One could legitimately ask, upon encountering BOOKS TO DIE FOR, if yet another extended checklist with commentary of iconic mystery novels is really needed. My response is “YES,” particularly when it is as well-conceived and crafted as this one. Editors John Connolly and Declan Burke’s introduction is worth the price of admission all by itself. It is a summation of the heart of the mystery genre itself, as well as an answer to the question of why people who do not read mysteries should, and why those who do read mysteries do. What follows is a list of iconic mystery novels with each entry accompanied by an essay written by a contemporary master of the genre.
BOOKS TO DIE FOR begins with THE DUPIN TALES by Edgar Allan Poe from 1841, with an essay by J. Wallis Martin, and concludes with an entry by Anne Perry for 2008’s THE PERK by Mark Gimenez. Between those two markers, surprises of the greatest sort abound.
"One could legitimately ask, upon encountering BOOKS TO DIE FOR, if yet another extended checklist with commentary of iconic mystery novels is really needed. My response is 'YES,' particularly when it is as well-conceived and crafted as this one."
I can think of very few people who conceivably could have read every book mentioned here. While there are bestsellers listed, there are also books so obscure that it would be difficult if not impossible to find a physical copy of them. The essays that accompany the books represent a labor of love, which is to say that such flaws as might exist in any of the 90-plus novels presented here are noted; the affection displayed in the commentaries are because of the flaws, not in spite of them. An excellent example of this is contained in F. Paul Wilson’s comments concerning THE HUNTER by Richard Stark. An iconic work published under Donald Westlake’s alter ego, it contains some edgy flaws, each of which are noted by Wilson and leaves the reader all the more inclined to obtain the book and read or re-read it immediately.
Other entries comment on books that, for the contributor, provided the beginning of their love of mystery fiction. One of the absolute best of these is Liza Marklund’s commentary for THE GHOST OF BLACKWOOD HALL by Carolyn Keene. I don’t normally do this, but I am going to quote Marklund’s opening sentence: “I might have read a few thousand books in my lifetime, but none as important as this one.” Ask a female mystery author, and somewhere in their distant past, a Nancy Drew mystery novel jumpstarted not only their love of reading but also their desire to write. Marklund’s contribution gets even better as it progresses; by the end, you will want the entire original set of Nancy Drew books for your collection, if you don’t have them already.
What else is included in BOOKS TO DIE FOR? I sit here mentally gibbering, wondering what to mention in limited space. I love that A SIMPLE PLAN by Scott Smith and THE ICE HARVEST by Scott Phillips (with essays by Michael Koryta and Eoin Colfer, respectively) are included, as well as THE LIGHT OF DAY by Eric “The Man” Ambler (with a short but respectful and spot-on commentary by M.C. Beaton). Perhaps my favorite entry is the clever matchup of co-editor John Connolly commenting on THE BLACK ECHO by Michael Connelly. How many of us have asked for a book by one of those authors for a birthday, received one written by the other, and been delighted nonetheless? The same careful matching can be seen in all of these entries. There is even an index by author at the very end.
Did I mention that this volume is indispensable for anyone who has ever cracked the binding on a book for pleasure? I think I just did. It is an absolute must for everyone’s personal library.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 23, 2012