Guides to Mystery Fiction

Like so many aficionados of the genre, I got into mystery fiction at an early age, probably through exposure to film and TV adaptations. I certainly remember the great excitement of seeing the movie version of DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) when I was 10 years old at my local ABC cinema in Maidenhead and I suspect that I started reading Agatha Christie’s novels very shortly afterwards. The same was also probably the case with the much-filmed books by Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler, the first ‘adult’ authors that I remember reading and getting really excited about. My fascination with the history of the genre is also fairly easy to pin down – it began when I came across the original 1972 edition in hardback of Julian Symons’ personal history of the genre, Bloody Murder (published in the US as ‘Mortal Consequences’), at the local library while visiting my grandparents in Horsham, West Sussex. After 30 years I still find myself regularly referring to it and so it has to come top of my list of reference works on the genre:

1. Bloody Murder (1972, 1985, 1992) by Julian Symons
Symons’ intensely personal work is far from comprehensive, and in fact went out of its way not to be – instead it is a personal overview by a critic and author who engaged with his subject for an entire lifetime and who believed that the novels in the genre should stand or fall by the same critical standards applied to any other kind of serious fiction. A number of well-regarded authors, such as James Ellroy, Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson to name but three from the noir tradition, are given extremely short thrift while others are completely ignored. In addition Symons gives what might be termed a ‘minority opinion’ in his appraisal of such major authors as Dorothy l. Sayers. But his is a highly informed, intelligent and sensitive appreciation of the genre that is particularly good in providing a thorough historical context for the development of crime and mystery as a genre.

But there are other guides that I regularly return to. Along with early works such as those produced by Howard Haycraft (Murder for Pleasure) and Allen J. Hubin’s massive bibliographical endeavours, many other guides have come and gone over the years. Amongst those I have particularly enjoyed agreeing, and disagreeing, with I would cite the following:

2. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction (2002) by Mike Ashley
Restricting itself to works and authors published after 1950, this is a highly engaging guide, part of a ‘Mammoth’ series of publications that might induce some dismiss it as a disposable piece of mass market publishing – but at nearly 800 pages in length and with over 500 entries for individual authors, this low-priced guide proves to be excellent value and rightly won an Edgar, the highly coveted award bestowed by the American Crime Writer’s Association. This is because Mike Ashley is a genuine expert and provides vast amounts of fascinating information on authors major and minor and proves to be thoroughly up-to-date (as of publication) – a model of concise scholarship and really useful guide to the post-war crime genre. There is also a useful guide to film and TV series (mainly British and American) and on top of that a particularly welcome, because it is so unusual, emphasis in the entries on that most of unloved is prevalent of modern literary forms, the novelisation.

3. Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1985) – 2nd edition edited by John M. Reilly
Aimed at library shelves, these expensive tomes provide in-depth bibliographies which are especially valuable when assessing such prolific authors as the late great Edward D Hoch, most of whose work was published in magazines and only a small selection of which has actually been collected in book form. In addition there are useful Who’s Who entries for each of the authors covered that provide biographical data and even contact details (usually via the relevent literary agencies). In addition most of the authors include provide a brief biographical sketch of their own, outlining why they write in the genre. If you want to get a credible picture of just how many books were written by the likes of John Creasey or Edgar Wallace or what the likes of Reginald Hill, Stanley Ellin or the aforementioned Hoch think of their own contribution to the genre, this is the place to go.

4. Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994) by William DeAndrea
The late William DeAndrea, who died aged only 44, was a mystery writer and enthusiast and husband to fellow crime writer Jane Haddam. His Encyclopedia is well-illustrated and covers authors, books as well as film, comic books, radio and TV – and it is in trying to provide a more cross-media approach that lies both its greatest strength and its main failings. DeAndrea has great enthusiasm for his subject and it comes through time and again, even when he is being critical, such as when he comments that TV PI Mannix wore jackets ‘louder than the Mormon tabernacle choir’. On the other hand, the need to cover so much territory inevitably means that many of the entries are just too short, and in addition there are a number of errors, especially for the TV entries from the UK (BBC and ITV are virtually interchangeable in some instances). There are however several extended critical pieces throughout on topics such as ‘Sherlockiana’ that partly make up for this.

5. The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (2002) by Bruce Murphy
This is a highly eccentric book and a deeply flawed one – seemingly built around a collection of the author’s book reviews, it includes a number of lengthy entries on jargon and argot often found in the genre, taking up space that could easily have been given over the perhaps more deserving subjects (for example, almost an entire page is given over to general entries on ‘caper’ and ‘capital punishment’). Murphy in particular however really loses marks in his clear disdain for several authors such as John Dickson Carr (admittedly a personal favourite of mine), leading him to make several cavalier and inaccurate statements about their work, singling out the fairly weak SCANDAL AT HIGH CHIMNEYS for his sole Carr title for review, thus omitting reviews for any of the novels featuring Carr’s main detectives Gideon Fell and Henry Merrivale; on the other hand preferred authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, are indulged to a ridiculous degree so that nine of the Holmes stories are reviewed individually. But for all that, Murphy has many interesting things to say and so this can prove to be a highly impressive volume as long as it is not read in isolation.

6. A Catalogue of Crime (1971 / 2nd edition 1989) by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor
This early and highly influential work is one that I have nearly always found myself in disagreement with, but it is impossible not to recognise its importance in the field.

The internet has inevitably overtaken such reference guides in their potential for size and scope and of course sheer responsiveness. The above are old friends but perhaps it is time to make some new ones – suggestions would be most welcome.

This entry was posted in 'Best of' lists, Agatha Christie, James Bond, Julian Symons, Raymond Chandler. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Guides to Mystery Fiction

  1. Mrs P. says:

    Ah, Murder on the Nile – remember that viewing experience very fondly too.

    Thanks for this very useful survey. Have you seen the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, ed. by Rosemary Herbert, with contributions from Hoch and Symons, as well as Sara Paretsky. The edition I have is from 1999, and there may be later ones, but it’s still very informative all the same. And it has an Edward Gorey picture on its cover – what’s not to like?

  2. Mrs P. says:

    Or even Death on the Nile… 😉

  3. Thanks Mrs P – How about EVIL UNDER THE ORIENT EXPRESS instead? I don’t in fact own the Oxford guide though I’ve been meaning to get it as I can’t keep borrowing it from friends!

  4. Pingback: M is for … MAN OUT OF NOWHERE (1965) by LP Davies | Tipping My Fedora

  5. Patrick says:

    Incidentally, Sergio, I was wondering whether “Encyclopedia Mysteriosa” gives away endings to mysteries. I got my copy today at long last and a brief glance through a few articles leave me impressed at the quality of the writing, DeAndrea’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject, and the fact that he did not feel he had to specify just WHY “Roger Ackroyd” was a smash success, although it’s practically common knowledge among us mystery fans! (I think the twist to that book is the “Luke, I am your father!” of mysteries.) Some reference volumes are notorious for spoiling mysteries.

    • Hello Patrick, good to hear from you. This encyclopedia largely goes out of its way to avoid spoilers I am glad to say – for the most part it doesn’t indulge in too much textual analysis so avoids focusing on plots per se. I hope you enjoy it as much as I (still) do – I’ve had it on my shelves virtually since it came out and still leaf through it almost on a weekly basis.

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