Bruce F. Murphy's Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery is an A-Z of whodunit and how it was done. From Edward Sidney Aarons to "Zorak," The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery moves beyond the names and characters every mystery fan knows by heart and expands our understanding of this most popular form of popular fiction. Murphy discusses not only classic practitioners such as Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Dashiell Hammett, but also newer talents such as Patricia Cornwell, James Ellroy, and Jonathan Valin and authors ordinarily considered outside the mystery genre: Do you remember Daniel Defoe's criminal biographies or E. L. Doctorow's mystery, The Waterworks? Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to imitate Sherlock Holmes in his early fiction? Have you ever read Paul Auster's pseudonymous baseball mystery? Murphy catalogues methods, weapons, poisons, subgenres, famous devices (like the locked room or the snowbound house), movie adaptations, and great series characters like the Continental Op, Hercule Poirot, Kinsey Millhone, and Dr. Kay Scarpetta. He analyzes particular works and writers, from epoch-making originals (such as The Big Sleep and Last Seen Wearing...), to lost classics (Wylder's Hand), to interesting and disturbing examples of work at the fringes of the genre (Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly). The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery is the place to turn for answers to a myriad of puzzling questions: In which P. D. James mystery did Adam Dalgleish first appear? What mysteries have been based on the careers of Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper? Why does the case of Oscar Slater deserve to be called the "trial of the century"? What's a "berk"? Which mysteries hinge on amnesia? Which mysteries feature golf as a theme? More than a reference book, The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery provides a colorful and comprehensive map of the mystery genre constructed under the gaze of Bruce F. Murphy's own critical eye, making it an indispensable and lively guide for every mystery lover.
The world of mystery and crime fiction has been the subject of a numerous recent reference tomes, from Willetta Heising's excellent Detecting Women
and Detecting Men
to The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing
. The former books are notable for their comprehensive cataloging of contemporary writers, and the latter succeeds by its reliance on a diverse range of authorities. But Bruce Murphy's The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery
is much more a reader's book.
Murphy is himself a bibliophile to be reckoned with, as editor of Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia and writer for Critical Inquiry and the Paris Review. What he brings to his reference work, however, is not just the requisite expertise but also a sense of his audience, an attention to prose style, and a passion for mystery as a genre. He writes in his introduction: "The crime story is about consequences. In the mystery novel, infidelity leads to murder; in the 'serious' novel, more often than not it leads merely to divorce and the opportunities for characters to feel sorry for themselves." Throughout, Murphy throws himself into controversy and immerses himself in the minutiae that has always drawn the attention of true mystery fans. Where else might one find, for example, a description of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple tales as requiring "willing suspension of disbelief, because St. Mary Meade seems to have a crime rate to rival Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles. They are also oozing with charm and can be a bit treacly."
The book does fall short in a few areas. Most notably, there are no illustrations, even where a photograph or an etching might be appropriate--especially in relation to film. Also, given that the book is all the product of a single author, some areas are given less weight than might be expected (e.g., Batman, who warranted a major feature in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, is omitted). Further, the book's great strength--its critical bent--might be seen as a drawback to some fans. For example, the entry on "cozy" treats the subgenre with some disdain, especially dismissing cat mysteries where "realism is not so much ignored as belligerently violated." This criticism, however, points again to why this volume is such a pleasure to read. Murphy chooses to embrace the difficult subjects and let his reader know what he thinks. You will learn from his vast research and--like him or hate him--you will find him entertaining. --Patrick O'Kelley