“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Review: DEATH SENTENCES, edited by Otto Penzler
At least, that’s the recurring theme in Death Sentences (Head of Zeus), a collection of short stories edited by Otto Penzler and written by 16 crime and mystery authors who are, according to Ian Rankin’s Introduction, ‘masters of their craft’. Jeffrey Deaver, John Connolly, Nelson DeMille, Laura Lippman, CJ Box and Anne Perry are just some of the household names who contribute to a collection in which each offering revolves around books.
Overall it’s an amusing conceit. We tend to imagine that book lovers, librarians and bibliophiles of all stripes are quiet, gentle folk, likely to live to a grand old age and slip away in their sleep, preferably in a comfortable armchair in a well-lit bay window, a blanket across the knees, a good book still clutched in their gnarled hands.
In Death Sentences, however, book lovers are bludgeoned to death by their precious tomes, crushed by falling bookshelves, shoved down library stairs whilst holding a tottering pile of research volumes, or blown to bits by a bomb smuggled into their private library. When they’re not the actual murder weapon itself, books provide one or more elements of the crime writers’ beloved triumvirate of means, motive and opportunity.
Indeed, some of the authors play the concept for wry comedy. William Link’s pulpy throwback to the hardboiled days of the Black Mask magazine, ‘Death Leaves a Bookmark’, features a police detective called Columbo. Nelson DeMille’s The Book Case – one of two stories that features falling bookshelves as the murder weapon – offers a jaunty tone of murder investigation in a crime fiction bookstore, in which the sardonic police detective, John Corey, notes the bestselling writers on display, “such as Brad Meltzer, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Nelson DeMille, and others who make more money writing about what I do than I make doing what I do.”
Other writers take a more serious approach. Set in London in 1938, Peter Blauner’s ‘The Final Testament’ is narrated by Sigmund Freud, and tells of how Freud is approached by a Nazi agent who wants to blackmail Freud into putting his name to a piece of black propaganda about the Jewish people. As it happens, a number of the stories here incorporate the Nazis. Set in the American northwest, CJ Box’s story ‘Pronghorns of the Third Reich’ is as bizarre as its title suggests, and true into the bargain (Box even provides photographic evidence of his claim). Thomas H. Cook’s affecting tale ‘What’s In A Name?’ offers an alternative history of the 20th Century, and features an aspiring but ultimately unpublished author with a very potent name. Meanwhile, ‘The Book of Ghosts’ by Reed Farrel Coleman, which tells the tale of the morally conflicted Holocaust survivor Jacob Weisen, is one of the finest of the collection.
Given that the vast majority of authors are readers so deranged by books that they are themselves maddened into writing, the stories also offer fascinating glimpse of the authors’ personal obsessions. Laura Lippman’s beautifully quirky ‘The Book Thing’ takes her series private eye Tess Monaghan (and Tess’s baby daughter Carla Scout) into the colourful world of children’s bookshops, where she is commissioned to investigate a very unusual crime. Anne Perry’s ‘The Scroll’ is as influenced by the horror genre as it is by crime and mystery, and centres on a mysterious and ancient vellum scroll that hides a dark secret in its Aramaic script. Where many of the stories revolve around valuable and precious books, David Bell’s ‘Rides a Stranger’ concerns itself with a tattered old Western paperback. The Mickey Spillane story ‘It’s in the Book’, finished here by Max Allan Collins, sees the imperishable Mike Hammer in pursuit of a dead Mafia don’s old ledger, its secrets a threat to the President of the United States.
There are two Irish contributions to the collection. In the first, Ken Bruen – whose protagonists are invariably well-read – brings his unique style to bear on New York and a young Irish-American man’s bitter relationship with his father, a former NYPD cop. When the father dies and unexpectedly bequeaths his son The Book of Virtue, the son is forced to reassess what he knew of his father, and his own life’s direction.
By contrast with Bruen’s brusque style, John Connolly’s ‘The Caxton Lending Library and Book Depository’ is an elegantly wrought tale of the rather dull Mr Berger, who late one evening witnesses a young woman step in front of a speeding train – and yet can find no trace of her remains on the railway track. The story’s supernatural elements quickly segue into a hugely entertaining tale of fictional characters interacting with reality as Mr Berger pursues the ‘ghost’. (I should declare an interest here by saying that I have in the past co-edited a book with John Connolly; the fact that ‘The Caxton Lending Library and Book Depository’ won last year’s Edgar Award for Best Short Story is testament to its quality).
Ultimately, the most vulnerable victim in the collection – the plethora of murdered booksellers, readers and bibliophiles notwithstanding – is the physical book itself. Whether the writers make explicit their concerns about the e-book revolution, as Laura Lippman does, or contextualise the veneration of the physical book – or vellum parchment, say, or a hand-stitched volume written by Hernando Cortez – the message remains the same: the book, regardless of the story it tells, is a valuable artefact in its own right, and e-books, even if they tell the exact same story, lack cultural heft, physically and metaphorically.
The mood is summed up by Andrew Taylor’s ‘The Long Sonata of the Dead’, a beautifully written tale set for the most part amid the labyrinthine stacks of the London Library. “It’s the real, printed book that matters,” our hero, a writer, tells us; as a result, and though his subsequent actions are rather less than savoury, it’s very hard to consider him entirely immoral. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner