Over 100 accomplished mystery writers celebrate their favorite novels. The editors intend their book to be “flawless in inclusion if not in omission,” and nearly all these novels are undoubtedly worthy subjects, written about entertainingly and tantalizingly, with only a handful of essays seriously letting the side down. But the overbalancing toward the recent and noirish and the token representation of classical detective fiction make for a distorted overview of the genre. Women, well-represented as essayists, are badly under-represented as subjects. (Nearly 30 female contributors wrote on male subjects, while only six or so males wrote on women.) Too many commentators feel the need to credit their subjects with saving the genre or heading it in a new direction when all they have done is written (presumably well) in an already established form. I don’t believe either Spillane or Parker rescued the moribund private eye novel, and one writer’s contention that Patricia Cornwell’s 1990 debut came at a time when “male authors dominated” and women characters appeared mostly in support is nothing short of ludicrous.
Quibbles aside, there’s some superb writing here. Though the book fails as a balanced representation of the best mystery writing, it should spur discovery or rediscovery of some extraordinary novels. Among the many fine contributions: Sara Paretsky on Dickens’ Bleak House, Chuck Hogan on Paul Cain’s Fast One, Ruth Dudley Edwards on Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, Declan Hughes on Margaret Millar’s A Stranger in My Grave, Lauren Henderson on Agatha Christie’s Endless Night and (as Rebecca Chance) on Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase, Mike Nicol on James McClure’s The Steam Pig, Peter Robinson on Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, and Sophie Hannah on Jill McGown’s Murder…Now and Then.