Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dusting Off a True Classic

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 specialty bookstores to 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.

4 comments:

David J. Montgomery said...

Murder Ink was one of the books that first made me start thinking of becoming a crime critic. (Before then, I'd only written film criticism.) It's also the reason I named my website Mystery Ink.

Art Bourgeau's Mystery Lover's Companion was the one that really did it, though. It's unlikely I ever would have started writing about mysteries if it hadn't been for Art.

Anonymous said...

As much as I enjoyed "Murder Ink" when it first came out - in 1977 - I must take issue with giving it, or Dilys Winn, credit for the beginnings of mystery fandom. In 1977 Allen J. Hubin had been publishing "The Armchair Detective" for 10 years and Len and June Moffat had been publishing "The JDM Bibliophile" for longer than that. The first Bouchercon was in 1970 and Barzun and Taylor had done "A Catalogue of Crime" in 1971. I'm not sure, then, how "the realm of mystery fandom can trace it's origin" to Murder Ink. Articles on the history of the field, especially fandom, are important, but it is also important to get things right.

respectfully, Steve Stilwell

Bill Crider said...

Yes, in 1977 I was already a member of DAPA-Em, and I'd been subscribing to both the Hubin and Moffatt publications for years. I think mystery fandom was well along the road by the time of MURDER INK, fine book though it is. I suspect the fanzines that appeared in the '70s from folks like Guy Townsend and Jeff Meyerson were influenced more by Hubin and the Moffatts than by anything else.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I went through two copies of that book (Winn), I used it as a resource that much. I'm gonna pull mine out tonight.