Friday, June 19, 2009

Forgotten Books: The History of Mystery by Max Allan Collins

(Another entry in Patti Abbott's continuing Forgotten Book Fridays. Head on over to her blog for the complete list.)

For folks like me, without the complete knowledge of mystery and crime fiction imprinted on our DNA, Max Allan Collins is a godsend. He has written The History of Mystery, a nice non-fiction book that traces the origins of crime fiction from the late 1800s until the 2000s. It's a large book, coming in at almost 12 inches square. That's perfect for what this book does best: present old paperback covers and movie art in a large canvas.

Starting with Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Collins discusses how the Pinkerton Detective Agency's real exploits gave rise to the dime novels in the 1890s and 1900s. When I read this book, I didn't realize Nick Carter was such an old character. There is, of course, an entire chapter on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (natch) until you hit pay dirt: The Pulp Fiction Chapter. Here you've got gorgeous covers of the 1920s and 1930s: True Detective, Argosy, Detective Story Magazine, and, of course, Black Mask. All the main pulp characters are here: The Shadow, The Phantom Detective, The Spider, The Avenger, and others. As a reader, I drooled over all the livid covers of these great magazines. As a writer, I wised they were still being printed.

Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner each get their own sections. With the renewed interest in Cool and Lam mysteries throughout this Forgotten Book Group, it is nice to see the duo get an entire two-page spread complete with an original cover from Top of the Heap, the Cool and Lam story reprinted by Hard Case Crime.

Mystery comics are represented here. Besides the obvious Batman and Dick Tracy, there is Perry Mason (?), The Saint, and Collins' own Ms. Tree, among others. Agatha Christie opens a two chapter section on cozier stories, including folks like Father Brown, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the books of John Dickson Carr. Charlie Chan lands here as does Lillian Jackson Brown's Cat stories.

Once you hit the 1950s and 1960s, this is where paperback characters (Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, etc.) and those wonderfully lurid paperback covers take over the book. Again, drool commences. The ends with a section on TV detectives (Rockford, Harry-O, Magnum, and Jessica Fletcher) and some modern authors (Estleman, Francis).

All in all, if you want a nice, short (under 200pp) book with lots of fabulous covers and rare artwork, this is a good book to have. It's a coffee table book. Buy it and just set it out as a conversation piece. You'll likely find a whole lot of other people who love this stuff, too.


David Cranmer said...

You're costing me money. I read your post two minutes ago and have already reserved a copy on Amazon.

Max Allan Collins said...

Most Half Price Books outlets have this really cheap -- like ten or fifteen bucks.

We were nominated for every major mystery award for this -- and lost them all!

Charles Gramlich said...

I wish there was a Half Price Books around here. We loved 'em when we were in Texas.

Cullen Gallagher said...

I've been looking for something like this for quite some time - thanks for pointing it out. I'm glad I got my paycheck this morning :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wonder if Mr. Collins wouldn't do a forgotten book for us sometime. He's mentioned on here all the time.

Scott Parker said...

David - Glad I could oblige your spending and crime fiction habit. You can't go wrong.

Max - Wow! The actual author commenting on one of my reviews. Thanks for stopping by. Your nominations were well-deserved. I really enjoy this book and I gaze lovingly at the covers regularly.

Charles - Half Price's only real (i.e., known by me) competition in the world is Powell's in Portland, Oregon. Both are meccas for used book lovers.

Cullen - Glad we could be of mutual assistance today. I placed a copy of "On Crime Writing" on hold at my library today after reading your FFB entry.

Patti - It would be great to have Mr. Collins join us...or your daughter, too.

Max Allan Collins said...

I believe I did a "lost" book for the Rap Sheet that grew out of this effort -- KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE.

Be glad to do another sometime. I know plenty of 'em.

Martin Edwards said...

I'm a big fan, and enthusiastic collector, of books about the genre (most of them, anyway) and this is certainly a good one.

JZID said...

Any other "Hard Case Crime" members out there notice a "new book" from "A.C. Doyle" is scheduled for November release? I assume this is the Christmas surprise that has been promised for awhile now....

Barrie said...

I HAVE to have this book!

Scott Parker said...

Max - Patti's the one to see. Just let her know on Thursday if you'll be writing a review and where. It's a fun thing and The List of books I want to read grows every week.

Martin - This one is certainly one to have. If you like cover art, check out Jeff Pierce's blog about cover art, Killer Covers (

JZID - Back in January at his signing at Murder by the Book, Charles Ardai let slip the nature of this title and why he's doing it. But he also swore us to secrecy so as not to spoil the fun. And it will be fun.

Barrie - Like I've said, it's one of my favorite books about crime fiction out there. Re-reading it to review it made me fall in love with it all over again.