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The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing
ISBN 0195072391 / 9780195072396 / 0-19-507239-1Find This Book
Penzler Pick, April 2000: Over the years, there have been quite a few reference books in the mystery genre arranged as dictionaries, encyclopedias, companions, and so on. (I coauthored two of them, so I know what goes into their production.) Rosemary Herbert's Companion differs from many others in at least two ways: first, she did not write it but rather edited the work of numerous well-known mystery scholars and academics, each of whom presumably has some expertise in the subjects they wrote about; and second, there are as many articles devoted to umbrella subjects (eccentrics, elderly sleuths, English village milieu, and escapism, to open the book at random) as to authors and characters. It is an interesting way to arrange a reference book and more fun to read than the potted author biographies in similar works, but it seems to be less useful as a reference tool than those works.
Inevitably, the first criticism leveled at such a work is the question of why certain authors or characters were included and others omitted. At random, I note entries for Inspector Hanaud, Joseph Hansen, and Cyril Hare, but none for James Crumley or Minette Walters. Perhaps this boils down to the subjective notion that it's more important to have entries for both A.E.W. Mason and his series character, Hanaud--seldom read nowadays--than for one of the half-dozen best hard-boiled writers alive and for the heir apparent to the thrones of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. The problem is somewhat exacerbated by the subject articles, where one can look in vain under "stalking" for a mention of Mary Higgins Clark but instead find Evelyn E. Smith. The "missing persons" entry makes no mention of Hillary Waugh's superb Last Seen Wearing but does reference an obscure Mary Roberts Rinehart short story.
As I reread this page, it seems as if I don't like the book, which is certainly not true. This type of book begs for nitpicking, and that's what I've been doing. It is wonderfully written, on balance, and the overview articles are informative and a joy to read, often providing historical perspective that serves as an excellent guide for readers who want to embark on a journey through, say, the world of legal fiction or forensic pathology. The Oxford Companion shouldn't be your only reference book, but it should find a spot on every devotee's shelf. --Otto Penzler [via]