THE MURDER BOOK (1971) by Tage la Cour & Harald Mogensen
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Despite its title, The Murder Book is not a primer full of methods about how to commit the ultimate crime. Subtitled "An Illustrated History of the Detective Story," the book uses photographs, paintings, movie stills, cartoons, sketches, book and magazine cover art and interior illustrations, along with limited amounts of text, to give the reader a broad overview of the genre's development rather than an in-depth examination of the sort one finds in, for instance, Howard Haycraft's classic Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story.
As the prolific mystery writer and critic Julian Symons says of the authors in his brief forward, "Tage la Cour is a bibliophile with a crime fiction library containing several thousand volumes, most of them in English. He is famous in Denmark as a critic and anthologist of crime fiction. Harald Mogensen, the literary editor of 'Politiken,' has an interest in the crime story which is both emotional and analytical.
"The two of them are in the forefront of an immensely well-informed Scandinavian group of writers and critics who are interested not just in reading the latest books, but in discussing the background and history of the crime story."
As one would expect, the book opens with Poe, "the father of the detective story," and ends with Georges Simenon and his Inspector Maigret. In between, also predictably, are pictorial and textual discussions of such luminaries, among others, as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Raymond Chandler.
Besides Simenon, other noteworthy French authors such as Emile Gaboriau, Gaston Leroux, Honore de Balzac, Eugène Sue and Maurice LeBlanc are given the attention they deserve. Other countries' contributions are given space as well, so the reader learns something about authors and, sometimes, characters, from Argentina, Austria, Australia, China, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. Lesser-known authors from the United States, England and elsewhere also get their share of recognition.
One can argue that the book's subtitle is a misnomer because not every book mentioned is, at its core, a detective story. Various subgenres are given consideration, among them supernatural tales, stories of terror, and spy stories.
There are a few typos here and there throughout the book an editor should have caught, as well as a few spoilers. I was amused by the authors' references to Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels as being set in the "87th District" and "Station 87."
An attractive volume that is fun to browse through, The Murder Book is more suited to, and more likely to be found in the library of, the hardcore aficionado/student of mystery fiction than that of the casual reader.
Barry Ergang ©2012
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