Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries
Otto Penzler (editor)

The traditional mystery story is a funny beast. There have been many critics who have felt the need to denounce it as Not Real Literature because of its populist roots and pulp-magazine practitioners. The whole recent history of the field seems to me an ongoing effort by writers to repudiate that heritage. A lot of authors seemingly feel compelled to tart up their stories with violence or social commentary or heavy-handed character development, even if the actual "mystery" is slim or nonexistent.

That wasn't so in the Golden Age. Back then, if you didn't have a damn good plot, you didn't have a story.

I mention this because, in my experience, the "damn good plot" part is much, much harder than the other stuff. At least, virtually nobody (except Steve Hockensmith and Aaron Elkins) is doing it. Much easier, I suppose, to follow the relatively easy demands of modern "literary" style and collect the resulting accolades.

All of which is a way of saying that I really enjoyed The Black Lizard etc., because the stories make no pretense of being other than what they are. They're lovely little puzzles, set out in an entertaining matter. They're not long enough for much else, in most cases. Once you've committed yourself to writing a gimmick story, you'd better sit down and make it the best gimmick you're capable of--and that's what these tales set out to do.

That's not to say that there's no variety. There are good and even great writers represented (Conan Doyle, Poe, P. G. Wodehouse). There are first-class pulp and noir fictioneers (Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich). There are one-trick pony technicians (John Dickson Carr, Edward D. Hoch). And there are a lot of authors who were popular but are now virtually forgotten--in some cases deservedly, in some cases not.

(When they say "big", they're not kidding. It's 937 pages and at least two pounds.)

Yes, it gets a little repetitive if read in large chunks. No, it won't change your life or give you an insight into the human condition. You'll certainly notice a wide range of skill levels; some of the pulp writers may even make you admit that the critics had some evidence on their side.

Yet, all in all, The Black Lizard etc. is 937 pages of just plain fun. And, really, who could ask for more?

Good crossover reads: any of Isaac Asimov's "Black Widowers" series.


  1. What recent science fiction can you recommend?

  2. Very little.

    I know we've already recommended Ted Chiang to you. Vernor Vinge's latest was OK but not spectacular. Neil Stephenson's Reamde is pretty good, but not very SFish.

    Probably the most enjoyable SF I read last year is Andy Weir's The Martian. Very, very classic feel, reminiscent (for better and, arguably, for worse) of early Niven and a lot of the golden-age stuff.