MysteryPeople Q&A with Declan Burke
One of my favorite books this year, and our pick of the month, isn’t a work of crime fiction, but about Crime Fiction. Edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, Books to Die For contains essays by over a hundred of the best crime writers around the world about the book they would most passionately advocate for. Any crime fiction fan should have a copy of this. We caught up with Declan Burke to ask him a few questions about this achievement.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for this book come about?
DECLAN BURKE: The idea was one of those off-the-cuff ‘What if …?’ moments. I’d just interviewed John for one of the Irish papers, I think it was the Irish Times, and we were chatting about books and writers, and the conversation wandered into the realms of, ‘I wonder what such-a-person’s favourite book is?’ That was the interesting thing for us, I think – that the book wouldn’t be a list or a Top 100 or a Best Of kind of compilation. All writers are first and foremost readers, and it was reading particular books that inspired them to become writers. Who wouldn’t be curious as to what book turned Michael Connelly into the writer he is today? Or Sara Paretsky, or Laura Lippman, or George Pelecanos … And so forth. We knew from the beginning that the book wouldn’t be comprehensive or definitive in terms of the great canon of crime / mystery literature, but we never intended it to be that kind of book. It was always meant to be a book for people who love books, by people who love books.
MP: Is there an author you would have loved to have gotten but didn’t?
DB: I guess there’s a couple, actually. Again, we knew setting out that we wouldn’t get everyone we’d like to have contributed, but that’s par for the course with books like this. I’d have loved to see James Lee Burke make a contribution, for sure. And James Ellroy is a particular favourite of mine. I’d also liked to have had Maj Sjöwall write a piece. Having said that, I’d be far more inclined to celebrate the authors who did make a contribution – what was truly wonderful about the project was the way virtually every writer we contacted got what we were trying to do straight away, and pretty much volunteered to take part. They all seemed to appreciate that it was a labour of love, and they all bought into it on that level. It was more than a bit humbling, to be honest.
MP: I’ve already picked up two books due to the author recommendations. Was there any essays that made you want to pick up and read a book or author you hadn’t before?
DB: Absolutely. I got involved in the book more from curiosity than anything else, because even though I read quite a bit of crime and mystery fiction, I’m always aware of the gaps in my knowledge – John is far more of a student and scholar of the genre. But even allowing for the fact that I wasn’t fully up to speed on the genre, I was very pleasantly surprised at the number of books and writers I’d never heard of, and the passion their advocates brought to writing about them. I was totally ignorant of Kem Nunn, for example, and I’ve since picked up two of his books. I was amazed by the support for Josephine Tey, particularly among female writers – she’s an author who would have been on my radar as one of the lesser known writers of the British ‘Golden Age’ of mystery fiction, but Books to Die For showed me that she’s very relevant indeed to a host of contemporary writers. So definitely – it was tough going, putting the book together, but very educational, and hugely enjoyable.
MP: Your essay is on Liam O’Flaherty’s The Assassin. Is there anything about that book that influences your own writing?
DB: I’d love to say yes, but I’m afraid not! I picked The Assassin because I love its style and the story it tells – O’Flaherty wrote The Assassin and The Informer in a very clipped, staccato-like proto-noir style that we recognise in the works of Dashiell Hammett and James Cain, and even Paul Cain, although O’Flaherty published both of those novels in the mid-1920s, some years before Hammett published his first novel. O’Flaherty was a bit of a wanderer, and a sailor, and as far as I know he spent some time in San Francisco in the early 1920s. I do wonder if he stumbled across the early writing of Dashiell Hammett, and if it influenced him; or if Hammett was influenced by O’Flaherty; or if it’s all a complete coincidence.
MP: Was it easy to pick The Assassin or were there some close runner-ups?
DB: I could have picked maybe another 20 titles, easily. Probably the hardest thing to do, if you’re a reader, is to narrow your favourite books down to just one – and as any reader will tell you, that choice will change from one day to the next. Probably my favourite crime novel of all time is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, not because it’s his best book, but because it was the first crime title I read that opened my eyes to what could be achieved in the genre – really, when I read the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, it felt like I’d come home. That’s a feeling I’d never had before, and have rarely had since. So I’d probably have picked The Big Sleep – except when Michael Connelly agreed to get involved, and very humbly (typically for him) asked if we’d mind if he wrote about Chandler, there was no way I was going to get to write about Chandler!
MP: John Connolly said at Bouchercon that this book was the hardest thing to do and that he would never do this again. Would you be willing to do it for the next generation?
DB: I suppose there’s a couple of answers to that. Yes, it was a pretty tough thing to do, given the concept, and the fact that you’re trying to co-ordinate so many writers across four or five continents, all of whom have their own deadlines to manage. Having said that, I can see how an updated or expanded version might work in, say, 10 years time, or 20 years time. But – and it’s a pretty big but – I honestly don’t think it’d work if John wasn’t on board, and for a number of reasons. One is that he’s universally respected in the business, and especially by his peers, and another is that he has a fantastic knowledge of the genre. What people may not know, though, is that John has the work ethic of a small army. I have no doubt that Books to Die For wouldn’t have been anything like the book it is if John hadn’t committed to it so wholeheartedly, and he really poured himself into it. So I can understand why he might shy away from getting involved in reworking it again at some point in the future – and to be honest, if John wasn’t on board, I’d be reluctant to get involved again myself. It was a tough book to do, like I say, but there was a bit of magic involved too, and I think we (and I include Clair Lamb in this) came up with something unique. I don’t know if I’d want to mess with that again.