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The Big Book of Reel Murders: Edited by Otto Penzler

The Big Book of Reel Murders: Edited by Otto Penzler

Its title is no joke: at almost 1200 double-columned pages in length, this collection of mystery stories is enormous.

The Big Book of Reel Murders: Edited by Otto Penzler

3 / 5

The first thing to know about The Big Book of Reel Murders is that its title is no joke: at almost 1200 double-columned pages in length, this collection of mystery stories is enormous. It occupies space in the imposing manner of a Bible concordance or a telephone book that sits like a paper brick in the back reaches of some cabinet.

In the well-worn way of those kinds of tomes, The Big Book of Reel Murders is a book of reference first. It’s something to pull out when you’re looking for the pulpy titles of obscure crime films (think Smooth Talk, Tip on a Dead Jockey, Smart Blonde) or the names of Anglo-American crime fiction’s best-known authors (Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and so on). It works even better if you’re on the prowl for one thing in particular: suspenseful short stories adapted by Hollywood for the big screen. The collection is packed to the brim with these, 61 in all, divided into seven categories, such as “Stop, You’re Killing Me” and “I Love You to Death.”

Admittedly, the stories occupy an oddly specific niche. It’s difficult to name a dozen films, of any genre or nationality, based on short stories, much less five dozen such mystery movies believably dubbed “classic.” In fact, Otto Penzler, the volume’s editor, admits that some of the movies aren’t really worth your time anyways, which makes you wonder why the anthology couldn’t be a little more selective and, by extension, a little less unwieldy. But the unmanageability is in tune with the spirit of Vintage Crime and Black Lizard’s Big Book series, which features titles like The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries and The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, many of them also edited by Penzler. The series’ “more is more” approach aims to beckon the adventurous reader into alleys both canonical and obscure, to encourage a process of endlessly flipping through the pages until something catches your eye. Today, you might stumble upon the short story that inspired Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (Budd Schulberg’s “Murder on the Waterfront”), tomorrow, the tale behind Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (Daphne du Maurier’s story of the same title).

However, the immensity of The Big Book of Reel Murders limits opportunities for such forays. This isn’t the kind of volume you can schlep around with you on the bus, and it’s even rather difficult to hold the book in your lap without first warming up your quads. Perhaps the publishers imagine teachers assigning stories from it in a course specifically about mystery story adaptation, but may curses rain down on the heads of any instructor that would make their students lug this thing to class.

Plus, there’s not enough useful context here to help readers expand their knowledge of these stories, of mystery as a genre or of Hollywood adaptation. Penzler’s very brief but definitively condescending introduction for the volume is full of scattered generalities about the history of crime in cinema (did you know that westerns are basically mysteries with horses?) and the desires of “movie audiences” (they just love action). The couple of pages before each story also include some Penzler-penned introductory material, which consists mainly of story-spoiling plot information and trivia about the specific film adaptation. Moreover, descriptions of the book’s seven categories are absent altogether, so readers must decipher connections among stories on their own.

In other words, there’s little here that’s worth your time beyond the stories themselves. But there’s no denying that some brilliant, knuckle-busting ones are included in this volume. Hammett’s “Woman in the Dark,” for instance, begins like Kiss Me Deadly with a troubled femme fatale both fleeing and attracting danger along a shadowy Californian highway. Its melodramatic narrative seethes with the kind of violent cynicism that’s given a million different noirs their magnetic appeal, but it still manages to end with an empowered gesture of resistance. Another highlight is Elick Moll’s “Night Without Sleep,” in which the story’s alcohol-addicted novelist narrator tries to piece together the blurry events of a near-forgotten evening while past interactions with his psychoanalyst worm their way through his psyche. The effect—which slowly reveals a character whose aging body can barely contain a symphony of violent impulses—is decidedly unnerving and utterly gripping to the last.

But with many of these stories available online and in other collections, it’s hard to make an argument for why The Big Book of Reel Murders needs to exist. It simply doesn’t check any of the boxes requisite for an effective anthology, such as insightful contextualizing information, a focused curating effort or an eye-opening perspective that convincingly stands in opposition to the status quo. Still, if it’s around, you’ll probably open it every once in a while and discover some wonderful story that you wouldn’t want to put down if the book just weighed a little less.

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