Book Reviews

04 fevereiro, 2007

96) The best in crime... with fun...

The four finest mystery anthologies, and one vital guide.
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, February 3, 2007

1. "A Catalogue of Crime" by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor (Harper & Row, 1971).
Say you want to read a novel by a prolific crime author such as Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, and you don't know which to read in which order, and which to avoid. Let Barzun and Taylor be your guide. Revised and enlarged several times since it was first published in 1971, "A Catalogue of Crime" is the single best annotated compendium of mystery and espionage literature ever assembled. There are more than 5,000 entries in this work of heroic scholarship by emeritus Columbia Prof. Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, Barzun's late partner in crime-fiction criticism of the most practical kind. The editors render their generally reliable judgments succinctly and with a suitable amount of caprice. Nicholas Blake's "Thou Shell of Death" has "complex situations and killings" and, oh yes, a "good use of snow." The book proves once and for all that the murder mystery is, in Barzun's words, "a highbrow enterprise, inescapably."

2. "The Book of Fantasy" edited by Jorge Luís Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (Viking, 1988).
The great Argentine writer Borges wrote stories--he called them "ficciones" ("fictions")-- unlike anyone else's. Some masquerade as literary criticism, such as one that argues that a version of "Don Quixote" by the nonexistent Pierre Menard is, though identical word for word with the original, superior to it. The distinctive Borges story contains an ingenious mix of mental puzzles and labyrinths, ironies and surprise endings, and "The Book of Fantasy" reflects his sure feel for the uncanny. Among familiar favorites, Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" can still scare, and Kafka's "Before the Law," a chapter of "The Trial," can still perplex. Two wonderful surprises are "Macario" by B. Traven, the mysterious author of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and "Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched" by the little-known May Sinclair. They enchanted me.

3. "The Book of Spies" edited by Alan Furst (Modern Library, 2003).
On a Caribbean cruise I found this book in the ship library and whiled away the most pleasurable hours on the balcony overlooking the sea, reading expertly chosen excerpts from the greatest spy novels, including Eric Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios," Joseph Conrad's "Under Western Eyes," Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden" and Graham Greene's "The Quiet American." Most fun for a reader is encountering something new, and I hadn't realized that Anthony Burgess had written, in "Tremor of Intent," a send-up of the spy genre that transcends its satiric aims and becomes an ironic version of the very thing it mocks.

4. "A New Omnibus of Crime" edited by Tony Hillerman and Rosemary Herbert (Oxford, 2005).
This recent anthology boldly evokes the title of Dorothy Sayers's classic anthology of 1920. The editors aim to showcase the work of the four-score-and-seven years since. Here you'll find the whole gamut, from the tough-guy patter of hard-boiled Raymond Chandler ("He looked tough, but he looked as if he thought he was a little tougher than he was") to the more decorous detection practiced by Miss Sayers. Among the writers in between: The underrated Fredric Brown, representing the down-and-out world of noir, in which temptation can't be resisted, failure is inevitable and well-educated family men can become bums overnight, "suddenly, for no reason you can define."

5. "Triple Pursuit" by Graham Greene (Viking, 1971).
Once you get hooked on Graham Greene, there's no turning back. Here we have three of his titles--"This Gun for Hire," "The Third Man" and "Our Man in Havana"--that superbly convey the Greene world, in which the eternal poles of good and evil trump the merely secular rules of right and wrong. Greeneland is a place where an ordinary man or woman can become a spy-master capable of large-scale deception, as happens to a vacuum-cleaner salesman in the sardonically funny "Our Man in Havana." A few years ago I read three or four Greene novels in rapid succession and it hit me with the force of an epiphany that the whole genre of espionage, with its assignations, codes and betrayals, serves this author as an overarching metaphor for his true subject: romantic infidelity, in which the partners necessarily behave like secret agents. Newcomers to Greene who read "Triple Pursuit" straight through will likely be, for any number of reasons, similarly thunderstruck.

Mr. Lehman is the author of "The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection" (2000) and the editor of "The Oxford Book of American Poetry."