What are the greatest crime novels ever written? Who better to ask than crime writers themselves? In the wonderful Books to Die For for the megastar of Irish crime writing, John Connolly, has teamed up with one of its rising stars, Declan Burke, to edit an anthology that brings together more than 100 of the world's best crime and mystery writers to nominate and write about their favourite book in the genre.
The result is a hefty tome -- 700 plus pages -- that entertains, educates and stimulates.
The list of contributors constitutes a roll call of today's top mystery writers who enthusiastically agreed to participate by choosing just one work by one author of particular importance to them.
Their choices range from Poe to the present, covering major and not so well known authors in the field.
Some subjects get two contributions (Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Dickens), while some of the contributors are themselves the subject of articles (Rankin, Lehane, Pelecanos, Leonard, Connelly).
All the types and themes of crime and mystery fiction past and present are represented including the eccentric, wealthy amateur sleuths solving mysteries that the plodding police cannot, as well as the hard-boiled private eyes and cops at the coal face of crime.
Two-thirds of the contributions cover the more cerebral and reflective authors and works of the last half century.
We get fascinating insights into the minds of the contributors, how they think, what influences them, even what inspired them to write. The essays are informative, with fresh appraisals of both work and author.
For the reader, there is the added bonus that, as the editors point out, where a favourite author is the subject of an essay, chances are that the reader will enjoy the work of the essayist also. The result -- not just one but two lists of books and authors to be read.
The editors also acknowledge that there will always be some to take issue with what is not there or even the particular book chosen from an author's work.
Take Raymond Chandler, where neither The Big Sleep nor The Long Goodbye make the cut, with Michael Connelly focusing instead on The Little Sister, because that book was more personal to him.
Many of the contributions are in a similar vein, inviting the reader to explore the designated author more thoroughly.
The selection is mouth-watering. The editors each have two choices, with John Connolly selecting Michael Connelly's The Black Echo, featuring Harry Bosch, and Ross Macdonald's The Chill, with his hero Lew Archer, the subject of an sensitive biographical essay.
Declan Burke chooses Liam O Flaherty's The Assassin, a much under-rated novel, and George Pelecanos' (the Washington DC writer and co-producer of The Wire) The Big Blowdown, "a crime novel that can make you cry".
Among the other Irish contributors, John Banville picks Simenon, though not a Maigret, but rather one from the darker side of the oeuvres -- Act of Passion.
Colin Bateman picks one of Robert Parker's Spenser novels, explaining that when he wrote Divorcing Jack, Spenser was the model, Parker the style.
Tana French writes about Donna Tartt's The Secret History and its strong influences on her, with the characters driving the plot, rather than vice versa.
Eoin Colfer picks The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips, dubbing it a comedy classic as well as excellent crime noir.
Many British writers stick with their own. Peter Robinson picks Ruth Rendell; Minette Walters picks Du Maurier; Val McDermid picks Reginald Hill; and Ian Rankin picks Derek Raymond.
Mark Billingham revisits The Maltese Falcon, a novel many consider the greatest mystery book ever, cautioning against the iconic screen portrayal by Bogart (Houston's preferred choice, George Raft, would have been far closer to Hammett's original Sam Spade).
Elmore Leonard picks The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins, which he describes as a revelation. Leonard, famous for his dialogue, learned from Higgins and says the book "makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew". Praise indeed.
Jo Nesbo chooses Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280, reflecting on the author's sad decline as well as paying tribute to his best work, an influence on Nesbo's own.
Kathy Reichs picks The Silence of the Lambs, inter alia because of the use of a strong woman as the lead. This was not, though, the landmark Reichs asserts. Sara Paretsky launched VI Washarski, her iconic and feisty Chicago detective in 1982, a giant leap in the development of fictional female detectives.
Paretsky's Indemnity Only and Toxic Shock are subjects in the book, while Paretsky herself contributes a superb essay on Dickens' Bleak House, focusing on his social conscience and compassion for the poor.
Jeffery Deaver chooses John D MacDonald's The Executioners, filmed (memorably) as Cape Fear.
Just a taster. No need to look any further for a Christmas present, though beware, this is a book that crime fans will rush to acquire.