Wednesday, December 03, 2003


The Rules Of the Game

By OTTO PENZLER Mr.Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual “Best American Mystery Stories.”

This is the first of what will be a regular column devoted to mystery, crime, suspense, espionage, and detective fiction. This is, to me, the genre that transcends genre fiction, the type of literature that has produced some of the most distinguished, as well as the most read, books and stories of the 20th century.

The column will not be a straightforward collection of reviews of new novels (though there will be plenty of huzzahs for good books and warnings about bad ones). I hope to provide all kinds of useful information about the world of mystery fiction: awards, events, gossip, notices of books you’re unlikely to see in the average chain store, or see reviewed in most mainstream media — even occasional news about film, theater, television, and whatever else I hear about.

It’s probably important to get one thing out of the way up front. I’m opinionated. What I most admire is storytellers, especially those who write about human passion so intense that characters resort to that most extreme of all passionate behavior — the brutal extinguishing of another person’s life.

Style — that is to say, literary style — matters. How well an author writes, the use of metaphor, simile, and other literary devices matters. Plot matters. Tell a good and fair story,have an arc that establishes the characters and the ensuing action, maintain intriguing subplots, and reach an inevitable and satisfying conclusion, and I’m yours. Create three-dimensional characters, people I want to know more about, or forget the whole thing. If there are no fully developed heroes, villains, victims, suspects, red herrings, or detectives (official or not), I might just as well be putting letters in little squares in a crossword puzzle. I bring the same set of requirements to a mystery novel as I would to any work of general fiction.

And here’s the deal. If a cat solves the crime, I burn the book. I spit on it with disgust, I rip out the pages in a fury, I stomp on it in a rage until it bleeds, and then I mercifully end its worthless life by burning it. If you love books in which a cat or a dog or even a damned goldfish is smarter than the detective and deduces the conclusion, skip this column. You will never find a moment of joy here, unless or until I lose my mind.

Also, just so you know, my definition of a “mystery” is very broad. Any book (or story) in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot is a mystery in my eyes.

In the United States, the professional organization for authors of this type of fiction is called the Mystery Writers of America. In the United Kingdom, the equivalent organization is called the Crime Writers’ Association. Many authors belong to both (yes, it’s permissible for non-nationals to join). In other words, the terms “mystery” and “crime” are interchangeable to the folks who write the stuff, so I will recklessly toss them about without making any effort to distinguish between them.

You may well ask which books are the paragons of the mystery writer’s art that others will be matched against? I’m happy to tell you. Here is a handful of what I regard as near-perfect books, in no particular order:

“Red Dragon” (1981) by Thomas Harris is the greatest suspense novel I’ve ever read. It is even better than its more famous sequel, “The Silence of the Lambs,” which is also superb, because its restrained use of violence and gore makes it all the more powerful and shocking when released.

In “Chinaman’s Chance” (1978) by Ross Thomas, his two heroes — to use the term a trifle loosely — pull off a brilliant scam involving a cast of walkon characters so large and perfectly realized that most writers would have saved them for their next dozen books.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett, “The Long Goodbye” by Raymond Chandler, and “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins (the finest Victorian novel of them all, including the works of Dickens) are such classics I need say nothing more.

“Breakheart Hill” (1995) by Thomas Cook is a poetic, heart-wrenching story with a moment that will shock you, and is one of the two best mysteries of the past decade (along with Dennis Lehane’s brilliant “Mystic River”).

“A Kiss Before Dying” (1953) by Ira Levin, written when he was all of 23 years old, is as good a mystery as his “Rosemary’s Baby” (1967) is a horror novel. Do not hold the two abysmal movies made from it against the book.

James Crumley’s “The Last Good Kiss” (1978) — isn’t that a great title? — may not be for everyone. It’s got a lot of drugs, violence, cussin’, and other Hemingwayesque stuff. But I think it’s the best private-eye novel I’ve ever read — and I’m devoted to Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

There are many other authors whose work will live beyond the expected life span of most of us (regardless of what the cryogenic experts tell us), some famous, some undeservedly not.

Some famous ones are Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, P.D. James, Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, James M. Cain, John le Carre, Eric Ambler, John D. MacDonald, and Patricia Highsmith.

Some really, really good authors about whom you may never have heard are Stephen Solomita, Joe Gores, K.C. Constantine, Paul Cain, Leigh Brackett, Henry Bromell, Robert Girardi, and Stanley Ellin.

But, unless you’re already a dedicated reader of crime fiction, you’ve got to start somewhere. So if you a want a reading list that will make you think I’m smart and have good taste, start with titles listed above. You’ll thank me.


The Rules Of the Game

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