On the eve of The Black Orchid’s final anniversary party in New York City, Sarah Weinman’s moving tribute to that bookshop started me thinking about the various parts and components of the crime-fiction community. From the multitude of awards, to the proliferation and wide-ranging world of mystery blogs, the realm of crime-fiction fandom can trace its origin to a single reference work: Dilys Winn’s Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader’s Companion.
Murder Ink was the first of its kind: a hugely entertaining look at mysteries, their writers and readers. It made no claim to being comprehensive; indeed, the book is highly idiosyncratic and reflected the wit and taste of Winn, who opened the first mystery bookstore under that same name--a store that ultimately closed last year, a victim of rising rents in Manhattan.
The cover of the book tells you what you’re in for: a grim butler holding an ominous silver plate. Across the bottom of the image is written “Perpetrated by Dilys Winn.” The inside back cover, bathed in red, ends the book on a perfect coda: “This rich dark red exactly matches the color of arterial blood.” The black-and-white photographs that illustrate Winn’s work, heavy on silhouettes and shadows, add the perfect visual grace notes to the essays within, full of insight and love for the genre.
The contributors to Murder Ink are among the greatest (if often most under-heralded) names in crime fiction: William L. DeAndrea, Brian Garfield, H.R.F. Keating, James McClure, Marilyn Stasio, Lawrence Treat, Peter Dickinson, and Abraham Lincoln, whose 1846 short story “The Trailor Murder Mystery,” we learn, was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1952.
Abby Adams wrote a whimsical piece about the trials of living with a highly prolific mystery writer who works under several names. (“I have lived with the consortium that calls itself Don Westlake for five years now, and I still can’t always be sure, when I get up in the morning, which of the mob I’ll have coffee with.”) Elsewhere in the book, Westlake and three of his various pseudonyms (Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and Timothy J. Culver) gather for an interview to discuss “the state of their art.”
To my knowledge, Winn was the first writer to classify a traditional mystery tale with no sex, offstage violence, and a dearth of profanity, as a “cozy,” a term that was meant affectionately at the time, but is now just as often used as an unnecessary pejorative. However, Winn was not a pushover for just any hard-boiled writer. Of Raymond Chandler, she wrote, “Take your Chandler friend by the hand, put a piece of tape over his mouth, and tell him to just shut up and hear how it ought to be done. [Dashiell] Hammett’s style does not date, as does Chandler’s, and The Glass Key puts to shame every other hard-boiled writer.”
Murder Ink’s success led to a sequel, Murderess Ink: The Better Half of the Mystery, published in 1979. While just as stylish and interesting as its predecessor, Murderess Ink suffers the fate of sequels: diminished novelty.
There have been many mystery reference books since Murder Ink, including the fine 1993 entry, The Fine Art of Murder, edited by Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg, Larry Segriff, and Jon Breen, which largely mimics the Murder Ink format. However, for my money, the first remains the best. Thank you, Dilys.
READ MORE: “Winn Lost,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).