Selected & Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Peter Ackroyd

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:  
We solve the whole crime.  We find the whole person. Phone
today for the
whole solution to your problem..."  
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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.  
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Paul Auster

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,
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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
click here

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Look to other authors to give us stream-of-consciousness.
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
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?...
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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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Roberto Bolaño

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

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-
noir detective film Alphaville, hero Lemmy Caution
outwits the evil computer Alpha 60 with poetry drawing on
lines written by Borges. Borges’ mythical book,
Approach to Al-Mu'tasim
—one of many peculiar
volumes invented by our author in the course of
—even shows up as a real (and symbolically-charged)
tome toward the conclusion of Miguel Syjuco’s
Borgesian novel 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....
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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
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
click here

Robert Coover

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
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
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
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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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Witold Gombrowicz

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

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!...
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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
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
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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....
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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
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
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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-
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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?...
to read
click here

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
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
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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"....
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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
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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
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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

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
, 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....
to read
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The Postmodern
Mystery Reading List

50 Essential Works
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