A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Death Sentences is, I discover, a continuing project. The collection that I am reviewing contains 15 short stories and was published in 2014; but the idea has taken hold, and more individually published short works keep coming. I found out about this collection when a friend wrote to me to say that the historic library that I help take care off (which though beautiful and important is tiny and not very well-known) had turned up in a book he was reading. I followed the clue, which led me to Death Sentences, and am delighted with the discovery.
Ian Rankin’s persuasive introduction lets us know that for any book-lover there is much to enjoy here. He tells us what books mean to him, and his belief in their power in people’s lives. He then explains how this collection came about (and in the process has given me a new hero):
[…]The Mysterious Bookshop in New York, and its owner, Otto Penzler, was an early champion of my work. He was – and is – an expert in the field of crime fiction, a collector, and a fan. He pens bibliographies and scholarly essays, edits short story collections, and for many years has commissioned authors to write one-off Christmas tales which are then presented as gifts to the bookshop’s loyal customers. It was Otto who came up with the idea of a series of ‘bibliomysteries’ – basically stories of a certain length in which books played a crucial role. As a fan of the genre, it seemed irresistible and fun to him, and when he started contacting authors, they agreed. Why wouldn’t they? Books have often played an integral or peripheral role in tales of mystery and adventure – Otto’s offer proved catnip to so many writers who share a passion for the written word in all its forms.
I would add – to the avid reader too, and to people in the overlapping category of book-lovers, who are, consciously or not, fascinated by the book as a material object and the power that it can exert, alone, or in a library.
This collection contains 15 pieces, each by a different author, many of whom are the proverbial ‘household names’, all of whom write a brilliant short story. The title of the series may promise a tad more mayhem than it actually delivers – all these stories contain a mystery, but not all are crime stories or thrillers. Some are gritty, some contain a shock, some are a slow burn, some have a gentle resolution. The variety of style and tone is one of the strengths of the collection – every story brings something fresh and exciting.
It’s hard enough to review a novel and begin to discuss what it’s about without disappointing someone with a spoiler – how much more difficult to say something spoiler-free about a tightly controlled short story with a distinctive mystery at its heart? I started reading this book on a flight; the very first story in it, An Acceptable Sacrifice by Jeffery Deaver, was so twisty that it made a corkscrew look like a knitting needle, so ingenious and so utterly exhilarating that I doubtless annoyed my neighbours hugely by muttering ‘Hah!’ and ‘Oho!’ and ‘Brilliant!’ at all the good bits. But I couldn’t tell my travelling companion anything about it for fear of giving something away – that would have been cruel. How aggravating I must have been though!
Deaver’s An Acceptable Sacrifice is a gritty, witty tale of attempted assassination in Mexico; by contrast, Andrew Taylor’s The Long Sonata of the Dead is a preposterous (in an entirely good way) story of love, jealousy, misunderstanding and literary research, but for me its main source of pleasure is its precise location in the London Library, moving with the characters through its entrance hall and reading rooms, over its terrifying see-through metal floors and down its vertiginous stairways – wonderful. The story that contains the reference to ‘my’ library is John Connolly’s The Caxton Library and Book Depository. I don’t think it is a spoiler in this gently supernatural fable to quote the relevant passage, in which the hero Mr Berger tries to find out about the ghostly building he has found at the end of a night-time adventure, The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository:
The next day brought no satisfaction. Calls to booksellers and libraries, including the grand old London Library, and the Cranston Library in Reigate, the oldest lending library in the country, confirmed only a general ignorance of the Caxton.
Well, it was heart-warming to see the library’s name in print, and its main claim to fame correctly noted, but we did have a little chuckle at the idea that a phone call to the Cranston Library might ever have yielded any results.
Peter Blauner’s The Final Testament is a fine piece of alternative history set in the last days of the life of Sigmund Freud. The Book of Ghosts by Reed Farrel Coleman is the moving tale of the power exerted over the life of a concentration camp survivor of a book that might, or might not have existed. The Book Thing by Laura Lippman is set in and around a children’s bookshop, and is a tale of finely-calibrated creepiness. But for good old-fashioned murder and detection, try William Link’s Death Leaves a Bookmark, or Nelson de Mille’s The Book Case.
The idea of a collection with a unifying theme but many different ways of interpreting it put me in mind of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises du Style, where the same banal anecdote is made hilarious, exciting, moving, interesting, boring, important, trivial, all in a succession of linguistic performances. (Light-bulb moment: next time we declare a Short Stories week, I know what I shall choose). This theme gives a little more scope, but the discipline of the code, book or books plus mystery, only accentuates the brilliance of the writers in producing such originality and diversity.
I made what was for me a fundamental mistake (though it did mean that I could more easily take it on holiday) – I bought the Kindle edition. Reading on a Kindle a book that so strongly referenced books, their physicality and the sensation of owning, handling, ogling or coveting them as well as reading or writing them, just did not work for me – my frustration boiled over in the end, and it cost me good money. I did not find an anthology easy to navigate on the e-reader either; more than most books a collection of short stories needs page numbers and running titles. One of the stories is particularly typo-strewn (Jane Austin, forsooth). However, in spite of my strictures (and the fact that I’ve felt it necessary to shell out for the hard copy as well), I have to be grateful that these stories are really the product of the e-reader revolution. A fresh batch of Death Sentences has been coming out as single shorts in 2015, so I have more to catch up with. For instant gratification, I can buy and download them as I want to read them and, what’s more, I can take them or leave them. Or else I can wait and see if another anthology is the result, but I may not have the will-power. It’s a very interesting publishing model, one that I think can only be beneficial for short stories, formerly so hard to publish without the author or editor producing a fully-formed collection.
For anyone who loves to read, and loves books and all they could signify, this collection is the perfect read. It is an elegant reminder of the sheer power of the book, as container of creativity, learning and pleasure, or as object of jealousy, covetousness and murderous thoughts. It is also a reminder of the potential malevolence of bookcases …. I am sure that mine are securely screwed to the wall … aren’t they….?
Death Sentences: stories of Deathly Books, Murderous Booksellers & Lethal Literature, edited by Otto Penzler with an introduction by Ian Rankin. London: Head of Zeus, 2014. 560pp
This is the Death Sentences page on the website of Head of Zeus, the very stylish publishers of the series, listing the currently available titles.