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Blood & Ink

An International Guide to Fact-Based Crime Literature

BLOOD & INK: An International Guide to Fact-Based Crime Literature by Albert Borowitz. Note by Jacques Barzun. Foreword by Jonathan Goodman. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002. 524pp, index. $65, boards, dj.

The appeal of a well-executed murder is undeniable and universal to all but, one is forced to admit, the unfortunate victim. The act is so horrifying and repellant that it sits apart from all other human endeavor. And therein resides its appeal. How does such violent disorder occur? What sort of person could perpetrate such an act? What did the victim do to "deserve" their fate? How do those around them go about the grim business of restoring order or at least the illusion of order?

Mystery writers since Poe have recognized this appeal and the genre, along with its cousin, horror (another invention credited to Poe), has flourished. There is a reason there are so many mystery booksellers.

As a bookseller, I've always been intrigued by the general unwillingness of most mystery readers to cross-over to true crime. Little old ladies who are never happier than when cozied up with a Christie recoil at true crime. College professors who rightly bow before Colin Dexter and Ellis Peters wave away crime history. Perhaps the genre has been tainted by its most voyeuristic, weakest (and most popular) representatives: quickie books on serial killers. Or there might be something else going on. A good mystery allows, indeed requires, the suspension of disbelief. It lulls the reader into accepting fiction, if not as fact, then at least as a plausible alternative to reality. But like a tourist passing through a rough neighborhood, bound for the safety of the hotel, mystery fiction allows the reader to go slumming and return to the relative safety and order of reality.

True crime doesn't attempt to suspend the reader's disbelief, it simply prohibits it altogether. The reader is not faced with keeping disbelief at bay; there is no alternative world, just an awful set of truths for the reader to confront.

If readers of fiction have shown a reluctance to dip into true crime, writers of fiction have had no such qualms. Novelists, playwrights, song writers, and authors of every stripe have drawn freely from the rich history of misery inflicted from one human on another. It is safe to say that no one has studied this spinning of crime into art as much as Albert Borowitz.

Based on his enormous and splendid library (now in Kent State's Special Collections), BLOOD & INK is the triumphant culmination of Borowitz's forty-year passion for books, literature, and crime history.

Classic crime, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder or, as crime historian Joanthan Goodman so wonderfully puts it in his Foreword, "…One man's meat axe is another man's poison." The classic crimes are, as Goodman quotes Alfred Hitchcock, "like blood on a daisy." And this is the stuff of BLOOD & INK. BLOOD & INK is not a comprehensive bibliography so much as an annotated guide in the spirit of Jacques Barzun (who contributes a prefatory note) and Wendell Hertig Taylor's classic CATALOGUE OF CRIME. Borowitz draws from both classic crime history written by such masters as William Roughead, Edmund Pearson, and Jonathan Goodman as well as fictional works based on real crimes. This latter category includes works as diverse as William Somerset Maugham's short story "The Letter," based on a 1911 murder in Kuala Lampur (and later a splendid Bette Davis film of the same name), and Bruce Springsteen's song "American Skin," about the Amadou Diallo killing by NYPD officers.

Murder, always a crowd favorite, is heavily represented but Borowitz does not disdain the odd forgery, imposture, kidnapping, arson, fraud, piracy, even behavior that is more scandalous than criminal. Nor has Borowitz limited himself to crime in English-speaking countries. With the exception of Africa (and the formidable language barriers it presents), BLOOD & INK's reach is global with Borowitz providing a brief history of each country or region's crime literature in the Introduction. The entries are alphabetical by author with an extensive index.

BLOOD & INK is that rarest of reference works: at once scholarly as Barzun's FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE, as erudite as Eco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE, and as engrossing as Conan Doyle's A STUDY IN SCARLET. Certainly there are scholars steeped in world literature and there are historians immersed in the history of crime but no one should know so much about both. Al Borowitz does and his achievement towers in BLOOD & INK. For those mystery fans and others who have tiptoed around true crime, this is their introduction. They may find they've been reading about real crimes for years and never realized it.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society Newsletter.
Content provided by Paul Bauer, Archer's Used and Rare Books.

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