Selected & Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Peter Ackroyd
Hawksmoor

During my student days, I could look out the window of my
room and see, across the street, the
Clarendon Building,
designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1711
and 1713, and originally the home of Oxford University
Press.   I observed no signs that Hawksmoor had hidden
satanic or pagan symbolism in the edifice—contrary to what
you might expect after reading this novel....
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Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

And what, you ask, is a holistic detective agency? Perhaps the
ad in the Yellow Pages will answer your question.  It reads:  
"DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY.  
 
We solve the whole crime.  We find the whole person  Phone
today for the
whole solution to your problem..."  To read
more,
click here



Martin Amis
London Fields
Readers love murder mysteries. But if you’re told the name of
the killer at the start of chapter one, the suspense goes right
out the window. Even worse, imagine that the murder victim
knows everything in advance, and willingly participates
in the chain of events leading up to the killing. Finally, let’s
dispense with the detective, the investigation, and anything
resembling justice or fair play—and just agree that this
will be a story without heroes.  
To read more, click here


Paul Auster
Leviathan

Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan captures an extreme example of
the resulting despair of the author in an age in which texts
have become empty husks, no longer conveying power and
meaning.   What better way for a writer to deal with this dead-
end by putting down his pen…and turning to bomb-building
instead?  There’s some
serious deconstruction for you....To
read more,
click here


Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

When the web site Canon Fodder conducted an informal poll
of 79 bloggers to select the best work of American fiction
during the last 25 years, Paul Auster's
The New York Trilogy
received the most votes.  (However, David Foster Wallace's

Infinite Jest
, received more points based on the scoring system
used in tabulating results.)  Auster's book has also developed
an enthusiastic following overseas, especially in France, where
it won the
Prix  France Culture de Littérature Étrangère....To
read more,
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Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Look to other authors to give us stream-of-consciousness.  In
The Lime Works, novelist Thomas Bernhard instead relies on
stream-of-hearsay.  This tale of a failed author who murders
his wife is presented in an indirect, digressive narrative built
solely from second- or third- or even fourth-hand accounts.  
And the reader will ultimately sit as judge and jury, weighing
the various testimonies on a scale not of justice—which may
be too much to hope for in this case—but merely coherence
and plausibility....
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Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Even a quick perusal will tell you that The Manual of Detection
is genre fiction.  But the more deeply you dig into the book,
the harder it is to decide
which genre.  The book constantly
shifts gears from detective story to fantasy to science fiction
to adventure tale and back again to mystery.   Rarely have I
encountered a novel that so insistently avoids confronting
that most basic of questions: what kind of book is this?...
To
read more,
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Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Imagine a world without murder.  Then use it as the setting
for a murder mystery.  That's the challenge Alfred Bester sets
himself in his unconventional cult classic
The Demolished Man,
the 1953 novel that was the first winner of Hugo Award.  
The book is an oddity—half science fiction and half
detective story, mixing in generous doses of the police
procedural genre while anticipating elements that would
come to the fore in later cyberpunk lit....
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here


Roberto Bolaño
2666

Early in 2007, the Colombian magazine Semana asked a panel
of experts to select the
100 best novels in Spanish published
during the last 25 years. Few were surprised to see Gabriel
García Marquez take the top honors with his
Love in the Time
of Cholera. But who was Roberto Bolaño, who, captured both
third and fourth spots with his novels
The Savage Detectives
and 2666?...To read more, click here


Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

The figure of Jorge Luis Borges haunts so many post-modern
mysteries, the author himself taking on symbolic resonance.
Umberto Eco, in his
The Name of the Rose, assigns a key role to
a character named Jorge of Burgos, and constructs his story
around a labyrinthine library that seems virtually lifted
straight out of
Ficciones.  In Jean-Luc Godard’s avant-garde
noir detective film Alphaville, hero Lemmy Caution outwits the
evil computer Alpha 60 with poetry drawing on lines written
by Borges.  Borges’ mythical book,
The Approach to Al-
Mu'tasim
—one of many peculiar volumes invented by our
author in the course of
Ficciones—even shows up as a real
(and symbolically-charged) tome toward the conclusion of
Miguel Syjuco’s Borgesian novel
Ilustrado....to read more
click here


Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

When Truman Capote finally delivered the great literary
treatment of murder and justice of the era,
In Cold Blood, his
approach deviated markedly from the experimental
tendencies of the day.  Instead of embracing the outrageous
and fanciful, the extravagant and transgressive—areas where
he would have enjoyed an inherent advantage as a
chronicler—Capote moved toward a scrupulous realism, and
a deliberate encroachment on the traditional territory of
nonfiction authors....
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Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a strange,
brilliant book that readers will find difficult to classify. Is it a
Zionist Da Vinci Code? A work of alternative reality in the
manner of Philip K. Dick? A hard-boiled mystery novel? A
grand literary effort in the high style? It is, in fact, all these
things, and more....
to read more, click here


Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Any account of the role of symbols and texts in the detective
genre must give a prominent place to Agatha Christie's
The A.
B.C. Murders
.  Here not just the clues but the very crime itself
is driven by a linguistic game.   The victims and the locations
of the crime follow an alphabetical sequence, with no
apparent motivation beyond a deadly insistence on what
Saussure would call "the arbitrary nature of the sign"...
to
read more,
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Robert Coover
Noir

Robert Coover's Noir resonates with the familiar elements of
noir films.  Every page—indeed almost every paragraph—
draws on one or more cinematic cliché.   Sometimes the
cliché is turned into a joke.  In other instances, it is simply
piled on top of other hackneyed elements.  The end result is a
narrative that continually looks outside itself, staking its claim
not on the basis of realism or fantasy, plot or symbolic
meaning, presenting neither thinly-disguised autobiography
nor borrowed historical accounts, offering no allegory or
fabulistic resonance or moral lessons—but establishing itself
as a compendium of cultural references drawn from the silver
screen....
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Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Among the more sardonic twists of the post-modern mystery
is a new character type, the failed detective.   The best known
realization of this concept comes from Roman Polanski’s
1974 film
Chinatown, which brilliantly evoked the classic noir
mysteries of the past, while undermining almost every one of
their familiar premises and clichés....
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Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum

Just as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) anticipated
Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller
The Da Vinci Code, so did Eco’s
follow-up book
Foucault’s Pendulum  (1988) point the way to
Brown’s
The Lost Symbol (2009).  I am tempted to construct a
conspiracy theory to explain the convergence in the efforts of
these two authors, who are themselves so obsessed with
conspiracy theories....
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Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose

On any list of unlikely bestsellers from the last century, The
Name of the Rose
must hold a special place of distinction.  
Nothing is rarer than for a novel translated from Italian to
reach the top of the
New York Times bestseller list—unless it
is, of course, a megahit book written by an academic whose
best known previous work was
A Theory of Semiotics.  And did
I mention that the plot revolves around medieval theology?...
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David Gordon
The Serialist

"It all began the morning when, dressed like my dead mother
and accompanied by my fifteen-year-old business partner, I
opened the letter from death row and discovered that a serial
killer was my biggest fan…." Nothing like a good opening
sentence to grab your attention, huh?...
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here


Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

The search for clues, and their interpretation—the piecemeal
reconstruction of the crime from the accumulated evidence
—are the most basic building blocks of the mystery genre.   
But what happens if
everything looks like a clue?  What if the
difference blurs between evidence and the random entropy of
day-to-day life?   What if even the crime itself seems arbitrary
or undefined, a non-descript, anomalous circumstance
beyond the interest of any legal authorities?...
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Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-
Time

Fictional detectives are a quirky lot. Sherlock Holmes
fortified his powers of ratiocination with the help of cocaine
and morphine. Hercule Poirot showed tell-tale signs of
obsessive-compulsive disorder—he was strangely fixated on
keeping an exact balance of 444 pounds, 4 shillings and 4
pence in his bank account. Nero Wolfe, that Falstaff of
private eyes, weighed almost 300 pounds and hated to leave
his home—I guess that’s what happens when your author’s
name is Stout...
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Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

"Some people make their own bad luck," explains Cassandra
Neary, the narrator of
Generation Loss.  "Others, I help them
out." Neary’s life is a wreck, but it’s an open question whether
she inflicts the most damage on herself or those around her.   
Either way, the toll is considerable.  As an experiment, try
tabulating the bad decisions, classless moves, cheap shots, and
broken laws our heroine leaves in her wake during the course
of this novel—I bet you will lose count before you’re fifty
pages into it....
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Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

You will invariably find the books of Patricia Highsmith
shelved with the mystery novels at your local bookstore or
library.  Yet that itself may present a far more puzzling
mystery than any included in her tales.  Why isn't this probing
psychological novelist awarded her rightful place alongside
the mainstays of literary fiction?  Her stories have more in
common with those of Graham Greene or even Fyodor
Dostoevsky than with detective fiction as practiced by her
shelf mate....
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Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

The author is dead, claims the post-modern theorist.  
Meaning is suspect, and the author’s intentions no more than
a comforting myth.  But in this novel, the postmodern
theorist is the one lying dead on the ground, and the author
of the crime has very much turned intentions into actuality.  
Unless the detective finds some clear and unambiguous
meanings in a confusing array of texts, there is every chance
that someone else will get killed....
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Franz Kafka
The Trial

Gustav Janouch, a friend of Franz Kafka, once angered the
author by referring to Edgar Allan Poe as a notorious
drunkard.  Kafka responded that Poe "was a poor devil
who had no defenses against the world…. He wrote tales of
mystery to make himself at home in the world."  What an
odd way of describing the mystery genre—an idiom
obsessed with crime, bloodshed, guilt and punishment!...
to
read more,
click here


Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music

Gun, with Occasional Music is the book Raymond Chandler
might have written if he had spent time on
Dr. Moreau’s
Island along with Ken Kesey and Philip K. Dick.  Okay, he
didn't.  So it was left for Jonathan Lethem to step into the
gap and delivery this hard-boiled, drugged-out, future-
tripping tale of crime and karma on the streets of Oakland....
to read more, click here


Jonathan Lethem
Motherless Brooklyn

At first glance, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn falls into
the category of writing typically classified as “hard-boiled.”  
We get the vigilant detective in a tough town, lots of sassy
dialogue, an unsolved murder, and more troublesome
characters than Wingdings font in Microsoft Word....
to read
more,
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Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

French writers have offered some of the most provocative
attempts to deconstruct the moral valence of crime fiction.   
With authors such as
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Patrick Modiano
and Jean-Patrick Manchette, the dividing line between noir
and nihilism is often blurred, and no master detective ever
arrives to impose an ethical order on the proceedings....
to
read more,
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Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

The holy grail of crime fiction is the perfectly planned
murder, a killing so smartly conceived and efficiently
executed that no trace of the perpetrator can be found.  Well,
you won’t find any of that in Gabriel García Márquez’s
Chronicle of a Death Foretold.  In fact, Márquez’s genius here
resides in achieving the exact opposite—namely, a scrupulous
description of the most poorly planned murder in the annals
of modern fiction....
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Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor

There’s no good reason why a detective story published in
1937 should be so cussedly postmodern.  But
The Face on the
Cutting-Room Floor
is just that.  Over the course of 200 pages,
our mysterious author—whose identity remained a secret
until 1974—dishes up enough intertextual intrigue and meta-
narrative mischief to keep a Yale graduate seminar busy
for a full semester....
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Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

Author Philip MacDonald knew all the formulas for
detective fiction.   He crafted intricate whodunits, locked
room mysteries, macabre thrillers and was especially well-
known for stories about serial killers, in which he mixed
generous doses of abnormal psychology into his tales of
crime and detection.  But if MacDonald was master of the
mystery story rulebook, he broke most of those rules in his
unconventional 1930 novel
The Rynox Murder....to read more,
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China Miéville
The City and the City

Author China Miéville has described his novel The City and
the City
as a work of crime fiction.   Yet this same book was
honored with the Hugo as best science fiction novel of the
year.  And readers might be equally justified in describing this
story as an extravagant exercise in fantasy literature. On the
other hand, a close reading of this strange novel shows that
every episode described in its pages can be interpreted in
strictly realistic terms, with no need to posit a single
invention, technology or creature not possible within the
limits of today's scientific know-how....
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here


Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Ding Gou'er, a celebrated investigator, has been sent to
Liquorland by the Higher Procuratorate to look into
allegations of cannibalism.  Rumors have reached Beijing
authorities that some unhinged gastronomists in that region
have taken to dining on young boys.  "We all hope there isn’t
a word of truth in this accusation," Ding Gou'er's boss tells
him. "Use any means necessary to carry out your mission, so
long as it’s legal"....
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Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

The missing person in the title of Patrick Modiano's novel,
winner of the Goncourt Prize for 1978, is the detective
himself.   Guy Roland suffers from amnesia, the period of his
life before launching his career as a private investigator is
almost a complete blank.  Even his name and nationality are a
mystery to him.  Now after a career of solving other people's
problems, he turns to his own....
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Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore

Nakata, one of the two key protagonists of this novel,
commits a murder in the early pages of
Kafka on the Shore.  Or
so it seems—the details are so surreal, the whole scene might
be a hallucination.  Nakata has stumbled upon a strange
figure dressed in the garb of
Johnnie Walker, the famous
figure from the logo for a popular brand of Scotch whisky,
who murders cats and eats their entrails.  Nakata is not just a
cat lover, but he regularly converses with felines—yes, you
can already see that this a peculiar book—and in a fit of
passion he kills Johnnie Walker by stabbing him twice in the
ribs....
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Haruki Murakami
A Wild Sheep Chase

The bizarre, the fanciful and the poignant mix in equal doses
in Haruki Murakami’s 1982 novel
A Wild Sheep Chase.  The
story is just as iconoclastic in its mash-up of diverse genres.  
Is it a detective story? Or a peculiar variant of magical
realism?  Absurdist or surreal?    A coming-of-age on-the-
road story akin to those of Jack Kerouac or J.D. Salinger?  Or
merely a buddy story or a boy-meets-girl romance? Or
maybe even boy-meets-sheep?...
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Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

If this work had come out in, say, 1992, one might suspect
that it was intended as a
parody of the textual deconstructions
of the late 20th Century.  Yet when Nabokov was first
planning
Pale Fire during the period from 1956 and 1958,
Jacques Derrida was still employed teaching the children of
military personnel, Paul De Man was working on his Ph.D,
and the term "deconstruction" was used only in the
demolition business.....
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Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Mysteries of Winterthurn opens with a young Xavier Kilgarvan,
a "fresh cheeked lad of sixteen" and still a student in his
home town, as he embarks on his first case.  The youngster’s
head is full of the exploits of fictional detectives, Edgar Allan
Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock
Holmes, Booth Tarkington's George B. Jashber, Mark
Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson.  When an unexplained death
occurs at nearby Glen Mawr Manor, Kilgarvan decides the
time has come for him to initiate his career as a private
investigator....
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Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Here are some of the things that you will encounter over the
course of this peculiar novel:  a machine that will make, out
of nothing, a solid block of gold that weighs half a ton; a
cigarette that never gets used up no matter how much you
smoke it; paint of a color unlike any previously seen;  an army
of one-legged men, who tie themselves together in pairs to
give themselves extra mobility in fighting; an elevator that
takes you to eternity;  bicycles that are half-people and people
who are half-bicycle...
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Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

The lawyer Galip's wife Rüya has disappeared, leaving
behind some clothing, most of the household items and
hundreds of detective stories, books she has read obsessively
for enjoyment and occasionally translated into Turkish.  On
the dining table is brief note from the missing woman, vague
on details and offering no indication of where she has gone
or when she might return. The anguished husband tells no
one of Rüya’s departure—neither friends, family or
police—and instead embarks on his own private
investigation....
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Georges Perec
A Void

Anton Vowl has gone missing, and left his friends puzzling
over his inexplicable disappearance.  Has he been the victim
of a kidnapping?  Murder?  Amnesia?  An accident or dark
personal trauma?   Or, as increasingly seems to be the case
as we proceed in this postmodern mystery, was some sort of
metaphysical condition—a type of void or absence, rather
than an actual empirical situation or real-life event—the
cause of our protagonist’s disappearance?...
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Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

The postmodern novel is a slippery thing. It easily collapses
into self-parody or even an attack on its own sustaining
principles. After all, when everything is deconstructed, why
should the deconstructor be exempted? When the pundit
insists that "no standpoint is privileged and no discourse is
objectively true," the most appropriate response is: "Same to
you, buddy"....
to read more, click here


Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49

Who turned paranoia into a literary style?  The term itself
possesses a distinguished cultural pedigree, going back to the
ancient Greek dramatists, who used it to describe the affair of
Oedipus and Jocasta as well as the mindset of Orestes after
he murders his mother Clytemnestra.  But paranoia didn't
take center stage in literature until the first half of the 20th
Century, when Kafka, Lovecraft, Orwell and others exploited
it in their stories, partly as a plot device but even more
as an emotional tone to create a sense of uncertainty and
anxiety....
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Thomas Pynchon
Inherent Vice

I must have run into this Pynchon fellow back when he was
working on
Gravity’s Rainbow. The reclusive author was living
in Manhattan Beach and haunting the coastline of the South
Bay of Los Angeles. During the same period Manhattan
Beach and nearby Hermosa Beach were my teenage homes
away from home, and the places where I hung out—
Either/Or Bookstore, the Lighthouse, Zeppies Pizza, Taco
Bill’s—were just the sort of storefronts to attract the custom
of a counterculture sort like Mr. Pynchon....
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Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers

In The Erasers, as elsewhere in his ouevre, Robbe-Grillet likes
to play games with the conventions of the classic detective
story.  In this instance, he not only enjoys following the
investigation of a murder that never took place, but also
constructs a plot in which all of the sharp binary oppositions
of the crime story—stark contrasts, so familiar to use,
between criminal and victim, detective and suspect, even
cause and effect—are blurred and frequently reversed.  
Meanwhile, many of the most basic elements of a typical
mystery are left out entirely....
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Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Voyeur

It’s hard to give credence to any amount of evidence when
even the basic facts can change from chapter to chapter, or
even from sentence to sentence, when the past is open to
constant revision, and the basic concepts of logic—self-
identity, non-contradiction, the excluded middle—no longer
hold.   Chronology is equally fluid here, with flashbacks
intruding in such a predatory manner, frequently arriving
unannounced in mid-paragraph, that the reader struggles to
tell when memory or imagination substitute for direct
observation....
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Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl

The local police sergeant arrives on the scene within minutes,
but despite an abundance of potential witnesses, no one steps
forward to provide useful details.  All first hand accounts are
vague to the point of nullity.  This is Sicily, after all, where,
when people speak of putting their faith in a higher power
than the law, they aren't necessarily thinking about God the
father…maybe more the local Godfather....
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Leonardo Sciascia
Equal Danger

Sciascia no doubt saw his detective here, the dogged
Inspector Rogas, in much the same way he perceived him-
self.  Rogas is a man who holds to "principles in a country
where almost no one did."  He associates with writers,
possesses a rare and easy erudition, but is perhaps less
comfortable in fast-and-loose world of political
administration, where he finds it hard to adapt to the dictates
of expediency and pragmatism that invariably trump values
and ideals....
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Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Even before the readers arrive at the opening chapter of
Mulligan Stew, they know that the author here is playing by
different rules.  In front of the title page, where gushing
blurbs usually reside, one finds a series of rejection notes
from various publishers. “Thanks so much for thinking of
us for Gilbert Sorrentino’s
Mulligan Stew,” writes editor
Charlotte Bayless. “Everything in the book has the touch of
a virtuoso.  Trouble is, I got bored, and so did another
reader.  The book is so long it took us the better part of two
weeks to read it. It is also a book that is terribly bookish and
only a very special audience will take to it all"...
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Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Some of Your Blood stands out in the oeuvre of Theodore
Sturgeon as a grand, unclassifiable novel.  Readers who
associate this author with science fiction will be surprised to
find none of the trademarks of that genre here.  The book
is sometimes presented as a horror story or fantasy, but
no elements of the magical or supernatural figure in the tale.  
"I thought I was buying a hardcore crime novel," writer Steve
Rasnic Tem has noted, recalling his first encounter with the
book; "but by the time I got home and into my bedroom, I
wasn't sure what I had"...
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Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

The body of author Crispin Salvador is fished out
of the Hudson River on a cold winter morning in 2002.    
Police find no evidence of foul play, and most observers
conclude that the writer took his own life.   Yet Salvador
had been working on a controversial book,
The Bridges Ablaze,
an exposé that promised to embarrass many powerful people
in his native Philippines.   The manuscript is missing in the
aftermath of the author’s death, and it alone may hold the
key to the mystery of Crispin’s demise, perhaps also to the
feuds, rivalries and broken relationships he left behind, or
even to bigger scandals back home....
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The Postmodern
Mystery Reading List

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