Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Declan Burke and Books to Die For

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's a question we all get asked; authors and readers, librarians and booksellers. Facebook and Goodreads and Library Thing ask it. People at book signings, interviewers, and students ask it. But who would be crazy enough to ask it of 120 of the most well-known crime fiction writers of today?

A couple of Irishmen, of course. Today, Declan Burke is here to talk with us about the very simple concept - and the sometimes complicated execution - of getting a list of Books to Die For.

Just say you were asked to recommend one great mystery novel to the whole world. It's the book you love more than any other, and love is often irrational. Love is not in the slightest bit worried about technical brilliance or cultural importance or defining or inventing a genre. Love is passionate, illogical, often perverse. We're talking about the book that can render you speechless, the words jumbling on your tongue, in the rush to sing its praises.  

So - which single book would YOU choose? 

That was the general gist of the question John Connolly and I asked of almost 120 writers from all around the world for BOOKS TO DIE FOR. The response was astonishing. 

In retrospect, I suppose we should have expected to be overwhelmed. Is there any question more intoxicating to a book lover than, “So, what's your favourite book?” 

Equally, there's no question more ridiculous to a book lover than, “So, what,s your favourite book?” Because really, who could possibly limit themselves to just one book?

But rules are rules, and there is only a finite amount of paper in the world, so we held each contributor to a single book. 

Naturally, every single author who contributed an essay picked exactly the book we thought they would pick. 

You're picking up on the sarcasm, right?

Right. Because if there's one thing I've learned from the process of putting BOOKS TO DIE FOR together, it's this: Never try to second-guess a writer on the subject of their favourite novel. 

Put it this way. You'd imagine that the name of Agatha Christie, for example, might come very high on the list of first options. That there would be a queue, and not a particularly orderly one, to write about the Grand Dame of the Golden Age of the British mystery novel. 

Well, you'd be wrong. I'm guessing - there I go again - that many of the contributors were second-guessing us. Believing that Agatha Christie would be one of the first names to be chosen, they went for less obvious choices. 

As it happens, the flurry came near the end of the process, and we ended up including two books by Agatha Christie. 

By contrast, we could have held a lottery among all the authors who wanted to write about Josephine Tey. 

Was I aware of Josephine Tey's literary legacy? Yes. Had I the faintest inkling that she remains so vitally important to successive generations of writers? Not an iota. 

This was just one of the many wonderful surprises that came with putting together BOOKS TO DIEFOR. Many of the titles and writers chosen were familiar to me, of course; but one of the joys of the project was discovering authors and novels I'd never even heard of before.

The contributions from two of the Jungle Red writers fall neatly into both categories outlined here. Had I heard of Deborah's choice? Yes, of course, and I've enjoyed her author's novels immensely. Julia's choice? I'm ashamed to say I'd never even heard of the book. Will I be picking it up on her recommendation? Absolutely.

But let's go back to our original question. What is YOUR book to die for, the book that changed the way you think about books, the one mystery novel you'd recommend to the readers of the Jungle Red blog?

Tell us what it is, and why that is the case, and the most interesting and original suggestion will win a copy of BOOKS TO DIE FOR and a copy of SLAUGHTER'S HOUND.

And now, it's over to you!

DeclanBurke has published four novels: Eightball Boogie (2003), The Big O (2007), Absolute Zero Cool (2011) and Slaughter's Hound (2012). Absolute Zero Cool was shortlisted in the crime fiction section for the Irish Book Awards, and received the Goldsboro / Crimefest “Last Laugh” Award for Best Humorous Crime Novel in 2012. He is also the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21stCentury (2011), and the co-editor, with John Connolly, of Books toDie For (2012). He hosts a website dedicated to Irish crime fiction called Crime Always Pays and is on Twitter as @declanburke.



  1. Science fiction was always my “go-to” genre and, of course, Isaac Asimov was [and still is] the writer whose works I most enjoyed. It was his “The Caves of Steel” that introduced me to the world of mystery stories and this is the book I would recommend. John W. Campbell, editor of “Astounding Science Fiction,” published many early Asimov stories, but asserted that mystery and science fiction were incompatible genres since science fiction writers could invent facts that readers would not know because they came from the imaginary future. Asimov countered that clues could be revealed in the plot, even if they were not obvious, and the rules implicit in the writing of mysteries would be inherent even in science fiction mysteries. He wrote “The Caves of Steel” to prove his point. It’s a must-read for its marvelous storytelling, for wonderful characterizations woven into a captivating mystery that needs to be solved.

  2. The answer to what is my favorite mystery novel is the same as if you had asked for my favorite thriller or romance or action/adventure or spy or military or historical or any genre outside of the sf/fantasy world (and I am working on an argument that would include them as well) ... The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. It is the first "adult" book that I recall rereading and I have done so multiple times. This baby had it all and fostered a lifelong love of reading.

  3. GONE WITH THE WIND IS THE FIRST ADULT BOOK i remember reading. i reread it numerous times, and it has a special place in my heart!

  4. What a difficult question! Favorite mystery book - how many could I name? Thinking about it took me back to my childhood and the first mystery book I read - or the first one I can remember - THE MYSTERY OF THE HAUNTED POOL by Phyllis A. Whitney. I thought about that book for years and finally found a copy in a used bookstore. Still have it. I believe the author won an Edgar for that book. It belonged to me couskin and I think it set me on my course to make the mystery genre my favorite. Went on from there to Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, etc., etc.

    Adult mystery that I loved, loved, loved and have reread many times - BOOTLEGGER'S DAUGHTER by Margaret Maron. And I've read each and every book that has followed it.

  5. Welcome to Jungle Reds, Declan! Such a difficult question.

    To answer this, I'd have to turn to Dickens, our Shakespeare of the novel. Dickens used the elements of the mystery and thriller throughout his work, but I have a special fondness for BLEAK HOUSE. We have a murder of a nefarious fellow that's tied up to another mysterious death and a mystery of identity. We have suspects, one of whom is jailed for the murder, possibly unjustly. We have the first English police detective, Bucket, who unravels the mystery. Not to mention some of the best in-depth criticism of capitalism and the British court system to be found.

  6. This is a tough one. Other than Nancy Drew, etc. I think the first one was one of A. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Always a good choice.

  7. Though perhaps not a surprise choice, I would have to select Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. This book literally has everything--a brilliant opening sequence, tight plotting, sustained suspense, seamless interweaving of multiple narrators, a love story, and one of the most fantastic heroines in fiction in Marian Halcombe.

    Who is The Woman in White? What does she want with lovely Laura Fairlie? What is the 'skeleton in the closet' in Blackwater Park? You literally scream through the book's pages to get to the answer, as the plot weaves and winds in the hands of a true master.

    The book holds up extremely well by today's standards, never feeling outdated or trite. It's also a very funny book, as embodied by Laura's uncle Frederick. But Marian is the heart and soul of the book--tough, tender, smart, courageous, and more than holding her own in a way that was revolutionary for its time.

    Simply put, you cannot afford to miss this early masterpiece of mystery any more than you could the work of Poe, Anna Katherine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart, or others from that era. It's that special.

  8. A lot of thoughtful answers - just like in BOOKS TO DIE FOR.

    I think in some ways, it's easier to put your finger on "The: book when asked. I mean, readers at library and bookstore events always ask my to name "some of my favorites," and I always struggle like a newly-arrived lungfish to come up with five or six recent reads.

    But when Declan and John sent me the invitation to write about the ONE book all mystery-lovers should read, I knew instantly what novel I would choose. No hesitation. whatsoever.

  9. There's an urge to recommend a book you know most people won't have heard of, and I'll do that here: William Goldman's amazing THE COLOR OF LIGHT, a book that doesn't even reveal itself as a thriller until the very last page. It's also one of the best novels you'll ever read about the writing life. It's been shamefully out of print for years, but I find it occasionally on bargain book racks, and buy every copy I find to give as gifts.

  10. Declan is a sly dog. You notice he doesn't say WHICH books Julia and I wrote about. We want you to pick the book up in your hot little hands in order to find out!

    But I can tell you that the book is hugely fun and entertaining. There are so many books I love, and so many I haven't read and now MUST.

    Is that the US cover??? It's gorgeous! I have my UK edition, which is lovely, too, but I'm very excited to see the US edition at Bouchercon.

  11. Welcome, Declan!

    As I read your post, I thought, My god, what an impossible question...However, by the end of the post, I realized that I had only one answer. Like many others, my choice comes from my childhood. High on my mom's set of bookshelves -- which, alas, included Readers Digest condensed editions -- sat Daphne duMaurier's REBECCA.

    I was in junior high school, tired of Nancy Drew and just starting to get into Agatha Christie.

    To this day, I love setting as character -- love it! -- because of REBECCA. I love secrets from the past that haunt the present. I love shiny facades that hide the fester. I love the Mrs. Danvers' of the literary world; the first novel I wrote contained such a housekeeper. (Wow, I just realized that connection right this second.)

    Young as I was, the mystery's resolution blew me away. To this day, I love enigmatic characters and the gray areas that provide character complexity. Why might a good character do a bad thing?

    REBECCA is one of the few novels that I've reread more than one.

  12. Hi Declan,

    Great post. I'm with Debbi. Gone WIth The Wind is the book I discovered and reread at least eight times. I loved that the protagonist was so incredibly flawed and I still rooted for her.

    In terms of mystery, it was Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. I absolutely love the unreliable narrator - which i think adds a whole other layer to mystery.

  13. I can't narrow it down to one but I did get down to two: Bootlegger's Daughter by Margaret Maron and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block.

  14. Yes definitely GONE WITH THE WIND! I snuck it into school and read it tucked behind a textbook.

    Jim Huang's Crum Creek Press did a nice book something like this one back in 2006--called MYSTERY MUSES. I wrote about THE PINK MOTEL by carol ryrie brink. Anyone remember Kirby and Bitsy's adventures?

  15. Tough call. There are so many wonderful books that leap to mind. One of my very favorite mysteries is Julia's All Mortal Flesh, but it's the fifth of a series. Another candidate would be John Hart's The Last Child. But I think I'll go with The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, because of its wonderful combination of genres: it's a mystery, a fantasy, and hilariously humorous, and it introduces us to the Bookworld, whose agents can enter into works of literature. The best thing about it was that knowing and loving Jane Eyre made TEA that much better, and TEA gave me some new ways to look at Jane Eyre.

  16. Hi Declan! Thank you for such an interesting (and challenging) question! Selecting only one is very difficult....But when pressed, I have to select "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness. I have to go with ADOW because 1) I have read it (and listened to it) more times than I ever have any other book (and I learn something new each time); 2) I have become a groupie and have made many new friends as a result of it; and, 3) I have learned History (and learned to even like it!).


  17. Hi Folks -

    Wow, what a wonderful response - marvellous! But I guess there it is right there - ask a book lover what their favourite book is, and strap yourself in for a long evening ...

    What I love about these answers is that I'm still hearing about books and writers I'd never heard of before. And even the William Goldman suggestion - I'd have picked Marathon Man, but there you go. What do I know? Enough not to argue with Answergirl, that's what.

    I see Jim mentions John Hart's The Last Child in passing ... a wonderful novel.

    You know what's interesting too? How many people opt for books from way back in the 19th century. Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Poe ... It's really nice that people have such a respect for the genre's roots, its classics. Sometimes you think contemporary culture has the attention-span of a goldfish. Not so much here at Jungle Reds, that's for sure.

    Oh, and the fans of Gone With the Wind? One summer, when I was about fourteen or so, I stayed a few weeks at my grandmother's house, and for some reason got stuck without any books. She had Gone With the Wind on the shelf. I read it twice in two weeks. What a great novel.

    Thanks to everyone for taking part - and apologies for not dropping in sooner, but I've been stuck in town all day. So it's 8.30pm here in Ireland right now ... I'll drop by again in the morning, to see what other tasty morsels you've been cooking up.

    I can't thank you all enough for the lovely welcome, folks - you've really made my day!



  18. I had admired Ross Macdonald for his work for years. I can remember the day a college roommate gave me his copy of The Chill and dared me to read a mystery. I read it in a single sitting and was blown away by the intellect that could conceive such a lucid pathway through the maze of human deviousness.

  19. It would have to be one of Dennis Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro series. Probably A Drink Before the War because it is the first and it did change the way I think about mysteries. Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Miss Marple, and all the other traditional sleuths are good. The antagonist and/or villain is bad. Black and white.

    Lehane showed me that characters aren't just good or bad. They're much more complex than that. I'd give anything to be able to read these books again for the first time and wrestle with the dichotomy of his characters again.

  20. Dickens… would have to be Dickens for me. But if I couldn't have any other books at all, I would choose a complete edition of Shakespeare. That was one of the books we had at home growing up– all of his plays and poetry.

  21. Jim stole the words out of my mouth! The Eyre Affair is a book that I love to reread because I learn something new each time. For one thing, it makes me want to reread the classics. It's a great book for people who love literature, mystery, fantasy and offbeat humor.

    I also love all of Tony Hillerman's Navajo detective mysteries and am in love with both Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. It's hard to believe that they are fictional characters (and that the author is no longer with us). In addition to being good mysteries, the books educate people about Navajo culture.

    A non mystery that I constantly reread (my copy is in tatters and is held together by -gasp!-duct tape) is Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. For me, it was an entertaining way to learn about post WW II London. I love the wry humor in it and I identify with the protagonist's eccentricities. At this point I think I can probably recite the text from memory. I have been reading it about three times a year since 1978. I own all of Pym's books but Excellent Women is my favorite.

  22. I'm going to get in deep shit here, and have held off all day from commenting (and you regulars know how regular a commenter I am!) - but I must say that any of Julia's books and any of Louise Penny's books simply have top place with me.I would reread and share and own and escape with them without conditions. Just saying. I aspire to write that kind of book. I KNOW that's more than one. So shoot me.

    (And the rest of the Jungle Reds already know, I hope, that I adore you and will read everything and anything you publish.)

  23. I'm right there with you, Edith . . . I stand by my original choice of “The Caves of Steel” as the mystery book everyone should read at least once, but I have read and re-read Julia's books more than any other book . . . and I always discover something new. Re-reading a book you love is a special treat, like visiting with an old friend . . . .

  24. Speaking of ALL MORTAL FLESH and Julia's books in general: I'm about to start reading ALL MORTAL FLESH. I'm ashamed to say that I've yet to read one of Julia's books. This particular one (I don't mind reading out of order) came recommended by a VERY picky friend. :-)

  25. Speaking of Julia's books: I just returned from a vacation in which I spent most of my waking hours reading her books. I devoured the first three. After the first couple of chapters of the first one, I realized I was addicted! I read Julia on the train, in the car, on the beach, in bed...and I even dreamed about the characters.

    I need more Clare/Russ books.

  26. Don't we all need more Clare/Russ books?! Next May is awfully far away . . . . [Very Big Grin!]

  27. Uh-oh, new author addition coming my way, I think!

  28. Favorite books of all time? Evil question, even though you ask it charmingly, Declan. I had the honor of seeing you and John at Bouchercon in San Francisco, giving this presentation and it knocked me over. Brilliant.

    So okay, favorites. For all around, read-it-every-year I'd have to say Morris West's THE CLOWNS OF GOD. I always find something new.

    For mystery in general (and considering where I work and how much I read, this one is a no-way-to-win one), I'd have to say John Dunning's BOOKED TO DIE. I learned so much from that book, and from the man himself.

  29. Fahrenheit 451 because I couldn't understand why anyone would burn books.


  30. Agatha Christie's The Seven Dials Mystery is one that I've read at least two or three times. It's a good, lighthearted classic mystery.
    It's a bit humorous because of the characters setting up a bunch of alarm clocks to wake someone else up who, unfortunately, didn't wake up because he was murdered! There are interesting names, too, such as Bundle and Lady Coote. Makes me think of Rhys Bowen's Binky and Fig.

    Sherlock Holmes stories are also among my favorites, as are the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters.

    When I was a kid one of my favorites was The Ghost Next Door by Willys Folk St. John about a girl who had an imaginary playmate, possibly the ghost of the dead half-sister that she didn't know about. At the end of the book you still don't know if it was a ghost or not. I also loved The Ghosts by Antonia Barber about a brother and sister who met two ghostly kids from the past and went back in time to prevent their deaths. It was made into a movie with a different title. Yeah, I love ghost stories and still have those books.

    I liked Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys when I was a kid, but I also really liked Trixie Belden and the Three Investigators.

  31. I can't pick one book. I've been having a nervous breakdown trying to decide. I loved GWTW, I love Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder, I love Reginald Hill and Maeve Binchey, I love the Jungle Red Writers, and you want me to pick ONE book??? I can't. Sorry. :)

  32. OK, now I have to add some extras to my original post, since picking one really is impossible.

    Jeffery Deaver's "The Bone Collector" and John Connolly's "Every Dead Thing" are etched in my brain, as are Stuart MacBride's "Cold Granite" and P.J. Tracy's "Monkeewrench."

    Ariana Franklin's "Mistress in the Art of Death", Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd"--ok I'll stop. Sigh.