Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H R F Keating
|Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H R F Keating|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: Keating's selection of his 100 favourite crime and mystery books is personal but very wide ranging. Each review is concise, witty and insightful. Although now a little dated and containing some spoilers it's a wonderful resource if you're a fan of the genre.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 222||Date: January 1997|
|Publisher: Carroll & Graf Publishing|
I read quite widely, but if I had to choose one particular genre as my favourite then there's no doubt that it would be crime and mystery. I've known about this book for some time, but it's not always easy to get hold of and a book about books seemed a bit of an indulgence. One day though, I bit the bullet courtesy of the generous gift of an Amazon voucher.
The format is simple. Keating, himself a mystery writer of some distinction, has chosen what he thinks are the hundred best crime and mystery books. He admits that the choice is purely personal and that virtually everyone will be astounded at an omission or annoyed at an inclusion. Some authors appear two or even three times, others only once, and the choice runs from Edgar Alan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination published in 1845 through to P.D. James' A Taste for Death from 1986. It's a very good book, but there are one or two problems which I'll get out of the way before I sing the praises.
The first is that it is a little out-of-date. The books reviewed are good, many are excellent, but quite a few are difficult to find. Some authors have not reached their peak and the books chosen do not represent their best. Reginald Hill's A Pinch of Snuff is good but On Beulah Height, published in 1998 is much better. Similarly, Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone is bettered by some of her later work. Some excellent crime novelists had not yet come to prominence. The first Rebus novel, Knots And Crosses wasn't published until March 1987, so Ian Rankin is a notable omission, as is Michael Dibdin with his Aurelio Zen books. This is probably not too important as Keating doesn't suggest that the selection is definitive - just that these books are his favourites.
The next problem is a little more serious: there are quite a few spoilers. Occasionally we're told much too much as in the case of Agatha Christie's [The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where I suspect that there would be little pleasure in reading the book once you knew the name of the murderer. Admittedly this would have been a difficult book to review without giving away so much of the plot, but it might have been better to leave it out than to reveal all. Occasionally there were lesser disclosures where I found myself thinking that I would have preferred not to know that there was an important clue in the first twenty pages or something similar.
Right - that's the problems out of the way. What we're left with is a very good book with an engagingly simple format. Each of the hundred book is reviewed over two pages (oh, what skill to be able to do that consistently) and we get a concise overview of the author's oeuvre and any relevant background followed by details of the book itself. Sometimes this includes quotations and there's usually an analysis of the plot. Each review is incisive and there's rarely, if ever, a spare word. Humour plays its part and any criticism is light - but then it probably would be if you were choosing a hundred favourite books.
So, what of Keating's choices? There's a good mixture of books published both in the UK and the USA with the occasional book (such as Simenon's 'Maigret') which would originally have been written in a language other than English. Some books which laid the foundations for the genre could not be omitted - Tales of Mystery and Imagination, for instance or Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. From the early part of the twentieth century we have such luminaries as G K Chesterton, Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers as well as some more unusual choices such as James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.
It's as we move into the golden age of crime fiction that the selections become exciting. I found some of my personal favourites: Before the Fact by Francis Iles (perhaps my favourite crime story of all time), The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake and Green for Danger] by Christianna Brand. There have always been a few books which I thought of as guilty pleasures - ones which I enjoyed but thought were essentially a little light on literary merit and I was surprised to find a couple of them in Keating's selection. I once read avidly through the whole of J J Marric's Gideon books and it was only when I read the review of Gideon's Week that I realised that Marric is another of the pseudonyms of the very prolific John Creasey.
Perhaps my guiltiest secret pleasure is the American author John D MacDonald's Travis McGee books so I felt a degree of vindication when I discovered a review of [The Green Ripper, but I felt Keating went a little far in comparing him to Dickens. I live in hope that it was hyperbole.
It's a wonderful book to pick up and browse, or read, as I did, from beginning to end. Just reading a review will give pleasure and it's a wonderful resource if you have an interest in crime fiction. Unfortunately many of the books will be out of print but libraries and second-hand bookshops do occasionally yield some gems. If you're a fan of crime fiction I'd regard this as essential reading.
Just make certain that you've read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd first.
You can read more book reviews or buy Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H R F Keating at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H R F Keating at Amazon.com.
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