And the Nominee Is: Books to Die For

By David Corbett 

Due to numerous ungodly demands, I’m unable to do justice to a new post this week, but in celebration of the award nominations — including the Edgar and the Agatha to date — being extended to Books to Die For, the sprawling and marvelous collection of essays edited by John Connelly and Declan Burke, I thought I’d offer it again.

For those of you who haven’t yet picked up this book, it really is an indispensable guide to crime fiction by the women and men who love it so much they write it.

Last year, John Connolly asked if I wanted to take part in an anthology he and Declan Burke were planning, with the invaluable aid of Assistant Editor (and esteemed Answer Girl) Ellen Clair Lamb.

The premise: Ask some of the best crime writers in the world today what book within the genre—whether a classic, a modern masterpiece, an overlooked gem, or a long-forgotten pulp—most influenced them, inspired them, or otherwise led them to want to shove a copy into the hands of every unsuspecting reader they came across.

Compensation: A pittance, or a bottle of whiskey—Midleton Very Rare Blended Irish Whiskey, to be exact.

Guess what my answer was—both as to whether I wished to join the scrum and what form of compensation I preferred.

Turns out, I was in excellent company.

The result: Books to Die For, a compendium (love that word) of almost 120 pieces from writers around the world that hit bookstores in the U.S. yesterday. (It came out in the U.K. last month.) 

It’s truly a must-read for the crime aficionado on your Christmas list—or, as John and Dec put it perfectly in a word of appreciation sent out to the contributors:

Quite frankly, we don’t think there has ever been a line-up quite so starry in any previously published anthology, and the quality of the contributions was exceptionally high. In the end, the book functions not only as a reading guide, but as an overview of the genre.

That’s an understatement. Treated to my own copy, I’ve been reading the entries and marveling at the books chosen, the insights and historical perspective provided (the books are arranged chronologically), as well as the personal statements of awe and fascination and devotion—even envy.

To give you some idea of who some of the contributors are, just check out this list of those attending the promotional event at Bouchercon (at the Cleveland Marriott Renaissance):

Linwood Barclay, Mark Billingham, Cara Black, Lee Child, Reed Farrel Coleman, Max Allan Collins, Michael Connelly, Thomas H. Cook, Deborah Crombie, Joseph Finder, Meg Gardiner, Alison Gaylin, Charlaine Harris, Erin Hart, Peter James, Laurie R. King, Michael Koryta, Bill Loehfelm, Val McDermid, John McFetridge, Stuart Neville, Sara Paretsky, Michael Robotham, S.J. Rozan, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Kelli Stanley, Martyn Waites, and F. Paul Wilson.

And that list neglects Elmore Leonard and Joseph Wambaugh and Marcia Muller and Rita Mae Brown and George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane and Karin Slaughter and Laura Lippman and Jeffery Deaver and Bill Pronzini and Tana French and Louise Penny and Ian Rankin and Jo Nesbo and Megan Abbott and Sara Gran and John Harvey and Ken Bruen and Minette Walters and Kathy Reichs and Scott Phillips and Joe Lansdale and Chuck Hogan and Lisa Lutz and Patricia Cornwell and Eddie Muller and Meg Gardiner and Adrian McKinty and Margaret Maron and James Sallis and …

For a complete list of contributors and the books they chose, as well as Bonus Materials from some of us who had other books we wanted to champion but space would not permit—the book already clocks in at an impressive 730 pages—check out the Books2Die4 website.

Some of the entries are gems of critical appreciation. Some read like fan letters. Every single one I’ve read so far has taught me something I didn’t know.

Karin Slaughter selected Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter and makes an airtight case that the overlooked Victor—a woman writing voluminously in the mid-to-late nineteenth century—was far more influential to the subsequent development of the genre than Edgar Allan Poe:

Victor’s novels were not driven to immediate climax, but filled with reversals, twists, and misdirections that both prolonged the denouement and arguably made the climax that much more rewarding. Victor didn’t just set out the facts of the crime: she explored social mores, distinguishing between the upper and middle classes with a subtle reference to clothing or manner. She described atmosphere and scenery in careful detail, giving her stories an air of grounded reality. The characters in Victor’s books were not cynical about crime. They felt loss and tragedy to their very core. For these reasons and more, it seems that the Victor formula, not Poe’s, is the convention to which modern crime fiction more closely hews.

Megan Abbott makes a similar argument for Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place—“the most influential novel you’ve never read”—a serial killer tale from the murderer’s point of view that preceded Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me by five years.

Hughes hoists her killer on the autopsy table, still breathing, and shows us everything he doesn’t want to see about himself: the twin arteries of masculine neurosis and sexual panic that drive his crimes. It turns out that Hughes is up to much more than telling a killer’s tale. Through her dissection, In A Lonely Placesays more about gender trouble and sexual paranoia in post-World War II America than perhaps any other American novel.

Two of my favorite entries were written by my fellow Murderateros Martyn Waites and Gar Anthony Haywood.

Martyn selected Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, a book he routinely recommended to the inmates he tutored at one of Her Majesty’s prisons. It’s the first Socrates Fortlow novel from Walter Mosley, a series often overshadowed by the Easy Rawlins monolith. When my late wife read this book, she forced it on me with the same enthusiasm Martyn does, saying, “This isn’t like a crime novel. It’s like a myth.” Here’s how Martyn puts it:

It’s no accident that this lead character has been given the name of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy. Written in the aftermath of the L.A. riots and the Rodney King beating, this hulking ex-con becomes a contemporary inquisitor, asking difficult moral questions of a society that has retained a dogmatic grip on the letter of the law but has lost purchase of its fair and compassionate spirit.

Gar selected Richard Price’s Clockers, a book I often go back and re-read. Gar’s entry brings in his father, and I always enjoy reading Gar discuss his dad. It turns out that Gar lent his father a number of top-tier crime novels, but only one “blew him completely away.”

“This guy’s the real deal,” he told me when I asked him what he thought. And coming from my father—a man of few words if ever there was one—this was high praise, indeed…. Reading it from a writer’s perspective, you’re immediately struck by the vast array of skills Price has on display: plotting that moves at optimum speed, characters that live and breathe, dialogue devoid of a single false note. And this last is no exaggeration: every word of every line Price’s people speak in Clockers rings true. Every one.

My own pick was James Crumley’s The Wrong Case, and it pairs with Dennis Lehane’s appreciation of The Last Good Kiss. Of Crumley’s ability to make even the absurd seem not just believable but necessary, I wrote:

He set a tone that kept you off-balance, a tone that blended a kind of sly irony with heartsick desperation, an understanding that the battle for the good is fought by ingeniously flawed men doing the ridiculous in the service of some angry, inscrutable truth.

The anthology is full of gems, each only a few pages long, so it’s easy to wrap one up in a brief sitting and move on to the next, or wait to savor it later.

Speaking of savoring it later: I haven’t tried the whiskey yet, saving it for some special occasion over the holidays. But it’s from County Cork, where William Augustus Corbett and his bride, Katie, spent their lives before sailing to America in 1882. That alone bears promise.

So, Murderateros: If asked to name just one book in the genre that had an overwhelming impact on you, which one would you choose—more importantly, why? (Feel free to add your remarks to those of otherson the book’s website.)

A select group of booksellers will have copies signed by various contributors. For where to find one of those copies, go here.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: In one of my very first author appearances (with Laurie King and Michael Connelly), I was asked a question similar to the one asked of me by John and Dec for Books to Die For. But I didn’t name a book or a writer. I admitted that I was probably far more influenced by this man than anyone I’d ever read, specifically this song:


6 thoughts on “And the Nominee Is: Books to Die For

  1. Larry Gasper

    I don't think I commented on this the first time around, so here it goes. For me it would have to be "The Green Ripper" by John D. MacDonald. It influenced me less for its content, though that was first-rate, but more for catching me at a time in my life when I was acquiring literary models. I'd just grown out of "The Golden Age of Science Fiction" (the teenage years) and was looking for more. "The Green Ripper" was the first adult crime novel I bought for myself (who could pass on a cover that had the Grim Reaper with an Uzi slung across his back) and set the tone for much of my reading in the years that followed.

  2. David Corbett

    Larry: I remember that cover. We haven't seen the likes of Travis since. I've got a feeling we won't in a very long time.

  3. Lisa Alber

    I remember your previous post about this compendium. Thanks for the reminder that it's actually out now. (My answer to the question was REBECCA.)

    Seems like being in this book would be the literary equivalent of being invited to the party of year along with the In-most popular crowd. Fun!

  4. Erin Alford

    I think I need this book.. Copperhead Road is one of my all time favorite songs! I think I'm gonna go dig out my Steve Earle cd and jam! 🙂

  5. Sarah W

    Setting aside A Study in Scarlet, which was my intro to detective stories . . . I think Red Harvest by Hammett had the biggest impact on me.

    I think I was about twelve or thirteen and I'd just caught the end of the Maltese Falcon on TV one Sunday afternoon. I was confused (as anyone would be) and frustrated, (since my chances of seeing it again, in those days before VCRs and cable, was slim to none), so my Mom took me to the library to find the book. It was out, so I checked out Red Harvest instead.


    I already knew about flawed heroes, but up until then, those flaws were mostly abrasive or annoying personality quirks or mistakes made in haste or under duress. The Continental Op, though — he was the first protagonist I'd read, the first Good Guy (or so I'd assumed), for whom the end completely, ruthlessly justified the means (more so even than Sherlock Holmes) and who judged the idea ending by a completely different set of rules than the ones followed by the other literary detectives I knew.

    I didn't know protagonists were allowed to DO that. It was game-changing amazing to me.

  6. David Corbett

    Lisa: Minette Walters wrote her piece on Rebecca. I read it recently and marveled at a prose style that wouldn't get past an editor these days — which is not a credit to the publishing industry. It's a devastating book, a great choice, and far more troubling than the movie.

    Erin: I once remarked that Copperhead Road probably had more of an influence on my writing than anything I read. I just made a CD for my girlfriend who's driving across country, taking the southern route, and I made different CDs for different part of the country. Needless to say, Texas was generously seasoned with Steve Earle (as was tennessee, actually).

    Sarah: I can imagine your bewilderment with Maltese Falcon — thank God you hadn't seen the Big Sleep. And then BOOM: Red Harvest. Oh what a detonation that must have set off in your gentle little mind. Great story. Thanks.

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