Thursday, July 23, 2009

Forgotten Books: A Shot Rang Out; stuff

A SHOT RANG OUT by Jon L. Breen

I'm about to review a book that is hardly forgotten; it's new. I'm reviewing it because a) I think it's an important book and b) because it didn't get the coverage it deserves. I should also note that the book is dedicated to me but I'd like to add here that I was reading and learning from Jon Breen long before I switched from men's magazine adventure and science fiction to mystery and got to know him personally.

The name Anthony Boucher is one of the most revered in mystery fiction. I have three volumes of his Sunday columns and what strikes me again and again when I reread them is the concision and precision of his his reviews. He had the ability to give you a real sense of the book and his reaction to it in one hundred words or less. Try that sometime. It ain't easy. Boucher also brought a truly catholic approach (I'm not making a pun here, Boucher having been a devout Roman Catholic) which enabled him to review Charlotte Armstrong with the same understanding and enthusiasm he rolled out for Ross Macdonald.

These are the same traits I've always found in Jon Breen's criticism and his hefty new collection proves my point. The book opens with overviews of fifteen careers, including those of Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, Chester Himes, Ellery Queen and P.D. James. The length of these gives Breen the opportunity show how careers are built (consciously or unconsciously) and to cite the triumphs and disappointments along the way. My favorites here are Jack Finney and Margaret Millar. Finney is one of the most elusive of genre writers; his career included everything from hardboiled to fantasy to outright whimsey. And I'd put Millar up against Agatha Christie any day.

This section is followed by "Short Takes on 100 Writers." I love things like this. It's fun to be reminded of books you cared about but haven't reread in years and writers you passed over previously but now, thanks to Breen's profile here, want to try this time around.

The rest of the book comes in two sections. "Topical essays" covers everything from American Women Mystery Writers to The Ghost and Miss Truman (a very wry entry) to Murdering History (the historical novel) to How To Write Mysteries in Six Difficult Lessons (with several guests including Elizabeth George and Loren Estleman). This is followed by short punchy pieces on such subjects as The British Mystery and Nancy Drew and Plagiarism. His piece on my tenure as the editor of Mystery Scene had me (literally) howling out loud. Somebody once said that they bought the magazine just to see what it would look like this time. I sure did change formats a lot. Thank God Kate and Brian took it over. There are even a pair of true crime reviews, his take on Patricia Cornwell's job on Jack The Ripper bracing to be sure.

In sum, if you have any interest in the field of mystery and suspense, this book needs to be on your shelf. It would also make a great present. A witty, shrewd, serious look at the genre that is finally coming into its own in popularity and critical esteem.


I give, I surrender, I'm sorry. At least ten of you wrote me off line to tell me what a moron I am. I'd never heard of Kim Morgan? Do I know anything at all about movie criticism? Was this some kind of Onion-esque joke?

Sorry. I don't know how it was that she escaped my attention all this time but she did. As I mentioned I've been reading through her archives. She's a fine stylist and a unique thinker.

I apologize, Kim.


I recently updated my software and in so doing lost many saved messages. Would the reader who was kind enough to record and send me all the surf music please write me. I've now listened to it and was knocked out by it. Thanks very much.


Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, I never heard of Kim Morgan either. Captain Morgan I've heard of, and thanks to HBO, Katie, but not Kim.

Dave Zeltserman said...

And of course, Dexter Morgan...

Todd Mason said...

Henry Morgan, Harry Morgan...Dexter's half-sister, Deb...

It's a pity that iBooks collapsed after only two of Breen's annuals were published, even if meant that he could contribute to yours afterward, Ed...

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the review on Jon's book, Ed. Thanks.

Ed Lynskey

Martin Edwards said...

I share your enthusiasm for the Breen book. It is excellent.