Whenever a trusted friend strongly recommends a book directly to you, chances are that will be the very next book you seek out and read. That was the motivation behind John Connolly and Declan Burke’s compilation of essays in BOOKS TO DIE FOR — only here, the trusted friends are celebrated crime/mystery writers themselves.
Of greater note, perhaps, is that the resulting recommendations are books the contributing authors are truly passionate about. While the individual title might be an important milestone in the genre’s history, what matters more is that it is the book that, back in the day, turned the author on to reading and writing in general, and to crime fiction in particular. You can tell because the essays are sparked with genuine enthusiasm — one of several reasons why this compilation is such a joy to read.
Editors John Connolly and Declan Burke have arranged the 121 short essays chronologically, from 1841 to 2008. This allows readers to either consume them in order, and thus, trace the evolution of the mystery genre from its foundations to its contemporary forms, or to select an essay either by an author they admire or about a book they are curious about.
Whatever the method, the collection is full of fascinating and delightful surprises. For example, noir master Allan Guthrie highlights Erskine Caldwell’s THE BASTARD not only as a formative noir masterpiece, but also as the way to distinguish “noir” from “hard-boiled.” Best-selling author Jeffery Deaver wants you to know about John D. MacDonald, but chooses one of MacDonald’s stand-alone works rather than one of his popular Travis McGee series novels.
Similarly, John Banville (whose contribution is itself a surprise, unless you already know about the crime novels he writes under the Benjamin Black pen name) would have you read one of Georges Simenon’s novels that do not feature his Inspector Maigret. And Paul Cleave appreciates how Stephen King sneaked in a couple of crime stories among those collected in DIFFERENT SEASONS.
Other surprises include the unexpected and vast range of influences the contributors reveal. Ken Bruen spotlights the work of the late Donald Goines — DADDY COOL in particular — to show how hip-hop and rap music has been inspired by this little-known urban author. Mexican author Elmer Mendoza confesses that it was British author John le Carré’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD that turned his eye toward crime fiction. And George Pelecanos champions Newton Thornberg’s all-but-forgotten CUTTER AND BONE.
Even the less-than-surprising notations are worth reading. We already know, for example, how much Elmore Leonard reveres George V. Higgins’ THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, but Leonard includes a postscript to his original essay here to reassure us that the book has lost none of its magic. Additionally, its no secret how much Max Allan Collins admires the late Mickey Spillane, but Collins’ essay on I, THE JURY notes how Spillane’s huge popularity and unadorned style changed the direction of crime fiction, even for those unaware of the influence (and loath to acknowledge it).
All the expected masters of mystery and crime fiction are included here, from the most formative (Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle), to the acknowledged and perennially celebrated past-masters (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain) and those more familiar to contemporary fans (Agatha Christie, Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly and several others). Yet particular credit is due to the editors for including essays hailing the works of lesser-known but undeniably influential authors, such as James Crumley, Daniel Woodrell, James Sallis and Richard Price, to name just a few.
BOOKS TO DIE FOR is one of those rare reference works that you first read for content, but later (and often) return to for the sheer pleasure of its many treasures. It’s a “must have,” in other words.
Can’t think of a book to give to that mystery fan friend of yours? Give BOOKS TO DIE FOR and you’ll be doing that friend a favor far beyond expectations. —Alan Cranis