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 compendium 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 (Friday afternoon at 4:00 in Grand Ballroom A of 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 Place says 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 others on the book’s website.)

Final Note: John will be touring to promote the book, and a select group of booksellers will have copies signed by various contributors. For where to find John or 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:


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

  1. Jake Nantz

    Dennis Lehane, A Drink Before the War.

    That book showed me so much about writing a character. Patrick Kenzie is a guy who is at once at home in, and a stranger to, his hometown, and that same dynamic applies to almost everything in his life. It pervades everything: his relationship with his partner, his struggle to overcome the reality of his father (especially considering the heroic view others have of the man), his friendship and complete trust in a psycopath, and the way he's an outsider in both the ritzy group who wants the woman found, and the conflict of gangbangers that her discovery leads him into the midst of.

    I love the Kenzie and Genarro books, but none of them came close to that first one. It may not have won the awards Mystic River got, or had the movie sales Shutter Island had, but it is by far the best, in my opinion. Every mystery writer should read that book with a sticky note on the front that says, "This! This is what you aim for. This is what you should be trying to produce. Even if you don't hit that mark (few will), with this as your target you will always be headed in the right direction.

  2. David Corbett


    May I sheepishly attest that I've not read A Drink Before the War, but now feel I must. I have, on the other hand, been re-reading Mystic River, and I'm finding his instinct for character to be exquisite. His ability to capture inner life with just the right detail and a pitch-perfect ear for voice, it's truly remarkable, and the book improves on a second go. Given your praise for his first, I'll have to pick it up. Thanks for the recommendation.

    And seriously, post this same comment on the Books to Die For website — the link's above. I think this deserves to be heard by as many readers as possible.

    Thanks for checking in.

  3. Dee

    As an early and avid lover of the mystery/crime genre I have read, loved, and recommended hundreds of books in the last 5 decades. But there is a special place in my heart for Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky. A female PI! I cannot emphasize enough how delightfully shocking and empowering this book was for a woman of my generation. VI was a real woman doing what the men do best–or so it had always seemed–with heart, grit, and determination. There was no mention of a perfect body, perfect hair, perfect house or perfect boyfriend, and yet she was a hero. I could feel a big change coming, and my reading world is a better place for the path she opened up.

  4. David Corbett

    Dee: As I wrote in one of my postings here some time back, women make great investigators, and I've worked with several. It was about time fiction caught up with fact on that one, though in fact I think the two phenomenon weren't that far apart time-wise. Regardless, things did change after VI showed up on the scene, and the genre's much richer for it.

    I think this is an excellent insight and I'd encourage you, as I did with Jake, to post it on the Books to Die For website.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Wow! That was fantastic, David! What an amazing anthology. I love the examples you selected to discuss in your blog. I'm with Megan Abbott – I would have chosen "In a Lonely Place," or perhaps "The Killer Inside Me." It would be a tough call, though, as there are so many great books to choose from. Richard Price and Walter Mosley – equally brilliant. Or I might have chosen "Crime and Punishment" or "The Collector." They both contributed to the psychology of the modern crime novel.
    I'll be picking this up for sure.

  6. David Corbett


    Interestingly, neither Crime and Punishment nor The Collector were picked. (Also overlooked: Ross McDonald.) I'd have gladly taken The Collector, but John liked my take on The Wrong Case — seeing it through the eyes of a PI — and so we went with that.

  7. Lisa Alber

    I'm sitting here racking my brain for one book…and then Stephen mentions THE COLLECTOR. I'd completely forgotten about that one and how much it blew me away when I read it. Creeped me out on a visceral level. I also loved THE MAGUS.

    On the total opposite end of the crime spectrum, REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier comes to mind. That book was a huge influence on me, perhaps because I read it so young, but still. There's nothing more classic than the scene in which our unnamed protagonist breaks a knick knack and is so intimidated that she tries to hides the fact from evil Mrs. Danvers.

    The dreamy yet creepy atmospherics, the specter of dead Rebecca haunting everything, the secrets, the facades pretending at perfection, the slow culmination of facts leading to the truth of Rebecca's death, the loss of innocence, the fall from grace…To this day, I love that kind of thing.

  8. David Corbett

    Lisa: You're not alone in your high regard for Rebecca. Minette Walters chose it for her entry: "Rebecca is a rare and brilliant murder story. It stands alone as an example of how a psychological thriller can, and should, be written."

  9. Lisa Alber

    Minette Walters! Have to say, some of her early novels are on my list too…I was just wondering about her the other day, as a matter of fact, because I haven't seen a novel out from her in awhile. Glad to see she's in the anthology…

  10. Gordon Harries

    I love ‘Drink Before The War’, like many first novels it’s submerged in other influences (there’s a lot of Chandler and Robert B Parker in it’s general strut) but you can see the novelist Lehane would become emerging clear as day. And it tackles race in a manner more direct than crime fiction often does.

    My own favourite? Christ, there are so many. I love Red Harvest and The Glass Key by Hammett, I don’t think he produced books to touch those again. And I think that ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ might be the most important crime novel of the seventies.

    I know he’s of this parish, so I’ll just say that Martyn Waites has written three novels I adore (‘Mary’s Prayer’ –his first—Born Under Punches –set both during the miner’s strike and on the run up to Tony Blair’s second general election victory—and ‘The White Room’, in which the rise of Newcastle and a T. Dan Smith-like figure is entwined in the fall of a Mary Bell-like figure.) and leave it at that.

    Walter Mosley’s ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ would have to be on a short list for important crime novels of the last couple of decades too.

    Give me a moment and there’ll be more. So many books, so little time.

    I love that song, by the way. Has to be a high watermark of Earle’s career.

  11. David Corbett

    Pretty good hit rate, Gordon. David Peace chose The Glass Key, Elmore Leonard chose The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Interestingly, no one chose The Devil in the Blue Dress. The only Mosley title chosen was the one picked by Martyn — whose first three novels I now intend to acquire and devour.

    Copperhead Road and The Other Kind, imho, remain two of the greatest albums of the 80s.

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