Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Difference Between BOOKS TO DIE FOR And Mediocrity



Yesterday, the At The Scene of the Crime Blog engaged in an emperor-has-no-clothes rant against the Agatha and Edgar Awards, specifically against the books that get nominated for these awards.  The link is here.
Agatha Christie
The Agatha Awards seem designed to be won by Agatha Christie-like mystery novelists.  Since the sub-genre puzzle, cozy, and locked-room English mysteries are always less interesting to me than the more meatier American private-eye tales, I know in advance that they will not be my personal cuppa java--however, I also know that there are many readers who prefer such mysteries and some who read little else.  Why would anyone want to give a bad review to a book just because they haven't learned to appreciate that particular sub-genre?

Let the Agatha fans judge the Agatha Christie-like novels.

I sometimes give mixed reviews, but the reason I don't like any particular book usually has more to do with me than with the book at hand.  In my youth, there were books that I could not finish, or could finish only because it was assigned in school--many of these same books I now treasure and reread with pleasure.  The books have not changed, but I have.

And there are other books that I considered great back then, but which I now see as short-sighted and shallow.  We need to have a greater tolerance for other minds who might see the world differently.  How lucky we are that we have such a wide selection of novels to choose from, and a golden age of crime literature if there ever was one.

After all, there are many other sub-genre awards.

And his objection to the John Connolly and Declan Burke-edited Books To Die For seems especially misguided.  No one is going to agree with all of those authors, but without the prompting essays in that big volume, I might have missed several reading experiences that have made my life richer.

Some of the essays are lacking, as Michael Dirda pointed out in his
Washington Post review (link), but as Dirda also points out:

"...the general standard of the essays is high, most of them arguing for the depth and sophistication, the literary quality, of their chosen book or author. As the editors note in their thoughtful introduction, serious crime novelists do tend to be secret, or not so secret, moralists. In the headnote to Jo Nesbo’s rave for Jim Thompson’s “Pop. 1280” — chosen instead of the notorious “The Killer Inside Me” — Geoffrey O’Brien is even quoted as calling Thompson our “Dimestore Dostoevsky.”

Without a lot of fanfare, “Books to Die For” also points out that memorable European crime fiction existed long before Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. Qiu Xiaolong champions the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, both as mysteries and critiques of Sweden’s capitalist society. James Sallis quotes enough from Jean-Patrick Manchette’s “3 to Kill” that I want to find it in French.

Cara Black proves comparably good on “120, Rue de la Gare,” by Leo Malet, whose novels are nearly as popular in France as those of Georges Simenon — who, in his turn, is represented by “Act of Passion.” According to John Banville, a score of Simenon’s novels “can stand beside, or look down on, the work of Camus, Sartre, or Andre Gide.” Perhaps my favorite essay of all is Elisabetta Bucciarelli’s on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s psychologically and ethically complex “The Pledge.” There’s a paperback in this house somewhere, and I really must find it.

The best use of a volume like “Books to Die For” may finally be to remind readers — and publishers — of the many important authors or titles that merit rediscovery. For instance, introducing “A Stranger in My Grave,” Declan Hughes declares that its author, Margaret Millar, was “the greatest female crime writer of the twentieth century.” Arguable, to say the least, especially when one thinks of Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell (all represented here). But Millar is partially neglected because she happened to be married to, again in Hughes’s words, “the greatest male crime writer of the twentieth century,” Ross Macdonald. Again very, very arguable, but at least Macdonald’s work is a lot easier to find at the bookstore. Don’t miss “The Chill,” rightly called a masterpiece by John Connolly. . ."

Mediocrity?  Hardly.  Dirda doesn't even mention my favorites in here such as Paul Johnston's essay on Philip Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation and Denise Hamilton's essay on Kem Nunn's Tapping The Source, both of which I read and blogged about.

Were Johnston and Hamilton self-promoting?  Not overtly, though their intelligent essays had me checking out their books anyway.  Was the rant against the Agatha Awards and Books To Die For simply a self-promoting scheme?  If so, to judge by all of the talk it has generated and the comments on his blog, it was a very successful one.

Why didn't I think of that?


  1. Although my piece was rather a polemic one, I wouldn't take back a single word of criticism for BOOKS TO DIE FOR. You might find my full review helpful for why I hold such disdain for the book as a whole, even though several of the individual contributions are brilliant. It's a book that I read over the span of a few months, and it *seriously* ticked me off when I reviewed it, pre-undeserved-Edgar-nomination.

    1. (And my link to my full review disappeared on me. I'll try posting it again:)

  2. Heck, thanks for stopping by, and I'm impressed with your original review. You make some very nice points, but I disagree with your inferences from these points--which is to say, with your conclusion that this volume doesn't deserve an Edgar nomination.

    In reference to your complaint that some of the landmark books of the genre were overlooked, that too many of the essays used the same keywords and phrases such as "rising above the genre," that too many modern novels were chosen, etc. These things were beyond the editors control and this reader is glad that they didn't try to control them.

    What we have is a more honest book, and it does honestly reflect the modern trend toward noir or detective tales that surpass the genre. Other times will produce other anthologies. I have a bookshelf of anthologies like this one, a picture of which I posted when I first reviewed BOOKS TO DIE FOR in this blog.

    All of these books share the same faults, in that either they exert too much control to make the book representative of the historic landmark books, or else they too pick more modern works because they are more available and more relevant to their audience.

    The blanket is too short to do both and still cover the body of work. You cover up the head and the feet stick out.

    It is much more important that this is an honest work, rather than a more comprehensive and more historically representative one. It is the one book I've gone back to again and again this last year. It deserves the Edgar.

    1. I don't accept that, because it *has* been done before, in 1001 MIDNIGHTS. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller compiled it and there, with a larger selection and briefer essays, things are more to the point. It's a huge book chock-full of recommendations, and many authors join Pronzini and Muller with individual contributions. We get recommendations for authors everywhere between John Dickson Carr to Todd Downing to George Baxt to Sara Woods. It's a gigantic book, but because it covers so much ground, it's far more informative than BOOKS TO DIE FOR and far more valuable overall as a work of reference.

      Thing is, it just doesn't form an honest picture of the genre. I'm sorry, but you can't just have such a bias towards modernity. And in this book, plenty of @$$-kissing goes on in more modern times, as though the authors hope they can get a good cover blurb in the future. The praise is flat, empty, and almost always sounds identical to the essay that came before, making this section of the book a complete blur.

      Mike Dirda, one of the most intelligent critics around, makes an interesting point about the French crime wave... until I stopped to think about it and realized, hey, that's not representative of French detective fiction at all, that is not until the likes of Jean-Patrick Manchette came around and homogenized it into the same type of book. Until that point, you had some real creativity and diversity in the genre rather than clones of the same novel repeated ad infinitum. Simenon did his thing, but so did Steeman, Reouven, Boileau-Narcejac, Meroy, or M-B Endrebe. But who did they go with? Manchette, Simenon, and one or two others representative of their noir-ish school of writing. Because noir is popular these days. I like hardboiled and noir just fine -- I'm a detective fiction omnivore -- but I resent the fact that they are the only ones academia will dare touch with a yardstick. The genre, desperate to be taken seriously, panders to academia's tastes and in turn will only take such works seriously. And so the result is BOOKS TO DIE FOR, which is almost exclusively devoted to noir and hardboiled. This is painfully evident during the 1920s, where only two books are discussed, and neither of them are representative of the genre as it was in the 20s.

      I agree that some individual pieces are brilliant. Like Dirda, I bought a copy of BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL based on Bill Pronzini's essay. I did the same with the books covered by Marcia Muller and Christopher Brookmyre. But despite these brilliant contributions, I feel the vast majority of these essays were generic praise that really didn't add to my knowledge of the genre. Seeing just how much I still have to learn about the genre, that's not a sign of a deserving Edgar winner.

      My notion of an Edgar winner is a book like MASTERS OF THE HUMDRUM MYSTERY. HUMDRUM covers three very important Golden Age writers and gives you their biographies, which is in itself a major achievement. It also analyzes their bodies of work and comes to a few interesting conclusions, engaging in a serious discussion with Julian Symons and the conclusions he came to in BLOODY MURDER. It also does this in a style that is accessible to the everyday reader. It's why I bought two copies of this one, but if I were stranded on a desert island, would happily use BOOKS TO DIE FOR as kindling to make a signal fire.