The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Reviewed by Harriet

Here at Shiny we love our classic crime, and we have been delighted to review a number of excellent novels that have recently made available through the British Library’s Crime Classics series. The editor of the series is of course the indefatigable Martin Edwards, who also manages to be a bestselling author, the Chair of the Crime Writers Association and the President of the Detection Club. A couple of years ago we posted a review of his important study of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, and here we have an equally well-researched and fascinating contribution to the history of the genre.

While the earlier book concentrated on the early days of the Club, which was formed in the 1930s, this volume spans the first fifty years of the twentieth century. It’s structured more or less chronologically, in a series of twenty-four chapters which aim to trace the development of the crime novel, starting from its early incarnation in the hands of writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, and G.K. Chesterton, and ending with the ground-breaking post-war novels of Nicholas Blake, Shelley Smith and Julian Symons. The writers who are included here are primarily British, and published in the UK, but there are a couple of chapters surveying crime writing in the US and that written by non-anglophone writers. The book title’s mention of 100 books refers to the fact that each chapter analyses a selection of novels – typically four or five – as representative of the theme covered by the chapter. However you get to read about far more than 100, as all the chapters also provide a brief but much broader discussion of many other works and writers whose novels offer further examples of the theme.

Among many other things we learn about here is the rise of the ‘Great Detectives’ – Christie gets in here of course, as do Sayers, Allingham, Berkeley and others. These may well be the novelists most familiar to readers. Others will be known to devotees of the British Library series, as will some of the chapter titles: Serpents in Eden (murders in country settings), Capital Crimes (London-based stories, the full book reviewed here), and Resorting to Murder (seaside settings, full book reviewed here), to name a few. But plots focusing on Education, Politics, Law and Justice also get covered, as do humour (‘Making Fun of Murder’), Psychology, Irony and True Crime. There’s a chapter on ‘The Birth of the Golden Age’, one on serial crimes, and one on what Edwards calls ‘Inverted Mysteries’, in which the identity of the killer is known from the start and the interest of the novel resides in how and when they will be discovered.

Unsurprisingly, as with any attempt to put literary works into pre-determined categories, there’s a certain amount of overlap, with some novels being discussed in one place and popping up in another. Overall though I think the book succeeds in its stated intention of showing how crime writing changed and developed over this important fifty-year period. The early, somewhat parochial writing of the early part of the era gave way to the tireless and playful experimentation of the Golden Age writers. As the decades passed, the mood tended to become darker, and by the end of the fifty-year period writers showed a very different perspective in politics and society to that of their early predecessors. But overall it’s impossible not to be stunned by the amazing range and variety shown by writers over the entire period.

As Martin Edwards acknowledges, this is not the first attempt to survey classic crime fiction: several other authors have produced their own lists of 50, or even 100 ‘best books’. But, as he goes on to say, he was not content just to reiterate the usual suspects. Instead, some of his choices are ‘unashamedly idiosyncratic’, designed to appeal to readers who appreciate the unpredictability and wide variety of the genre. So, you’ll find names that have stood the test of time, but also a large number of authors you’ve never heard of. Conversely, you may also be surprised to learn that some writers you knew of in different contexts also wrote crime novels – one such is T.H. White, who wrote a one-off, Darkness at Pemberley (as the title suggests, by way of being a sort of Austen spin-off and included in our post during Jane Austen Week at Shiny), before launching into his celebrated Arthurian trilogy, The Once and Future King.  Also quite surprising is the number of novels written collaboratively; sometimes this would be done by a husband and wife team, such as Romilly and Katherine John, or G.D.H. and M. Cole, but often too by a pair of friends and colleagues, even sometimes by well-known names like Dorothy Sayers (with Robert Eustace) and Ngaio Marsh (with Henry Jellett).

For lovers of the genre, this book delivers in two opposing ways. It’s great to encounter names and novels you recognise, and see if you agree with Edwards’ assessment of them, but also, of course, there’s the delight of the new. I defy you to resist the temptation to start looking for titles or writers that intrigue you – I certainly did and already have two previously unheard of novels on the way to me as I write, with undoubtedly more to come after I seek them out.

All in all, in addition to being a hugely enjoyable read, this book is obviously an important contribution to literary history. It has a useful bibliography and two indexes, one of authors and the other of titles. You’ll also find, in each chapter, biographical notes on the authors who are covered in depth. What more could you possibly want? Highly recommended.

 

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and has always longed to write a successful crime novel of her own.

Martin Edwards, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (British Library, 2017). 978-0712356961, 288pp., hardback.

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