Death Sentences edited by Otto Penzler

3 Mins read

While crime fiction may be the biggest seller by genre, the dedicated crime bookshop has become an endangered species. In his introduction to this excellent anthology, Ian Rankin recalls his US book tours of the late 80s, a time when many American towns were home to an independent bookshop specialising in hardboiled crime, pulp paperbacks and new titles from rising stars. Now those stores have largely disappeared. Murder One, author Maxim Jakubowski’s bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road, was my destination for a crime fix until it closed in 2009.

Death Sentences is an anthology in celebration of the physical book from one of the few surviving retail specialists: New York’s Mysterious Bookshop, run by crime expert and editor Otto Penzler since 1979. Penzler has persuaded major authors to write novellas for the store’s Bibliomysteries series and now 15 of these tales, in which books play a key role in the crime, have been bundled together. Of course, authors are often book lovers themselves and that shines through in these stories.

Jeffery Deaver starts the anthology in explosive style with An Acceptable Sacrifice, a suspenseful and cunning story about assassins aiming to take out a Mexican cartel kingpin who’s planning to attack a bus full of tourists. He’s well protected but a weakness for first editions – his latest purchase is Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop – could make this crime boss drop his guard. In fact, when we see him proudly showing off his library we begin to doubt his guilt. Could a book lover really be a cold-blooded mass murderer? It’s a masterful story that plays on our preconceptions of the civilised bibliophile, and Deaver withholds just enough detail to keep you in thrall to his ingenious plotting.

Laura Lippman’s The Book Thing, featuring the author’s familiar private investigator Tess Monaghan, is a more humdrum mystery but it’s possibly my favourite in this collection. Volumes are being stolen from a children’s bookshop in North Baltimore, so Tess offers to help the harrassed owner. The PI wants the store to survive so that her young daughter will be able grow up with this bookshop. Her surveillance eventually leads her to the book thief in a case that’s a lot less perilous than an episode of Baltimore-based crime drama The Wire, but just as compelling. There are literary nods to classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and a keen insight into the work of booksellers and a unique book charity.

A few of these stories combine the idea of dangerous books with the history of Nazi Germany, and CJ Box’s Pronghorns of the Third Reich is the best of them. In the present day, a lawyer is snatched by a disgruntled criminal who wants his help in stealing a valuable book collection. But their snowbound trek into Wyoming ends as horribly as a Coen Brothers movie. The story was inspired by the real-life case of a rancher who, in 1936, rounded up pronghorn antelope fawns and sent a delivery to the Berlin Zoo by the German Hindenburg airship.

John Connolly’s The Caxton Lending Library & Book Depository is another standout in this collection. Its protagonist is such a devoted reader that he becomes a custodian of literary characters including Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina and even Count Dracula. Connolly’s created a magical story that has more in common with fabulist Neil Gaiman than the average crime writer. It’s a mysterious and imaginative novella you’ll want to go back and read again.

Andrew Taylor’s setting for The Long Sonata of the Dead is the London Library, where a literary and romantic rivalry plays out amid the book stacks in this deliciously devious story. In stories by both Nelson DeMille and Columbo co-creator William Link, the crimes take place in a bookshop – and bookcases become murder weapons.

The bookish theme is a perfect fit for a crime anthology: a book can be a mysterious MacGuffin, a repository of secrets or a sought-after object of high value. Fortunately, Death Sentences can be acquired at a bargain price as an eBook – though it’s well worth splashing out on the real thing for your bookshelf.

Head of Zeus

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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