So May I Introduce to You*

IntroductionsIt’s always tempting to plunge right in when we begin a new book, especially if it’s a book we’ve been excited to read. But lots of books and collections have interesting Introduction sections that give the reader helpful background, interesting information or some sort of structure that can offer some useful perspective. Sometimes they really are worth taking the time to read. And that’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of any other genre. Keep in mind as you read on in this post that the Introductions I mention appear in my editions of the books. They may or may not appear in other editions.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet includes an Introduction piece from Ed McBain. In it, McBain discusses the very negative image police are given in many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. Using his own creations from the 87th Precinct, McBain gives a witty description of what might happen if Carella and his team actually caught up with Holmes and took him to task for that portrayal. It’s an interesting look at the way the police are portrayed in both Conan Doyle’s work and McBain’s own.

Some Introductions provide biographical and other information about the author. Those pieces also have the purpose of pointing out the author’s place in the genre’s history. That’s what we see, for instance, in Otto Penzler’s introduction to Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase. You may already know that she is credited with pioneering the ‘Had I but known’ approach to foreshadowing that has since been used in several suspense and crime novels. Penzler discusses this in his Introduction, and mentions some of Rinehart’s groundbreaking work. He also shares some biographical background, as well as information about film adaptations of her work.

Martin Edwards provides a similar sort of Introduction to Ernest Carpenter Elmore, AKA John Bude’s debut, The Cornish Coast Murder.  Edwards discusses the novel itself, providing literary and historical contexts for it. He also uses the book as an example of the sort of work Bude did, explaining how it led to Bude’s popularity. The Introduction also includes some biographical information and places the novel within the context of Bude’s life. Finally, Edwards discusses the significance of both the novel and its author. That background information helps to put The Cornish Coast Murder into perspective for the reader.

Sometimes, authors themselves write Introductions to their work. An author may choose to do this to provide historical or other information that the reader may find necessary in order to really understand the story. Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean does this in her historical novel A Game of Sorrows. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland and Northern Ireland, Aberdeen teacher Alexander Seaton is persuaded to go to Ulster when his cousin convinces him that there is a threat to the family. The family matriarch believes that the family has been cursed by a poet (a not unusual belief for the times). But Seaton comes to believe that the threat is much more prosaic. To help the reader understand the events in the story, MacLean provides some historical background before the novel proper begins. She outlines the religious, political and social tenor of those times, showing how they combined to create the context for the novel.

Some novels are fictional treatments of real events. In those books, the author sometimes provides an Introduction and other background on the real-life cases. That’s what we see, for instance, in Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross. This novel is based on the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute Emma Gross. At the time of the murder, Peter Kürten was arrested for the crime and in fact confessed to it. Later, he recanted his confession, and there was never any direct evidence against him. Still, he was unquestionably guilty of other murders and was executed in 1931. Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. This story is Seaman’s take on the crime and its solution. He provides helpful factual information, in part to provide context and in part to separate the facts from his fictional characters and events.

One of the most popular uses of the Introduction is to add cohesion to a collection of short stories. If I may say so, I’ve done that sort of Introduction myself at the beginning of In a Word: Murder. Even when all of the stories in a collection revolve around a single theme, or have another unifying link, it’s still helpful to have an Introduction to show the reader what that link is. What’s more, Introductions to short story collections give the reader a sense of the stories that have been included, and sometimes explain their origins.

Sometimes, Forewards and Introductions simply serve to set the scene for a story collection. That’s the case with Lindy Cameron’s Foreward to Hard Case Crime’s Hard Labour, a collection of noir stories from some of Australia’s best-known crime writers. Among the authors included here are Peter Corris, Garry Disher, Angela Savage, Adrian McKinty and Helen Fitzgerald, just to give a sense of what I mean.  Cameron sets the stage for this collection in her Foreward, giving a sort of preview of the tone of the stories.

Off the Record, another collection of short crime stories edited by Luca Veste, provides not one, but two Forewards. Matt Hilton and Anthony Neil Smith each offer a perspective on this charity anthology. Neither Foreward is particularly long, but each one gives a sense of what the stories are like.

Admittedly, Forewards and Introductions are a bit different. But both provide background, perspective and sometimes helpful historical context. Do you read Introductions? Do you find them interesting/useful? If you’re a writer, have you written an Introduction? What was the process like?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.


Filed under Adrian McKinty, Angela Savage, Anthony Neil Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Damien Seaman, Ed McBain, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, John Bude, Lindy Cameron, Martin Edwards, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Matt Hilton, Otto Penzler, Peter Corris, Shona MacLean

32 responses to “So May I Introduce to You*

  1. I am catching up again. I agree with the importance of an introduction or forward. It helps me pick what to read. I am tempted to go to the last page too but can usually overcome the urge, but admit the forward/introduction does make it difficult to resist. It worked for In A Word: Murder…I couldn’t wait to read the stories – it stimulated my curiosity and spiked my interest. 🙂

    • Thank you, Jane 🙂 And of course, you contributors made that collection. Seriously, you did. I have to admit I like Introductions and Forewards myself. I don’t always delve into them the way I ought to, but I agree with you that when it comes to collections of short stories, they’re unbeatable ways to draw the reader in.

      • Wonderful Margot, thanks so much. The book was fab, the authors and stories were so varied interesting and absorbing and I know it must still be selling because some of my friends have told me they’ve purchased it recently. All good news for Princess Alice. I love forewards and comments from other writers and publishers. What a fab recommendation if another famous, respected, author tells everyone your book is the best read. Dreaming…..

  2. Patti Abbott

    I am so remiss in this. Sometimes I read it when I’m done the book though.

  3. I avoid them like the plague until after I’ve read the book – lots of them avoid spoilers but you never know until you’ve read them. Introductions to classic novels are the worst – they seem to assume everyone has already read the book (admittedly, I have that tendency in my own reviews of classics, so I can’t be too sniffy…). But I do like to read a good introduction after the book, and I often read the introductions to anthologies before the stories because as you say they can shed light on why a particular set of stories has been collected. I wish sometimes they would call them ‘analyses’ rather than ‘introductions’ when they’re spoiler-filled – it would make it easier to know when to avoid them.

    • That’s a good idea, FictionFan, actually. At least the term ‘Analysis’ would let the reader know what’s ahead. When it comes to classics, it really is hard I think to know just exactly how much to put in an Introduction (or a review, for the matter of that). On the one hand, a lot of people probably have read the book. On the other, for those who haven’t, or haven’t in a very long time, spoilers are so annoying! I don’t blame you for avoiding Introductions and Forewards if you think they’re going to give too much away.

  4. I’m a big fan of this actually and would seriously sway me if I had competing editions to choose from. I love the Rex Stout editions from Bantam with guest intros from such unlikely sources as Lena Horne. And with less well-known authors it’s a great way to learn – the Stark House Press editions are ones I have especially admired for their detailed author guides for books that many might not think even worth preserving but which are finding new and appreciative audiences.

    • Sergio – Some Introductions really are interesting just because of their authors. I know I’ve felt that way about collections and novels where Martin Edwards does the Intro. He’s very well-informed, and offers a fascinating perspective. As you say, Bantam does that too, and it can be terrific. I think it’s especially useful to have introductions like that if it’s a book that’s not as well known. A good Introduction can give the reader a context that might be very difficult otherwise.

  5. I have recently been reading the Bernard Samson triple trilogy by Len Deighton. He wrote introductions for the books – 10 or so years after first publication – and they are absolutely fascinating. He gives you authentic sounding details of the politics of the time, discussed his own views at the time of writing – and tells you which character represents his wife.

    • That’s what I love about Introductions written by the author, Moira. They have those insights that no-one else could easily have. And with a writer like Deighton, you know they’ll also be witty and well written. Certainly they’re great guides to the stories, with the best ‘tour guide’ there could be – the author.

  6. I also tend to read them after the book, unless it is a classic I’ve already read and I’m trying to decide which edition to pick. I find they make more sense to me after I’ve read the book, otherwise it can all feel like a theoretical exercise.

    • That’s an interesting point, Marina Sofia. There’s definitely something to be said for waiting to read the Introduction until one has the perspective one gets from reading the book. I think too that it depends a little on the information that’s actually in the Introduction. Sometimes, it’s information about the plot of the book. Other times it’s biographical information or something of that sort.

  7. Like a few other commenters hear I tend to read these after I’ve read the book after making errors in the past by reading them and having all the good bits quoted or explained before I’ve read the book. I do read them afterwards though. The review I did of The Other Me in part was prompted by the author’s words admittedly in an afterword which I found fascinating.

    • Introductions (Afterwords, too) can have really fascinating information in the, Cleo. Little wonder that you found that to be the case in The Other Me. Folks, check out Cleo’s great review of that novel. You bring up a well-taken point, too. It’s best if authors are careful about how much to put in the Introduction/Afterword. Otherwise the author may spoil the novel for the reader.

  8. Col

    I read them at the start pretty much all the time. Thanks for the tip-off on this one, some authors there that I’m keen on. I’m also a fan of Anthony Neil Smith.

  9. Margot, I’d love to read Ed McBain’s introduction to Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet.” I think it’d be interesting and entertaining. That said, I read Introductions for a keen and authoritative insight into the author and his or her work. One of the best Introductions I read in recent years was R.W.B. Lewis’ to “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton. Although he was her official biographer, I was amazed by his depth of knowledge about Wharton and her writing. It’s something else to be able to write it all down.

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Prashant. I’l bet Lewis provided a fascinating perspective on Wharton. And as you say, that’s the thing about a well-written Introduction. There’s so much potential there for interesting background and insight into the author’s life and work.

  10. I always read the introductions, historical notes, acknowledgements, and forewards for a book. I even take a peek at the back of the book to see if there are additional notes or a glossary. I figure they’re included for a reason. The only thing I’ve included in my own novels so far is a short acknowledgement section and a bio, but I can see where I might want to add a foreward or historical notes to one of my manuscripts someday.

    • Pat – Introductions and notes and so on really can be absolutely fascinating. And they do give the reader a context for understanding a book, and a perspective from which to make sense of it. That’s one thing I’ve loved about Stephen Sartarelli’s wonderful translations of Andrea Camilleri’s work. There’s always fascinating historical and sociopolitical background that helps the reader understand what the characters say. I’m glad you mentioned glossaries too, actually. I don’t need to have every word defined for me, but when there is a term that people may very well not know, I like it defined.

  11. Kathy D.

    I do read introductions usually and afterwords and end notes, especially Sarterelli’s which you point out. I’m surprised no one brought up the introductions to a series of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s which were written by contemporary crime fiction writers. All fascinating.
    And I enjoy the introductions to Nero Wolfe’s books, too.

    • Kathy – Sometimes Introductions really can be fascinating. And I’m glad you mentioned the Introductions to the Martin Beck novels. As you say, they certainly give an interesting perspective.And Sarterelli’s are so witty and informative. Little wonder you enjoy them as much as you do.

  12. Margot: I rarely hate anything about books but introductions to fiction might top the short list. (Introductions for books of short stories are different.) I can never know until I am into an introduction whether it is an actual introduction or the author trying to tell the reader what is important and giving me way too much information. I do not think authors know how to stop summarizing the book in introductions. If it was up to me I would ban introductions. Let authors say whatever they want after the end of the book. Non-fiction authors are even worse. I have seen introductions that make me wonder why I need to read the book. With what I hope is due respect to your profession I think academics too infrequently understand they need to let readers learn what is in the book from reading it.

    • It’s funny you would say that, Bill, about Introductions to non-fiction and academic books. I agree they often contain too much information. It’s fine to offer some sort of overview, but it is best if readers experience the book itself. And there’s another issue with Introductions, too. Publishers often want them to serve as plugs for the book as well as informative pieces. For example, I was once asked to write the Foreword to one particular academic book. I sent in a draft, and one of the comments I got back was that I really needed to show ‘why teachers will love it.’ Needless to say, creating an ad wasn’t what I had planned to do. I did revise some other things about the Foreword, per the publisher’s request. But I held out for that point, and they went ahead with it.

  13. I haven’t used Forewards in my work, no. I do, however, read them. If an author has taken the time to write one then I feel it’s important to read.

    • That’s a good point, Sue. If an author and, presumably, the publisher think that the information in an Introduction or Foreword is worth writing and publishing, then there’s probably a reason for that. So much of it, I think, depends on what’s in that section, how well-written it is, and whether it contains so many spoilers that it ruins the book experience.

  14. tracybham

    I usually save reading the Forewards or Introductions until after I have read the books. I want to come to a book fresh. But I do read them eventually and I usually like it if a book has an introduction.

    • You’re not the only one who does it that way, Tracy. I think a lot of people might want to read a Foreward or Introduction for the information it has, but don’t want stories spoiled and so on. So I can see the sense in reading them, if you’re planning to, after you’ve read the story.

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