two of our leading crime authors tell garreth murphy how they penned a book to die for -- on the best mystery novels ever
SAY you met best-selling author Michael Connolly in a bar one night. Over a couple of pints, talk turned to favourite novels -- what single book in the mystery field would Connolly recommend that you read? He's only got a few minutes to impress the genius of that particular book on to you.
He's got to make that case so strongly, so passionately that you're prepared to drop everything -- booze included -- buy the book and start reading. So, just how would he convince you?
That's precisely the idea behind Books to Die For, a new collection of essays from the world's greatest contemporary crime authors writing about their favourite mystery books.
Edited by award-winning novelists John Connolly and Declan Burke, Books to Die For features contributions from the biggest hitters of the mystery/crime genre -- from Jo Nesbo to Joseph Wambaugh; Ian Rankin to Sophie Hannah, Denis Lehane to Lee Child.
Unlike some anthologies, the purpose of the book is not to compile a definitive list of crime books. Instead, the only thing that Burke and Connolly wanted from their stellar list of contributors was "passionate advocacy".
"When a reader goes into a bookstore, it's all new stuff up front, and it's very difficult to know where to start if you want to read more deeply in the genre," says Connolly. "A lot of older books -- and even some recent ones -- are in danger of being forgotten, and Declan and I wanted to arrest that decline.
"Readers can be intimidated by the mystery sections of bookstores: it's hard to know where to begin, and so they often stick with what they know. So we decided to ask great mystery writers to name the single novel that they would hand to a reader and say, 'This represents the best of what the genre can do...'
"Virtually everyone we got in touch with -- and I'm talking about some of the superstar names of the genre -- got into the spirit of what we were trying to do," says Burke.
Given approximately 2,000 words to make their case, the essays are, for the most part, insightful, spirited, funny and occasionally touching. Stand-outs include Joseph Wambaugh writing about In Cold Blood and recalling a life-changing meeting with Truman Capote, while Michael Connolly's piece on Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister is deeply personal.
There are some surprises, too -- Margie Orford picks JM Coetzee's Disgrace and writes a powerful mediation on the nature of violence in fiction, while Megan Abbot writes vividly about the power of female noir pioneer Dorothy Hughes.
However, given that the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are cited as inspirations in the mystery field so frequently, there must have been a stampede to get them first. Were there any surprises when it came to the selections?
"Funnily enough, the author most requested was Josephine Tey, especially among women writers," says Burke. "That was a real surprise for me. I'd heard of Tey -- she'd published books in the '30s, '40s and the '50s, and I was aware of her reputation, but I'd no idea that her influence was still so strong.
"I was surprised by A Tale of Two Cities, although I think Rita Mae Brown argues a good case for its inclusion. But then that's one of the pleasures of the book -- you'll spend half your time arguing about who should have been in it."
Or who shouldn't have been.
A recent review argued that once the big hitters (Hammett, Chandler, James M.Cain, Ross Macdonald) had been taken (and only a small number of authors are afforded the honour of a second title reviewed), there's a sense of essayists looking at authors who don't necessarily deserve a whole chapter to themselves. Both Burke and Connolly strongly disagree: "That goes entirely against the ethos of the book," says Connolly. Burke adds: "We were after those writers and books who were in danger of being forgotten, or overlooked, or unjustly neglected. To say that someone like Metta Fuller Victor, the woman who wrote the first ever dedicated novel-length mystery, isn't worth a whole chapter is simply nonsense."
Both successful authors in their own right -- Connolly is the author of the hugely popular Charlie Parker series and Burke's fourth novel Slaughter's Hound has just been published to critical acclaim -- the pair hope that Books to Die For, will find its own audience amongst genre fans.
Connolly adds: "I'd like to think it will be a well-loved niche book."
Books to Die For is available in hardcover (€30) or on eBook (€10.99)