Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Whodunit?: H.R.F. Keating

A few months ago I purchased a used copy of a mystery reference book edited by H.R.F. Keating, published in 1982. The book is titled Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense, & Spy Fiction. And every since I received my copy in the mail, I have been reading through it slowly. At this point, I have read about a third of the book. Most mystery reference books I would not try to read through, either due to spoilers or because there is too much to read. But this one is perfect for this and I am enjoying it immensely.

H.R.F. Keating supplies the introduction.  There are lovely black and white photos and illustrations throughout.

The first section is a series of essays on "Crime Fiction and Its Categories." There are a couple of sections on the history of crime fiction, followed by discussions of nine sub-genres. The essay about the English detective story is written by Robert Barnard and features Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L. Sayers.
Next is the American detective story; Julian Symon starts with the history of the pulps, then moves on to the "Big Three" -- Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler. Hillary Waugh discusses the American police procedural; Michael Gilbert focuses on the British police procedural.

John Gardner provided a great overview of the espionage novel, covering a lot of ground, including Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John Le Carre, and Charles McCarry. Here is an interesting paragraph on the last two:
While John le Carré remains the British guru of literary espionage fiction, there is no doubt in my mind that another author, the American ex-CIA officer, Charles McCarry, really leads the field in terms of the world league. This is purely a personal viewpoint, obviously not shared by the majority. Strangely, McCarry's books have never had the stratospheric success accorded to le Carré.
He goes on to say that it may have to do with McCarry's "realistic eroticism." At the time, McCarry had written only three novels. While I have no desire to rate McCarry over le Carré, I have read almost all of his books and have his most recent one on the TBR pile. He writes very different and compelling spy fiction.

The second section is short pieces by crime fiction authors on the subject "How I Write My Books." The authors covered include Stanley Ellin (titled "Under Financial Distress"), P. D. James, Desmond Bagley, Dorothy Eden, Patricia Highsmith, Gregory Mcdonald, Lionel Davidson, Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, and H.R.F. Keating.  I was thrilled to read how Deighton writes, in his own words, but all of them were interesting.

This is followed by a section called "Writers and Their Books: A Consumer's Guide." That section consists of brief overviews of various mystery authors, listing a few representative books for each. Per the back cover of my book, it covers more than 500 authors and 1500 recommended books.
A fourth section is called "The People of Crime Fiction." It consists of brief descriptive pieces on crime fiction characters, with illustrations for each. Each is about a half a page long; some get a whole page. The back cover says: "the 90 most popular characters."  I haven't sampled that section at all, but I am looking forward to it. The very last section is a six page essay titled "Why People Read Crime Fiction," written by Philip Graham, a psychiatrist.

I first heard of this book through Sarah at Crimepieces, in this post on a vintage mystery by Frances Crane. As she says, the book is "a mine of information in relation to lesser known authors."

I love mystery reference books of all types, old and new, and this one is especially entertaining and informative.

18 comments:

  1. Tracy, I'm going to take a look at this one. Thanks for the heads up. Interesting that HRF Keating should edit it. Talking of espionage authors, a Deighton will never fade; I read his novels long before I read le Carré and Tom Clancy. I have neglected John Gardner's work. If you like espionage fiction then I recommend the novels of Craig Thomas, the Welsh author who, by today's standards, wrote very conservative spy thrillers whose main characters include the elderly Sir Kenneth Aubrey and Patrick Hyde of MI6. I think I've mentioned Thomas to you before...but just in case I didn't.

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    1. Prashant, thanks for reminding me about Craig Thomas. I do want to find some of his books, and will probably seek them online.

      Deighton is one of my favorite authors, and at least I still have some of his to read. My plan is to reread the le Carre books, but it is not happening very fast.

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  2. I love reference books as well especially for pointing out mysteries that are under the radar. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention.

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    1. Keishon, I keep flagging authors I want to try that I find in my reference books. And it is fun to read comments about authors who were newish when this book was written.

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  3. I probably wouldn't go for this usually, but it seems really interesting. I think my thought processes are ....I could be reading a proper book....whilst reading this!

    Nice mention of McCarry - I have most of his Paul Christopher books, but you've guessed it I haven't read them yet! Ditto a couple of Amblers, a few Gardners, Deightons....heavy sigh

    I will see if this is cheap. Reminds me a bit of Pronzinis' Gun in Cheek and follow up.....a book where you get to read about other books.

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    1. Col, I read my mystery reference books a bit at a time, and then if they are not too big I re-read them or scan through them again and again. I hope you enjoy McCarry. I really, really like his books, and each is a little different.

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  4. Tracy - This sounds like a terrific reference, and a very wide-ranging one too. Glad you found it worth reading.

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    1. Margot, it is very interesting and with some interesting articles by authors I have read.

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  5. TracyK: Thanks for pointing out this book. I am going to watch for it. Your description reminds me of Talking about Detective Fiction by P.D. James. She talks about characters, plot issues and writing without giving spoilers or plot summaries.

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    1. Bill, thank you for reminding me about P.D. James' book. I haven't read that yet and it sounds interesting.

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  6. I remember reading this when it first came out but no longer own a copy - I really will have to see if I can track one down - thanks for bringing that all back TracyK. Keating was a great novelist but a surprisingly sensitive critic too and it's great to be reminded of that too.

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    1. Sergio, I am finding all of it delightful and useful. I am in the Writers and Their Books section now and I am finding a lot of entries for authors of spy fiction that I was unaware of.

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  7. Thanks for the mention, Tracy. This book has so many memories for me. It's my oldest crime fic reference book and I just love it. The layout is completely dates but it is still a mine of information and so accessible. Glad you loved it too.

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    1. Sarah, I am so glad I found this book. I agree about the accessibility. Very readable, very down to earth. And lots of fun.

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  8. I enjoy dipping into a reference book every now and then! The problem with one about books is that it leads you to so many new authors that there isn't enough time to try!

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    1. Laurie, you are so right. I have so many books about books with authors flagged, and there is no way I will ever get to them all.

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  9. I have had this book for years, and love it, though I don't consult it as often as I used to. I like the way he tells you which of an author's books he considers the best. And if someone isn't in it you think he or she is *really* obscure! I'm sure you'll keep yours for years, as I have.

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    1. Moira, This is one I actually wish was longer. Although the length does mean I can actually read through it. Yes, I will keep it. I never get rid of mystery reference books. Just cannot believe I did not run into this sooner.

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