crime / mystery / detective literature:
a critical list with discussions
Matters Criminous: Reference Works and Resources
Man, not satisfied with the mental confusion and unhappiness to be derived from contemplating the cruelties of life and the riddle of the universe, delights to occupy his leisure moments
with puzzles and bugaboos.
--The Omnibus of Crime,
Dorothy L. Sayers
There appear to be few or no resources focussed on what we may call "literate" crime-mystery-detection fiction. There are, naturally, myriads of books and sites that focus on the field
in general, and offer reviews and evaluations; but most or all appear to suffer from the common problem of judging by genre standards. The reader interested in following out such stuff
will have no problem locating it--do a search on books crime OR mystery OR detective OR detection review and you will be inundated. I have here abstracted a possibly
arbitrary small subset of references that seem of interest. (Compounding the difficulty of research is that the word "literature" is almost universally used in relevant sites and pages to
denote "genre" or "classification", rather than works aspiring to and achieving some level of literate merit.)
The resources here are not especially focussed on literary merit, but are either useful for surveying the field as a whole, or are entertaining in their own right.
Books About Crime, Mystery, and Detective Fiction
Guides seem to come in two flavors: academically oriented works and typical-reader-oriented works. Very likely neither flavor will be much to the taste of the other's intended public,
so I have separated the listings. Generally, books for academics run the usual risks of "lit-crit", of being too distanced from their nominal subject, and often--to be frank--somewhat
goofy; but the better ones can be both informative and enlightening. On the other hand, books for typical genre readers tend to manifest the usual genre standards deplored farther above;
but the best of those can be both perceptive and entertaining.
The selections presented here were gleaned from various mystery-site recommendations, followed by a casual perusal of some available reviews. They are thus not books I can
personally endorse, but the idea was to give you a condensed list of what others are pointing to as useful commentary and reference works.
In almost all cases the titles are click-on links to a search for used copies of the book listed for sale through Abebooks; for a few, they are links to the works on CD (from Locus).
Mystery-Crime-Detection Critical Books For the Everyday Reader
While there are tons, here are a few especially notable ones. Some specialized Sherlock Holmes scholarly works, not individually listed here, are offered by the delightful Battered Silicon Dispatch Box publishing house.
The Encyclopedia of Mystery &
Detection, edited by Chris Steinbrunner & Otto Penzler, 1976: "A very useful general reference, with a particular emphasis on films related to the authors and works
discussed."--Journal of the Online Booksellers Association. Dated now, but worthy.
Bloody Murder: From the
Detective to the Crime Novel: A History, 3rd edition, by Julian Symons, 1993: "one of the best-known critical works in the field of crime
fiction . . . . highlighted the distinction between the classic puzzler mystery . . . and the more modern 'crime novel', which puts emphasis
on psychology and motivation." (Wikipedia) A strongly opinionated work.
The Oxford Companion to Crime
and Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert, 1999: "wonderfully written, on balance, and the overview articles are informative and a joy to read, often providing
historical perspective that serves as an excellent guide for readers who want to embark on a journey through, say, the world of legal fiction or forensic
pathology. . . . [S]hould find a spot on every devotee's shelf."--Otto Penzler.
Murder Ink, 2nd edition, Dilys Winn, 1984: "[L]ight-hearted, authoritative articles on all facets of crime and crime fiction, including private eyes, the laundering of
money, 'two-timing dames,' poisons, derailing British Rail, and the 'NYPD Glossary,' by such experts as Peter Lovesey, Herbert Gold, Edward Gorey, P. D. James, and Jacques Barzun. (The New
York Times) By its author's admission, highly unsystematic and incomplete, but marvellously entertaining and informative; this is a revised edition, but my own feeling is that it and
the first are different enough that it's worth having both around, since they're quite inexpensive in used copies (here's a search link for Murder Ink, the original 1977 edition).
Murderess Ink, Dilys Winn, 1979: another enjoyable romp, whose focus the title makes clear.
A Catalogue of Crime (2nd ed.), Jacques Barzun, 1989: idiosyncratic and opinionated (and controversial) comments on over five thousand mystery-crime-fiction books.
The Encyclopedia of
Murder and Mystery, Bruce F. Murphy, 1999: "Murphy explains what he sees as each author's strengths and weaknesses and places writers within a literary
context."--Cynthia A. Johnson, Barnard College Library; "an impressive new reference source"--Thrilling Detective.
Mystery-Crime-Detection Critical Books With an Academic Orientation
Most--though not all--of these are quite definitely on the pricey side, even used (and were likely aimed at libraries or professional scholars).
- Straight Bibliography:
Crime Fiction IV, Allen J. Hubin, 2000:
"the major bibliographical checklist for detective fiction and an indispensable work for anyone collecting or dealing in the genre. In addition to the major author and title
index for books, it includes short stories indexed by title and author, movies listed by title and book author, a series index, and a settings index"--Journal of the Online
Booksellers Association. This work has no critical evaluations whatever, just bibliographical data. The linked book search is to the what is now apparently the
only version available, which is on CD (you'll need to scroll down that page or search for the title).
Detective and Mystery Fiction: An International Bibliography of Secondary Sources, Walter Albert, 2000: "As Hubin is the major checklist for mystery and detective fiction, Albert is
the major checklist for mystery reference materials, excluding Sherlockiana"--Journal of the Online Booksellers Association. The linked book search will only find copies of
the 1984 first edition: since then, editions (the latest being the 3rd) have been issued only on CD-ROM.
Fiction Miscellany: An Index, William G. Contento, 2000: indexes 1,500 books and 1,100 magazine issues, for a total of 23,000 stories by 7,800 authors. The
linked book search will only find copies of the 1991 Index to Crime and Mystery Anthologies: since then, that work has been subsumed into the titled work, which is now
issued only on CD-ROM.
- Annotated or Critical Bibliography:
Sleuths, Sidekicks, and
Stooges, by Joseph Green and Jim Finch, 1997: "a guide to nearly 8,000 fictional detectives, both amateur and professional . . . this volume's
coverage is far more comprehensive than any other compilation focusing on fictional sleuths"--Booklist.
What About Murder? A Guide to Books about Mystery and Detective Fiction, Jon L. Breen, 1981: extensive catalogue with useful and insighful annotations.
What About Murder? 1981- 1991, Jon L. Breen, 1993: a continuation of the work listed above (does not include the content of that earlier work, so both volumes
The St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, 4th edition, edited by Jay P. Pederson, Kathleen Gregory Klein, and Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf,
1996: "includes a capsule biography of each writer covered along with a short critical essay on the writer and, if the author was alive at the time of publication, a few comments by
the author on his or her own work. Many of the critical essays are written by well-known critics and by other mystery writers."--Journal of the Online Booksellers
Association. The earlier editions were titled Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers; the various editions add and drop writers, so the newer ones are not simply
extensions of the older, and it is worthwhile to own all four. The earlier ones can be searched out here:
- Other Critical Works:
100 Masters of Mystery and Detective Fiction, 2 volumes, edited by Fiona Kelleghan, 2001: essays and bibliographies from the 1988 Magill Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction (see below), substantially updated for this release; "readable enough for the average mystery lover . . . scholarly enough for the academic" (Library Journal). Not inexpensive, even used--take care, in that the search linked here may turn up individual volumes as well as the two-volume set.
Magill's Critical Survey of
Mystery and Detective Fiction, 4 volumes, Frank Northen Magill, 1988: mammoth serious resource, slightly dated now (see the item above). Not inexpensive, even
used--take care, in that the search linked here may turn up individual volumes as well as the set.
The Art of Detective Fiction, edited by Warren
Chernaik, Martin Swales, Robert Vilain, 2000: essays on a wide variety of related topics, but with especial emphases on "the Golden Age" and the "hard-boiled" subgenres;
" . . . ground breaking. Its essays can be loosely grouped into revisionary histories of the genre, new critical maps of contemporary practice, and valuable
attention to women's writing . . . " (Association for Research into Popular Fiction). Not inexpensive, but--curiously--cheaper new from Amazon than
Crime Fiction, Hans Bertens and Theo D'haen, 2001: "Particular attention is given to writers who have reworked established conventions and explored new directions,
especially women and those from ethnic minorities": translation, an approach to the subject from the left wing. Quite up to date, in more ways than one.
Detection & Its Design: Narrative & Power in Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction, Peter Thoms, 1998: working from "some of the most important texts in the development of detective fiction in the nineteenth century,", the author "demonstrates that, far from being a naive form, early detective fiction grapples with the medium of storytelling itself".
The Detective in American Fiction, Film, and
Television, edited by Jerome H. Delamater and Ruth Prigozy, 1998: "essays [that] demonstrate how the genre embodies all the contradictions of American society and
the ways in which literature and the media attempt to handle those contradictions."
Foul & Fair Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective
Fiction, by Marty Roth, 1995: "an attempt to read a wide variety of texts by different authors as variations on a common and relatively tight set of
Murder and Mayhem, by Heta Pyrhönen, 1999:
"examines how the questions Whodunit? and Who is guilty? organize and pattern the genre's formal and thematic structures".
Reference and Research Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction [2nd ed.], by Richard Bleiler, 2004: "focuses on separately published English-language reference sources documenting and describing the primary and secondary literatures
of mystery and detective fiction".
Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction, by Lee Horsley,
2005: "introduces different theoretical approaches to crime fiction (e.g., formalist, historicist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, feminist)".
The Poetics of Murder:
Detective Fiction and Literary Theory, edited by Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe, 1983: "a rather good analysis not only of mystery fiction, but also of the idea
of mystery itself, of the nature of narrative and of reality, of the very act of reading as a form of detection".
Web Sites About Crime, Mystery, and Detective Fiction
I found it convenient to also subdivide this section.
(A "portal", or "meta-page", is a page or site whose content is mainly or wholly links to other sites.)
I mean by that heading sites perhaps more useful than the average "mystery-crime-detection" site for those seeking work above the mean.
Crime Culture - "an academic internet site that we hope will have something to offer
anyone teaching or studying crime fiction, film and graphic art"; although "lit-crit" has its failings, this site is valuable well beyond the norm.
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection - "an educational site containing
reading lists and essays on great mysteries, mainly of the pre-1965 era"; maintained by Michael E. Grost
Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction - Case Western Reserve University
Professor William Marling's well-crafted sub-genre site
I mean by that heading sites of above-average utility in examining the field, though not necessarily with any special eye to literary merit.
The ClueLass - a major genre web site with a very extensive set of book reviews
and other related material (also now hosts the Mysterious Home Page portal--see farther above)
Classic Crime Fiction - a nicely executed general resource for the genre, with a
large assortment of bibliographies
Thrilling Detective - "a never-complete listing of private dicks and
janes, and other tough guys and gals, listed by character, with appearances in novels, short stories, film, television, radio and other media"; well done.
Period Mysteries - detailing that increasingly popular
sub-genre and the various periods it comprises.
Stuff just for the fun of it.
Film Noir Portraiture - a gallery of portraiture and promotional photography
by Jim Ferraira done in classic black-and-white detective/crime film style (and exceeding well, too).
The Shadow in review - a well-done tribute to a character who, along with
Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and Tarzan, may be one of the most-recognized in the modern world (see also the Shadow entry at ThePulp.Net.)
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