Source: Review Copy (British Library)
I have been eager to read this book since it was first announced at the 2nd Bodies from the Library conference. The purpose of this book is not to give a list of personal favourites or 100 best, but to look at 100 books which have something to say about the journey crime fiction took in the first half of the 20th century, (though technically another 600 books are also mentioned). The book endeavours to explore how the genre developed over the time period and the contexts which influenced those changes. A quick scan of the titles mentioned in the contents page and it seems I have read less than 50 of them, (though in some cases I have read others works by the author mentioned). However, this was not necessarily a bad thing as I think this book has much to offer the seasoned, as well as the novice classic crime reader, with there being a good balance of well-known and obscure crime titles and authors. My to-be-bought list has certainly swelled as a consequence. Initially the book takes a more chronological approach, which is then followed by a more thematic one, as indicated in the chapter titles. The book predominantly looks at British writers, given the space restrictions, but there are a couple of chapters looking further afield, including America, Argentina and France.
The chapters are structured so that they begin with an overview or introduction to the chapter’s theme, before going on to hone in on a number of key texts – a structure which worked well for me. The early chapters present a good example of the balance Edwards creates in the book. Whilst there were many familiar titles, I found that I often learnt something new about them, such as how it was a journalist’s recalling of a legend, which inspired Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and that Ernest Shackleton took Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the corner stories on his South Pole expedition. Yet there were also plenty of obscure titles and authors mentioned as well, such as Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank (1907), which has a murderer as its narrator who is determined to stop at not nothing in order to obtain his inheritance – a trope and structural choice which would go on to be used in a multitude of ways during the golden age of detective fiction. There are chapters centred on the fair play aspect of golden age detective fiction, locked room mysteries, country house mysteries, comic and/or ironic mysteries, mysteries set on holiday, authors who wrote only one mystery, authors who wrote mysteries on true crimes and lots more. The wide variety of chapter themes appealed to me greatly.
Edwards strikes the right balance also when it comes to providing synoptic and analytical information on texts, often providing provocative food for thought on the time period and its writers. For instance I had never really considered that: ‘much of the best work of the period was produced by relatively young writers whose boundless energy and zest contributed so significantly to the quality of the books – and their daring.’ Equally I find it intriguing that Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, in their A Catalogue of Crime (1989), thought that Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham (1930), ‘was working in the Gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and was the first of ‘the moderns’ to do so in the detective genre.’ An idea I find intriguing as from own reading experience I didn’t find it to be a hugely gothic novel. I also feel like there were crime writers earlier than this drawing on the gothic tradition (the names of whom I’ll probably recall at 3 in the morning). Edwards touches well on the effect of the 1930s political atmosphere on its detective fiction and how it encouraged a discussion of ‘altruistic crime’ and also alternative forms of justice in light of a fallible law system.
Unsurprisingly Agatha Christie does get mentioned from time to time and it was good to find new things about the novels I know (quite) well. Hopefully I’m not the only person who wasn’t aware that Poirot originally gave his solution from the witness stand in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), until the publishers asked Christie to change it. It was also interesting to read about the influence Abney Hall in Cheshire (which Christie had stayed at) potentially had on some of her country house mysteries. One comment which I think will spark a lot of discussion is the argument Edwards puts forward that: ‘the originality of her approach lay in the way she prioritised the springing of a surprise solution ahead of everything else – including characterisation and description of setting.’
As I mentioned above my to-be-bought list is considerably larger now having read this book. My reading process did at times go like this: read 2 pages – put the book down – googling ensures – read 2 pages …. Below are a few of the books I will be keeping my eyes peeled for in the coming months (and hopefully some of them might end up for review on the blog):
- In the Night (1917) by Lord Gorell, Birthday Party (1938) by C. H. B. Kitchin and Death by Request (1933) by John and Katherine Romilly (All country house mysteries.)
- The Middle Temple (1919) by J. S. Fletcher (An author I have yet to try, though they did write in excess of 200 books.)
- The Ingenious Mr Stone (1945) by Robert Player (‘a pleasingly differentiated trio of narrators tell, in a leisurely fashion, a story set in part a girls school in Torquay whose head teacher is murdered.’)
- Documentary Evidence (1936) by Robertson Halket (It has an experimental narrative structure).
- Dumb Vengeance (1933) by Stella Tower (A mystery narrated by a dog.)
- Death at Broadcasting House (1934) by Val Gielgud and Holt Marvell (Unusual setting, where the murder victim is heard dying by radio listeners due to it occurring during a broadcast.)
- A Bullet in the Ballet (1937) and Casino for Sale (1938) by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon (Comic Crime novels, the latter of which I think is a locked room mystery.)
- The Big Ben Alibi (1930) by Neil Gordon (Chosen purely for its fun title and the fact that the story concerns the ‘misadventures of a detective novelist.’)
- The Public School Murder (1932) by R C Woodthorpe (A mystery novel which might have been used in a real life murder case of a school head master.)
- Murder Intended (1932) Francis Beeding (I simply like the idea of the miserly elderly relative bumping off the heirs, rather than it usually being the other way round.)
- Lots more Richard Hull titles to get, (once I’ve done my latest bank robbery of course.)
- Six Dead Men (1931) by Stanislas-Andre Steeman, The Mystery at Antwerp Zoo (1928) – Steeman and Sintair, The Shooting Party (1884) by Chekov and Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (1942) by H. Bustos Domecq (All early mysteries from outside of the UK and the USA).
Overall this was a brilliant book, with great content, but also lovely design (the picture segment filled with dust jackets was wonderful). The only improvement I could suggest is a greater emphasis given with some of the chosen 100 texts on why they had been chosen exactly (or what their specific contribution was to the genre), as sometimes I think this had to be inferred a bit more than with others. With such good books there is always that niggle that you wished it was longer, but I feel that this is more of a compliment than a criticism. So all in all I think this is a must have read for all classic crime aficionados, a book you can read from cover to cover (with laptop nearby for all those important google searches) or alternatively dip in to, to discover a new author or title.