'Books to Die For' idea man set to talk about his inspiration

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

Inside every mystery author is a fan who once thrilled to the work of an older master.

Best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh was tremendously influenced by Truman Capote's 1966 nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood.”

For Kathy Reichs, it was the gruesome classic “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris that had, perhaps, the most influence on her development as a writer.

The two are among more than 100 mystery writers who discuss their favorite book in “Books To Die For: The World's Greatest Mystery Writers on the World's Greatest Mystery Novels” (Atria/Emily Bestler Books; $29.99).

The instigators of this anthology are Irish crime writers John Connolly and Declan Burke. Connolly, the best-selling author of books such as “Every Dead Thing,” will discuss the anthology Tuesday at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont.

“Most writers are readers first,” Connolly says. “It's rare that they're asked to write about their enthusiasms. It's really not too much of a chore to ask them would you mind writing as much as you want about the book you would hand to someone and say ‘You've got to read this?' ”

But it was murder getting everyone to respect the March 31 deadline for the book. It came and went, and they had less than half the assigned essays.

“What I learned is that all writers view deadlines as advisory,” Connolly says. “Declan and I spent the next month, like the Mossad, tracking down the Black September terrorists, traveling the world and making them hand over essays.”

Part history, part tribute, “Books to Die For” serves as a guide for newcomers. It also argues for the mystery novel as legitimate literature rather than plot-by-numbers trash. The best mystery fiction, writes Connolly in the introduction, is undergirded with a staunch morality.

“I think that's a misapprehension about mystery fiction, that it's entirely about plot,” Connolly says. “The plot comes out of character, in all fiction. They're all the same. A plot is what people do, and what people do is a function of their character.”

While it contains work by the usual suspects — Chandler, James Cain, Agatha Christie — the anthology also pays tribute to overlooked gems. For example, writer Laura Wilson pays tribute to “Hangover Square,” a 1941 novel by the late Patrick Hamilton that is set in the seedy pubs of pre-war England in the 1930s.

“The thing about bookstores is that they tend to be front-loaded with new stuff,” Connolly says. “Quite often, our awareness of the older stuff tends to fall away. We want to provide people with an entry into the genre. Wouldn't you like to know where the new stuff came from?”

“Books to Die For” also argues that the world of mystery writing can be small indeed.

Sara Paretsky, creator of the female private eye V.I. Warshawski, writes about “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens as a major influence.

The roles are reversed later in the book, when one of Paretsky's books is lauded by British novelist N.J. Cooper. When she discovered Paretsky's novels, Cooper writes, “I felt myself not only understood but also vindicated in all kinds of ways.”

William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wloeffler@tribweb.com or 412-320-7986.

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