so what better than a book of essays about mystery novels by mystery novelists?
The book is chock full of essays, mostly very short making it easy to dip into the book and read a couple at a time, which are arranged chronologically by the year each book was published.
"This is not a pollster's assembly of novels, compiled with calculators and spreadsheets. Neither is it a potentially exhausting litany of titles that winds back to the dawn of fiction, chiding the reader for his or her presumed ignorance in the manner of a compulsory reading list handed out in a bad school at the start of summer to cast a pall over students' vacation time. What we sought from each of the contributors to this volume was passionate advocacy: we wanted them to pick one novel, just one, that they would place in the canon."
"Because of the personal nature of the attachment that the contributors have to their chosen books, you will, in many cases learn something about the contributors as well as the subject, and not a little about the art and craft of writing along the way."
I fully expect to find many good books to add to my reading list. As a matter of fact I am hoping to find lots of good, new to me books and authors, or be prompted to pick up a book or two that 'I've been meaning to read for ages'. I'm looking forward to learning how authors work and were inspired. And hopefully learn something new about the mystery genre in general as well.
Women writers have been particularly strong when it comes to writing mysteries, have you noticed? The editors had some interesting things to say about the opportunities mystery novels give authors to explore the world, and especially women authors.
"...at the end of the 1970s and the beginnings of the 1980s, a number of female novelists, among them Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky, but also Amanda Cross and, in her pair of Cordelia Gray novels, P.D. James, found in the hard-boiled mystery novel a means of addressing issues affecting women, including violence (particularly sexual violence), victimization, power imbalances, and gender conflicts. They did so by questioning, altering, and subverting the established traditions in the genre, and in the process, they created a new type of female fiction. The mystery genre embraced them without diminishing the seriousness of their aims, or hampering the result, and it did so with ease."
Thinking about mysteries and how they work--how a really good one works, gives me itchy fingers. I feel another project coming on. Wouldn't it be fun to read the books that were chosen for inclusion in this collection? Since they are ordered by the year of publication it would be an interesting way of looking at the development of the genre. Alas, there are many, many books included and it would take me a long time to read them all, so I'll just stick with reading the essays about the books. For the moment. I am sure I'll pick up one of the books in due course (the wheels in my mind are already spinning as I think of the books on my bookshelves). And then there are the books that the essayists have written--so double that number of potential reads!
For a little taste--the second essay in the book is about Charles Dickens' Bleak House by Sara Paretsky. She's obviously smitten with Dickens and his work has influenced hers.
"Dickens was prolix. His novels often depend on ludicrous coincidences. He also had a great narrative and storytelling gift. Every time a reader zings off an angry letter, telling me they read to be entertained, not to hear about society's woes, I think, yeah, well, tell that to Dickens."
"If every crime novel in the world suddenly disappeared and only Bleak House remained, it would be a good place to rebuild the missing library. It contains John Grisham, Ed McBain, Anne Rice, and Patricia Highsmith, with a whiff of Mr. and Mrs. North, within its sprawling narrative."
I guess I need to pick up my own half read copy of Bleak House, don't I? Paretsky goes on to explain just how Bleak House contains all these disparate elements. She's not writing criticism but she does talk about the plot (my only complaint so far with the book is spoilers--she talks about the murder in the story and says who did it--maybe not such a big deal, but I'm going to have to beware as I read through the essays).
There's lots of quotable passages, so expect to hear more about this book. Already I am learning all sorts of interesting things about Dickens and how he worked (how he and Wilkie Collins traveled around England following the cases and careers of several detectives of the Metropolitan Police for instance--including the famed Jonathan Whicher). I think ultimately this is going to be a keeper and will likely be buying a copy for my own shelves.