Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies
Here is a hefty and impressive package, a bumper fun book and prodigious resource guide for all serious crime fiction fans (and who isn’t these days, when the category seems almost to have engulfed publishers’ lists?). The author is a respected crime novelist, a legal eagle as a practicing solicitor, and an historian of the genre. It’s evident from a quick initial dip in its pages that what he doesn’t know about it few people do. The scope of the survey is enormous. It means that even hardened addicts will discover authors and titles new to them. Fully footnoted and indexed, its style is user-friendly rather than academic and Edwards’ well-informed opinions are candidly but undogmatically offered on a wide spectrum of books and writers. You could spend quite a lot of time with this volume, your mouse and an online bookstore extending your knowledge and broadening your taste with fresh acquisitions.
Given the inclusive breadth of the subject, Edwards adopts a flexible schema to organise his material, mainly chronological but variable ‘to accommodate books and topics.… which don’t fit in with a straightforward linear account.’ In 55 chapters the evolution of crime fiction is traced from Godwin’s 1794 Caleb Williams, beloved of anarchists for its critique of legal and political authority, via such established milestones as Poe, Conan Doyle, ‘Golden Age’ British whodunits and hard-boiled US fiction to contemporary crime writers. Among the last category, which also goes beyond anglophone writers, Frances Fyfield, echoing Raymond Chandler, insists on ‘the possibility of redemption’ and Reginald Hill, given the last word by Edwards, avows that his ‘ultimate goal’ is ‘to reveal the truth about human character and experience’.
Hm. Such ambitions, approvingly recorded here, are shared by plenty of non-generic fiction, and one of the most progressive shifts in cultural awareness of the past few decades has been the gradual demolition of the cultural snobs’ wall between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ fiction. But redemption and truth are slippery concepts. Take Patricia Highsmith., which is what Edwards does in one of his chapters (37) centred on a single author. He notes that in one of her novels ‘the truth is never made clear’ and quotes a positive tribute by Francis Iles to the ‘ruthless inhumanity’ of her work. Highsmith at her best is a suspense writer working on the reader’s nerves and emotions, She postulates an amoral world in which the notion of redemption, or justice, earns a hollow laugh; but Edward’s astute digest of her career and its context is generally sympathetic.
When I first read Highsmith many moons ago I was blown away by her originality. The murderer as hero, killing an innocent friend for gain and getting away with it! Though I was always happy following Philip Marlowe’s struggles to nail the truth and name the guilty while dragging the ball and chain of the Protestant Conscience behind him, Highsmith’s misanthropic view of human character was an invigorating blast of fresh air. So too was my discovery of another daring revisionist, George V. Higgins, in the 1970s. His innovation was to recast narrative as dialogue, usually between hard-bitten, lowlife politicians or criminals (spot the difference) as they strain to outflank one another with lies and conspiracies. Higgins does not get solo treatment in The Life of Crime, but Julian Symons’ judgement of him as an accomplished artist is approvingly quoted.
Transgression is a turn-on, and real-world criminals are often romanticised for their ‘iconic’ status (Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, even the ugly and homicidal Mafia). Due punishment may be a reassurance as it restores order to a chaotic rupture of social norms, but no moral order exists in Highsmith, Jim Thomson, or in the career of Richard Stark’s sociopathic anti-hero Parker, a horrendous precept which is possibly more dangerously exciting than peace and security; hence ‘thriller’ is a common sobriquet for the genre. In its continual dramatic nexus with capitalist commerce, politics and the legal system (not to mention its penumbra of Freudian associations), crime touches on both infrastructural and intimate realities. It’s a global, corporate business. And the ultimate crime is of course the capital one of murder, extinction, the one that puts an end to somebody’s world. Currently in the headlines is a gangster government headed by an ex-secret policeman, at work committing murder wholesale. Irony is a popular trope in noir fiction.
Edwards’ knowledge of the crime genre is encyclopaedic, but never intimidating. The Life of Crime brims with the author’s wholehearted enjoyment of popular fiction’s marquee brand (and promotional/marketing tool). As his introduction frankly explains, The Life of Crime is ‘one person’s journey through the genre’s past with all the limitations and idiosyncrasies that implies. I’m a fan as well as a writer’. Cherish the idiosyncrasies, even if you disagree. This book is the proverbial bran tub full of goodies. Dip into it for information and pleasure, not just to consult but to be entertained. It will last you a long time.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Martin Edwards, The Life of Crime (Collins Crime Club,2022). 978-0008192426, 724pp., hardback.
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