Here's a word I don't believe I've ever used in all my years of blogging: indisepensable. But that's the only word that can adequately describe H.R. F. Keating's Crime & Mystery: The Best 100 Books.
Not only is Keating an excellent novelist, his mini-essays beginning with Poe and ending with P.D. James offer a graduate level course in the history and import of the mystery novel. Keating doesn't offer us mere reviews of plots. In virtually every essay the book at hand connects to the author's career or life. And often he connects a given book to a trend or theme in mystery fiction overall. And he does so in prose so nimble and nuanced it's fun just reading the sentences for their sound and rhytm.
He manages to say brand new things about Chandler, Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner for the hardboiled; and enlightens the traditionalists as to the worth of such overlooked writers as Elizabeth Ferrars (whose novels in the Forties were especially fine) and Christianna Brand. He compares to John D. Macdonald to Charles Dickens in a fascinating way and his piece on the life and work of Chester Himes is so melancholy it's almost painful to read.
Even though the most recent book covered appered in 1986, I repeat that this book is indispenable for any serious understanding of the field of crime fiction.