This is a post I have been working on over the last few months. Crime fiction as a genre, covering everything from thrillers to detective novels and HIBK tales, is one which has elicited a great deal of comment from its inception. Debate intensified during the period known as the golden age of detective fiction, and the discussion has continued until the present day. There is a myriad of conferences enthusiasts can attend, and mainstream, as well as academic publications are still forthcoming on the subject. Blogs are also worthy of mention, as well as forums on Facebook and other websites, and the impact such sites are having is ever on the increase. Not that I am remotely biased on the subject or anything…
However, today’s post as the title suggests, is focusing on books. All of the titles this post features, are ones I have read. So, if you find that a personal favourite is missing, then there is a good chance the reason for its exclusion was on those grounds. If there is a title you think ought to be in the list then do share it, so I know what to read next! Other criteria for my selections were:
- A modern(ish) publication date
- Accessible reading style which is entertaining and informative
- Importance and interest of the subject matter
I have tended to steer away from reference books, simply because I feel they’re not books you will read from cover to cover or read for a long sitting. There are a couple of exceptions, which I will flag up as I go along. Some of these titles are easy to buy second hand at a reasonable price, whilst I admit some others are not quite so cheap to track down. Although those with a good library may be able to access such works for free.
I know books about crime fiction are not everyone’s cup of tea. Some prefer to just read the stories, but personally I enjoy looking at this genre under the microscope and through the telescope for that matter. The bigger picture and the close-up of this body of work is one which fascinates me and whilst I obviously don’t remember all that I read, nor do I agree with it all, I find the stuff that sticks helps to revitalise my, at times, stagnant mind. It’s good to get thinking again!
Regular readers will know of my aversion or rather my inability to stick to top ten lists and this post is no different. Instead I have adopted 6 different categories, under which I have grouped various titles. This post is not trying to recommend all of these titles to everyone, as many of these have more of a niche audience, but hopefully as you look through you might spy a book or two which might appeal.
This category is definitely a big picture one and given my preference for Golden Age detective fiction, my recommendations do lean towards that time period. If you are wanting a less in depth and broader look at detective fiction as a whole you may wish to try A Companion to Crime Fiction (2010) ed. Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley or The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (2003) ed. Martin Priestman. However, if the interwar years are your cup of tea, I would go for a book which purely looks at that period, such as…
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017) by Martin Edwards
In this work, Martin traces the development of crime fiction in the first half of the 20th century, homing in on 100 key books involved in it, (though many more titles are also mentioned more briefly). You can read more of my thoughts on this great book by clicking here for my review. This title is ideal for the reader who is starting out on their journey towards becoming a vintage mystery fiction addict. Yet, confirmed fans shouldn’t overlook it either as obscure works as well as more well-known feature. That said, reading this book will be hazardous for the health of your TBR pile!
The Golden Age of Murder (2015) by Martin Edwards
I read this title shortly before beginning my blog and it was one of my first reviews. The years have not diminished my enthusiasm for this well-researched book. Martin does more than provide facts, but weaves together a narrative which explores interwar crime fiction through the lens of the detection club and its key members. Their personal and professional lives enter the mix, including how they interacted with one another and with contemporary crimes. Prominent writers mentioned in the book are Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Berkeley and the Coles. This title is suited to both novices and aficionados of golden age detective novels and it thoroughly deserves all the awards it has received.
The Hooded Gunman (2019) by John Curran
Not strictly speaking a history of the genre, but I felt John’s book charted the course of the genre through one publishing company and its’ famous imprint: The Collins Crime Club. John’s book is a highly pleasing volume to look at, but is also a delight to read, providing the big picture at the start of the book, before providing more detailed information on the various titles published under the imprint. If you’re wondering what author to try next or have had your eye on a given title or two, then this book is a fantastic resource, offering blurb, dust jacket and publication date information. You also get to play the addictive game of seeing how many of the books you’ve already read from series.
I fear this might be the section within which some may wonder why title X or Y does not appear, but I have to admit to not being as interested in author biographies. Although having said that I do have a copy of The Adventures of Margery Allingham (2019) by Julia Jones on my TBR pile, which I am looking forward to trying. However, here my picks…
As the name suggests, Curtis’ book focuses on Henry Wade and the Coles. Yet this book is more than a biography, seeking instead to challenge and complicate the often-repeated notion that ‘the British Golden Age of detective fiction was politically and socially conservative,’ using the work of Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole to do so. In each chapter Evans provides background information on the writers before systematically discussing their novels and short stories. These writers are not so well-known today in comparison to the Queens of Crime, for instance, but I was fascinated by the themes they were grappling with and how their portrayals of them were influenced by outside events. Readers will be entertained as well as informed.
This book is one of those rare titles for which I can remember the circumstances of when I read it. In this case I was hand rearing two Orpington chicks and during the afternoons I would often supervise their exercise time. I passed the time reading this book, though more often than not I would be doing so with chicks standing on my legs or occasionally on my shoulder. That said I don’t think it is necessary to have chickens to enjoy this book!
The 100 Greatest Literary Detective (2018) ed. Eric Sandberg
This one might seem like an unfair inclusion given that just under 1000 words were contributed by myself. But I think the rest of the book easily justifies its merit and my recommendation to read it. This is not a 100-best list, despite the title, and the editor, in his introduction, suggests that this work is more of a celebration of and re-evaluation of fictional sleuths and detectives from around the world. This book is ideal for reading about some of your favourite sleuths and why they are such important creations and how the cultural context they were born into also shaped them. But it is also great for discovering fictional detectives that you’ve never come across before, particularly ones outside of the Western canon. The diversity in sleuth choices is definitely one of the things I really liked about this collaborative work.
Sherlock Holmes in Context (2017) ed. Sam Naidu
I’m sure any human being could be squished under the weight of words expended on writing about Doyle’s famous creation. Should room on the bookshelf be made for one more book on Holmes? In this case I would argue yes, and this collection of essays does a great job of exploring the historical and social context of the original works and how widely they have been transferred to other mediums and cultures. I think this is a very stimulating read and will especially appeal to those who are interested in the various adaptations of the Holmes’ stories.
From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell (2001) by Susan Rowland
In terms of academic publications on crime fiction, I would say this was a pivotal text and one upon which later writers have built upon. This work also dispels some of the negative associations the word academic has, as I feel some readers perhaps equate academic with boring or obtuse. Some of it probably is, but Rowland’s book is decidedly not. Rowland looks at 6 writers in this book: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, P. D. James and Ruth Rendell and if you are a fan of any of these authors then this is a must read. Each chapter provides an analysis of a novel from each writer, in relation to the chapter’s theme. These sections are particularly enjoyable especially when it’s a book you’ve read and are familiar with. Rowland’s book covers various themes, such as the gothic, gender, class structures and Englishness. Unlike some of the other titles in the Palgrave Macmillan series this book is usually quite easy to get a hold of cheaply and is also more likely to be available in larger libraries.
In consideration of how much has been written about this writer, I felt Christie deserved a category of her own and unsurprisingly it is one of the biggest categories within the post. My selections for this group are eclectic, but I hope they offer a number of different sidelights on this fabulous writer:
Both of these books are centred on Christie’s notebooks, considering them as physical artefacts, as well as exploring their contents. John provides great insight into the subject matter, pulling out important inferences about the stories Christie wrote and the way she went about writing them. The notebooks also evidence how the stories changed as they were developed and also how long it took for some of them to make it on to the page and into print. John also treats readers to unpublished works including previously unseen Poirot and Miss Marple short stories. I can highly recommend both of these books, which are must reads for the Christie fan.
Agatha Christie on Screen (2016) by Mark Aldridge
In a nutshell this book is a comprehensive look at the film and TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s stories, working chronologically from the 1920s up to the BBC’s And Then There Were None adaptation in 2015 and it even has two chapters devoted to non-UK and USA adaptations. Aside from providing lots of useful information, this book is also highly entertaining when it comes to looking at the various ways Christie’s work has been “creatively” adapted, including bombs in Miss Marple’s handbag and in one adaptation a pastiche of Michael Jackson’s Thriller!
The Ageless Agatha Christie (2016) by J. C. Bernthal
This is a provocative, (in a good way) and stimulating collection of essays, which manages to explore the Christie canon from a wide variety of angles. Some of the essays make interesting and diverse comparisons between Christie and other writers such as Virginia Woolf and Kerry Greenwood. Other themes include the role of objects and post-war culture and the modern girl. This collection is especially important to me as one of its essays, ‘And Then There Were Many: Agatha Christie in Hungarian Translation’ by Brigitta Hudácskó, was the inspiration for my collaborative blog post: Christie In Translation: Your Experiences, in which various readers of the blog share how Christie was translated in their native languages. A post really enjoyed putting together and one which has been consistently popular in terms of blog reader viewings.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015) by Kathryn Harkup
Whilst the majority of the books on my list come at crime fiction from the historical, social or literary angle, my next choice is a more scientific one. Harkup looks at 14 poisons that Christie used in her books and in each chapter, (devoted to one particular poison), she describes the poison, indicating how it affects the body, how it kills, how it can be detected and any antidotes. Harkup also looks at each poison’s place in history and culture, discussing real life cases where it was used. In addition, each chapter focuses on one particular Christie novel where the poison is employed and how the poison worked within the story.
Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity (2006) by Merja Makinen
If you’re interested in how women are depicted in Christie’s work and how the theme of gender and gender roles is explored in them, then this is one of two books you should pick up, (more on the second later). This is a book which seeks to address the over-generalisations which have been made about Christie’s work, based on narrow readings. Chapters range from exploring the famous characters to those less well-known and showcase the wide variety of female characters that feature in Christie’s work including victims, suspects and killers. The fifth chapter was of especial interest to me, comparing how Christie depicts her female villains, with how real-life female murderers were depicted in contemporary newspapers.
Curtain Up: Agatha Christie – A Life in Theatre (2015) by Julius Green
If you have an interest in the plays Christie wrote then look no further than this book, which is thorough to say the least, covering the years from 1908 up to 1972 and comments on unpublished and unperformed material as well. Green considers the reasons for why one play succeeded or failed; an aspect which I was really interested in.
Mystery Fiction and Real-Life History
The Invention of Murder (2011) by Judith Flanders
I suppose this book has an additional significance for me as it was probably the first book I read about crime fiction, during my second year of university, when I was researching on melodrama and the Sherlock Holmes stories. This text provides an enjoyable exploration of crime in the 1800s, looking at real life cases and how the public responded to their occurrence. I was surprised at the time and still am at the notion of creating porcelain memorabilia to remember a violent murder. The book also looks at the rise of the police force, as well as how crime was depicted in literature and how these depictions then influenced perceptions of real-life crimes. The relationship between fact and fiction is an intricate one and this book offers an engaging look at it.
Crime Writing in Interwar Britain (2017) by Victoria Stewart
This unfortunately is one of the pricier recommendations and it is a crying shame it is so expensive, as when I read it I felt sure it would be a fascinating read for all GAD fans. Stewart does an excellent job of discussing the links between real life crimes, non-fiction writings on these crimes and contemporary detective novels. The power to influence perceptions worked both ways with novelists being inspired by real life cases, and newspaper accounts of trials being coloured by the way criminals were presented in novels. There is a focus on female authors of the time, including Marie Belloc Lowndes, F Tennyson Jesse, Elizabeth Bowen, Dorothy L. Sayers and Daphne Du Maurier and I enjoyed how this book makes some moves away from the Queens of Crime.
Gender and Representation in British Golden Age Crime Fiction (2016) by Megan Hoffman
This is the second book I would recommend if you want to engage with a more in-depth study of female mystery novelists, their female characters and how gender relations are depicted in their books. The interwar period witnessed many changes for women; politically, socially and career wise, and Hoffman’s book explores how these changes are reflected and questioned in detective novels of the time, though her own study specifically focuses on female writers. I got a lot out of this book and felt that Joffman wrote with a very readable style and that her readings of texts were consistently detailed and engaging. To get a fuller flavour of this book, I would recommend reading my review of it.
Shakespearean Allusions in Crime Fiction (2016) by Lisa Hopkins
As the title suggests this book looks at how Shakespeare’s work has been utilised by crime fiction writers and classic crime authors are well represented in this volume ranging from Christie, Sayers, Tey, Marsh and Mitchell, to John Bude, Nicholas Blake, Mavis Doriel Hay, Alan Melville and Christopher St John Sprigg. The main plays by Shakespeare looked at are: Macbeth, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. I felt this was a very engaging lens through which to examine familiar texts and I think this book, like so many on this list, provides a great deal of food for thought.
Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes: A Comprehensive Bibliography (1992) by Robert Adey
This title was reprinted and added to in a new edition, which came out in 2018 and is one of the reference books which I made an exception for. For the locked room and impossible crime fan this book is a must. It is an ideal resource for those trying to decide what books and authors to try next, as well ones you might want to avoid. A quiet chortle is also likely if you venture into the section which lists the solutions, as some of them are amusingly bad or corny.
The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999) ed. Rosemary Herbert
A great resource for crime fiction bloggers and one which has helped me with a blog post on more than one occasion. Each section is a soundbite on a given topic; be it a theme, a subgenre or a particular author. These sections, whilst providing bite sized overviews, are also good for pointing readers in the direction of novels and short stories which gravitate towards a specific theme.
A book which collects a large number of reviews may seem like an odd book to recommend, but as you can see I am going to recommend two such books. The strengths of these books lie in two things. Firstly, that the reviews being collected are written by highly entertaining reviewers, who know how to use language to great effect. Examples of this can be found in my more detailed reviews of these titles and I warn you that many of them may make you laugh out loud. Secondly, these two titles are also informative and entertaining reads because of their editors who provide well-written commentaries, which are filled full of insight and interesting information. So, these two books are not only useful for those wishing to research Sayers, Downing and the books they reviewed, but they are also cracking reads in their own right.
Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013) ed. by Curtis Evans
So there you have it! Well done for making it to the end of post. Hopefully one or two titles might have piqued your interest and I look forward to hearing your recommendations for other works which might be up my street. And, of course, here’s to the next 1000 posts! At least I have a few years to figure out what to do for my 2000th post!