Jon L. Breen is one of the best mystery critics around, and Ramble House have done a great service to crime fans by publishing a collection of the American writer’s selected mystery criticism, A Shot Rang Out. This is, I think, a book to dip into rather than to read straight from cover to cover – though you could enjoy doing just that – and it offers the delights of the bran tub: turn to any page and you will find something of interest, and perhaps something unexpected.
The contents are very varied. There are in-depth author studies of writers as diverse as Henning Mankell, P.D. James and Chester Himes, and ‘short takes’ on another hundred writers, including perceptive choices such as that splendid British writer Mat Coward. There are essays on distinct topics, including a witty and wise piece on ‘advice to writers’, a quick but neat attack on plagiarism, and a very good outline of ‘round-robin’ or ‘group’ mysteries, notably The Floating Admiral.
Why is Breen such a good critic? It’s because he is an enthusiast for the genre, but not by any means afraid to point out shortcomings. In this he reminds me of Julian Symons, who could be acerbic, but at heart was and always remained a true fan of crime and detective fiction. Commenting on one of my short stories, ‘The House of the Red Candle’, Breen is complimentary about the characterisation and atmosphere, but less so about the plot (‘easily seen through by the alert reader’) and I have to admit that his criticism is fair. (When, in a review of Waterloo Sunset not contained in this book, he was very positive, I basked in the praise, knowing that he would not be generous about the writing if he didn’t mean it.)
As I said, a book to dip into. I haven’t read it all yet, but so far I haven’t read a single segment that wasn’t informative. A Shot Rang Out is one of the best collections of mystery criticism ever published.
Now – when will some enterprising soul gather together Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery criticism?
P.S. - Today I'm travelling to Bristol for Crimefest. Posts will continue between now and the end of the convention, which I will then reflect on next week.