It’s no wonder our media is as bleeds-and-leads today, because it turns out to be nothing new. That’s one of the key takeaways of Lucy Worsley’s THE ART OF THE ENGLISH MURDER, a brief, absorbing history lesson on how the UK’s obsession with bloody deeds changed not only methods of law enforcement, but fertilized the roots of modern popular culture. Worsley has written ART as a companion piece to a 2013 BBC docuseries; when such a spin-off is undertaken, I can’t help but wonder if it’s merely a cash-grab or will render its parent project obsolete. In this case, neither is true. There’s just too much good stuff contained within this thin volume, as the erudite author recounts a few horrendous murders in 19th-century England that saw a hungry populace eat up every detail, turn out for public executions and purchase souvenir figurines of murderers and their victims for display on the mantle. Borne from this madness are an actual division dedicate to homicide investigation, waxworks as entertainment, a big break for a young writer named Charles Dickens, and a slew of detective fiction — hello, Sherlock Holmes! — still read today on both sides of the Atlantic.
Speaking of whodunits with long lives, anthologist extraordinaire Otto Penzler is wholly responsible for yet another must-have, brick-sized BIG BOOK of genre fiction. Following up equally definitive collections of pulps, ghosts, zombies, vampires and Christmas-themed mysteries is THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF LOCKED-ROOM MYSTERIES. That mouthful of a title is indicative of the collection’s breadth and depth, but anyone who’s had the pleasure to peruse the other wrist-strainers of the Vintage Crime series knows that its claims of completeness are not mere publisher hype. Of these 68 stories of the seemingly impossible, underheralded master of the subgenre Edward D. Hoch deservedly makes three appearances, each of which is worth the cover price alone. More widely known are classics by Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, but the discoveries are bound to delight. My favorite — and one of my five favorite short stories of all time — is Jacques Futrelle’s “The Problem of Cell 13.” I defy any reader who’s never uncorked its more-clever-than-clever puzzle-box narrative to try not to devour it in one sitting. Also represented are such stalwarts as Erle Stanley Gardner, Lawrence Block, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Wilkie Collins, Ellery Queen and some dude named Stephen King.
And seriously, does Penzler ever sleep? Because if the LOCKED-ROOM MYSTERIES weren’t enough, the man delivers another solid sleep-robber in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. While not a BIG BOOK in brand, it may as well be, as the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hardcover is no slouch as 624 pages and 33 classic tales. Poe’s “Murders of the Rue Morgue” from the book above also makes an appearance here, but the story is so excellent, influential and rich in repeat value that one hardly can fault the overlap. (“The Purloined Letter” also appears, making Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin character this collection’s MVP.) Other vaulted names include Jack London, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Washington Irving, Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, but not represented with the pieces one is likely to expect. That’s hardly a knock — in fact, it’s yet another notch for the “highly recommended” column. —Rod Lott