A great new book that might make you slightly crazy…

July 26, 2008 at 11:50 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

That is, if you’re already as crazy about crime fiction as I am. Yes, folks, it’s The Essential Mystery Lists: For Readers, Collectors, and Librarians. Author Roger M. Sobin begins with an introductory section in which he details the challenges he faced in doing the research for this book. We then get to the “meat:” Section Two, which covers prizes and awards, and Section Three which is entitled “Classic or Best Lists.” That last, Dear Readers, is the part that may be the death of me!

And so…on page 402, I find “Ellery Queen’s Twelve Best Detective Stories” – that’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, to be more precise. In 1950, the staff of that august periodical polled twelve experts in the field as to their choices in this category. (One among them was Vincent Starrett, author of a memorable poem about Sherlock Holmes that was first published in 1942:


Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears–
Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

Vincent Starrett )

At any rate, I discovered that four of the twelve named stories appear in the anthology The 50 Greatest Mysteries of All Time, edited by Otto Penzler. Although I’ve owned this book for quite some time, I’ve never really delved into its contents. That’s about to change!

Some of the other lists featured in this section are Barzun and Taylor’s Classic Crime Novels 1900-1975; the famous Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones; the Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time selected by members of the Mystery Writers of America; 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century chosen by members of The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA); and They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels, also courtesy of the IMBA.

I was especially pleased to encounter here the mystery lists compiled by Grobius Shortling. I found his website years ago and have always returned to it when I needed a recommendation for a classic to read. “Grobius Shortling” was the nom de plume of Wyatt Edgar Frederic James who passed away in 2006. His site is still being maintained, along with its wonderful lists. I particularly like ‘Mysteries to Take to a Desert Island’ because of its short yet pithy annotations.

And while we’re on the subject of annotations – you won’t find them in The Essential Mystery Lists. This book is just what it says it is: a compendium of lists of titles. It’s great to have them pulled together in one place, but it’s still worth your while to seek out the books from which they’ve been culled.

The folks at IMBA write great annotations: too great for some of us whose shelves and night tables are already sagging under the weight of TOO MANY BOOKS!! (But really, is there such a thing?)

Backing up to Part Two – Sobin has assembled an impressive list of awards. Everything’s here, from the prestigious Edgars and Daggers to the Loveys, formerly the Readers’ Choice Award, given at the Love Is Murder Conference, and the Spotted Owl, given by the Friends of Mystery, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, to “…the best mystery by a Pacific Northwest author.” Award recipients through to and including year 2007 are listed, a neat trick, since this book itself has a copyright date of 2007.

The Essential Mystery Lists comes to us from the Poisoned Pen Press, a publishing initiative which sprang from the legendary mystery bookstore of the same name in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is one of the many small presses that are doing a great job of getting quality crime fiction (as well as the occasional reference work) to eager and appreciative readers like you and me.

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