The world of mystery and crime fiction has been the subject of a numerous recent reference tomes, from Willetta Heising's excellent Detecting Women and Detecting Men to The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. The former books are notable for their comprehensive cataloging of contemporary writers, and the latter succeeds by its reliance on a diverse range of authorities. But Bruce Murphy's The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery is much more a reader's book.
Murphy is himself a bibliophile to be reckoned with, as editor of Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia and writer for Critical Inquiry and the Paris Review. What he brings to his reference work, however, is not just the requisite expertise but also a sense of his audience, an attention to prose style, and a passion for mystery as a genre. He writes in his introduction: "The crime story is about consequences. In the mystery novel, infidelity leads to murder; in the 'serious' novel, more often than not it leads merely to divorce and the opportunities for characters to feel sorry for themselves." Throughout, Murphy throws himself into controversy and immerses himself in the minutiae that has always drawn the attention of true mystery fans. Where else might one find, for example, a description of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple tales as requiring "willing suspension of disbelief, because St. Mary Meade seems to have a crime rate to rival Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles. They are also oozing with charm and can be a bit treacly."
The book does fall short in a few areas. Most notably, there are no illustrations, even where a photograph or an etching might be appropriate--especially in relation to film. Also, given that the book is all the product of a single author, some areas are given less weight than might be expected (e.g., Batman, who warranted a major feature in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, is omitted). Further, the book's great strength--its critical bent--might be seen as a drawback to some fans. For example, the entry on "cozy" treats the subgenre with some disdain, especially dismissing cat mysteries where "realism is not so much ignored as belligerently violated." This criticism, however, points again to why this volume is such a pleasure to read. Murphy chooses to embrace the difficult subjects and let his reader know what he thinks. You will learn from his vast research and--like him or hate him--you will find him entertaining. --Patrick O'Kelley