Penzler Pick, April 2000: Over the years, there have been quite a few reference books in the mystery genre arranged as dictionaries, encyclopedias, companions, and so on. (I coauthored two of them, so I know what goes into their production.) Rosemary Herbert's Companion differs from many others in at least two ways: first, she did not write it but rather edited the work of numerous well-known mystery scholars and academics, each of whom presumably has some expertise in the subjects they wrote about; and second, there are as many articles devoted to umbrella subjects (eccentrics, elderly sleuths, English village milieu, and escapism, to open the book at random) as to authors and characters. It is an interesting way to arrange a reference book and more fun to read than the potted author biographies in similar works, but it seems to be less useful as a reference tool than those works.
Inevitably, the first criticism leveled at such a work is the question of why certain authors or characters were included and others omitted. At random, I note entries for Inspector Hanaud, Joseph Hansen, and Cyril Hare, but none for James Crumley or Minette Walters. Perhaps this boils down to the subjective notion that it's more important to have entries for both A.E.W. Mason and his series character, Hanaud--seldom read nowadays--than for one of the half-dozen best hard-boiled writers alive and for the heir apparent to the thrones of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. The problem is somewhat exacerbated by the subject articles, where one can look in vain under "stalking" for a mention of Mary Higgins Clark but instead find Evelyn E. Smith. The "missing persons" entry makes no mention of Hillary Waugh's superb Last Seen Wearing but does reference an obscure Mary Roberts Rinehart short story.
As I reread this page, it seems as if I don't like the book, which is certainly not true. This type of book begs for nitpicking, and that's what I've been doing. It is wonderfully written, on balance, and the overview articles are informative and a joy to read, often providing historical perspective that serves as an excellent guide for readers who want to embark on a journey through, say, the world of legal fiction or forensic pathology. The Oxford Companion shouldn't be your only reference book, but it should find a spot on every devotee's shelf. --Otto Penzler
From Library Journal
Though many biographical/critical compilations exist on crime writing (e.g., Scribner's Mystery & Suspense Writers), this book breaks new ground. In addition to the usual biographical/critical sketches of major writers, it includes many entries on forms ("Ghost Story"), techniques ("Narrative Point of View"), crime magazines (Black Mask), characters (Mike Hammer), crime writing in regions such as Australia, and histories of various sorts. There is a glossary and a detailed index, and the signed entries generally include bibliographies. Herbert, formerly a librarian and now the mystery book review columnist for the Boston Herald, headed a team of 230 expert contributors, among them professors, writers, and librarians. She focuses on English-language writers but also includes such major non-English "mystery writers" as Georges Simenon and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. You don't have to be a fan of crime/mystery writing to find this a very entertaining and well-written compilation: Christmas crime, ethnic sleuths, the slicks, and many other articles are fun to read. One only wishes that the editor had used something other than asterisks as a cross-referencing system, since they just seem to clutter up the pages of what is otherwise an excellent compilation. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
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-Peter Dollard, Alma Coll. Lib., MI
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