The Life of Crime: Detecting the Histories of Mysteries and Their Creators (2022) by Martin Edwards

With only one day to go until the end of the blog tour, it is my turn to post a review. The size of this book has cropped up in more than one review to date, so suffice to say I was glad I had opted for a later slot on the tour. The downside to being later in a tour though is the potential issue of repeating the posts which have come before. However, I put my thinking cap on and hopefully what follows has something new to offer.

This book has been on my radar for a few years now, since Martin mentioned this project at a Bodies from the Library conference. I am sure I wasn’t the only audience member excited at the prospect of reading the end result.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I read quite a bit of non-fiction concerning the mystery genre, so much so that I did a recommendation list a while back. So in coming to this book, I am going to have personal expectations shaped by this past reading. I was going to be looking for what new information or ideas The Life of Crime could provide and how these were woven together. However, as a reviewer of a non-fiction book I am aware that I am not just assessing it for my own personal enjoyment, but also for its potential enjoyment for others, whose prior reading might differ considerably from my own. As I read this book it was interesting holding these two goals in tandem, as at times one side might dominate my perceptions more than the other.

With this type of project, it is worth pausing to consider the author’s aims, as they help to shape your expectations before diving in. In his own words, this is what Martin says The Life of Crime aims to do:

  • To ‘tell […] the story of fiction’s most popular genre.’
  • To ‘trace […] the development of the crime story from its origins to the present day.’
  • To ‘explore […] events that shaped the lives of crime writers and their work.’

Martin goes on to write that: ‘For me, the key question is: why bother to write a non-fiction book unless it has a distinct personality of its own? So, as with my previous titles, The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, I’ve employed novelistic techniques in the hope of making the story come alive.’ These techniques can be most strongly felt in the openings of each chapter, which focus on an event in an author’s life. These are comprised of a mixture of life events you expect to be used e.g., the disappearance of Agatha Christie and ones which you did not (simply because you didn’t know they existed!) Everyone’s opinion on which openings are the best will differ, but for the ones I enjoyed the most I found them to be powerfully evocative, giving a real sense of that person’s life and character.

The book’s structure is roughly chronological and also adopts a thematic approach. This method helps to demonstrate how the evolution of crime fiction did not occur in neatly divided periods of time. Instead, mystery fiction writing styles very much overlap with one another, with some having longer roots than you might imagine. The history of the genre is not like tessellation shapes but is a tapestry and this sense of threads weaving in and out can be felt more strongly the further you get into Martin’s book. In his introduction he writes that:

Life of Crime is going to be exploring the connections between the branches of crime fiction, ones that get overlooked by more obvious differences […] Detecting the genre’s history helps to uncover similarities between the experiences of authors working in different periods of time, different parts of the world and different branches of literature.’

This was one of my favourite features of this book. I felt the chapter divisions were a good length and this is important in a book this size, which requires being read in bite-sized portions. The thematic approach Martin utilises also means that decades long writing style periods get broken down and examined more closely across many chapters. This is good news for Golden Age Detective fiction fans. In some histories of the genre, GAD fiction gets one chapter, which tackles the period in a stereotypical and uninformed way and is usually written in such condescending tones, that it sounds like GAD fiction fans should be grateful for even that solitary chapter! Unsurprisingly, Martin’s book is nothing like this at all and this period of mystery fiction writing is given ample coverage, which helpfully shows the more varied picture, the umbrella term, GAD fiction, actually covers.

For the remainder of this review, I thought it might be useful to look at what Martin’s book contains, pointing out information and ideas which appealed to me the most. To make the length of this review slightly less insane, I decided to include a word cloud for each chapter, giving you an idea of the topics, authors, characters, and books, they discuss. I have also tried to theme the clouds, with an appropriate image which one way or another links into the chapter.

Chapter 1 Revolution: Origins

One of the things this first chapter demonstrates is Martin’s accessible writing style, which contains the right amount of humour. This was important for me, as it meant even if the information wasn’t new, it was still enjoyable to read, as it was engagingly told. For example, Martin writes about William Godwin’s novel, Caleb Williams, the ‘first thriller about a manhunt,’ and the way Godwin went about writing it:

Godwin had invented a storytelling method that many detective novelists would later adopt. He constructed his plot by working backwards. Recalling the process in 1832, he said that he only wrote “when the afflatus was upon me”. This is seldom a recipe for success. Most writers find the afflatus, or divine inspiration, as elusive as any fugitive on the run.’

I find Martin’s brand of humour one which you can readily identify with, and I also think it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative.

This first chapter also sees Martin engaging with previous theory on the history of the genre, such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ suggestions of earlier proto-detective stories. I think he strikes a good balance of questioning earlier ideas, without resorting to invectives that personally attack the other person holding a different point of view.

The opening chapter has a lot of ground to cover and is one of the chapters which has a whistlestop tour feel about it. Yet the use of further reading contained in the endnotes means that you know where to access more information on a point which interested you. One of the key topics of the chapter is tapping into the debate over which was the first detective story and I very much enjoyed Martin’s shift in focus to candidates outside of the UK and North America. Those interested in Scandinavian crime fiction will find this section of particular interest.

I am not usually a diligent reader of end notes, but I am very glad I made an exception in the case of Martin’s book, as I found lots of highly interesting nuggets of information, which I will be sharing in this review. Look out for the endnote highlights.

Endnote Highlight: Reginald Hill wrote a book called A Cure for All Diseases, which projects [Jane] Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon into modern times and adds a murder mystery.’ I must admit I have never read any of Hill’s books but this one certainly sounds very intriguing.

Chapter 2 Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe and the First Detective Stories

Martin’s novelistic techniques come to the fore in this chapter, bringing to the life the many theories surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s death. I felt there was a real sense of Poe as a person, how difficult he was to get along with and his role in the unfortunate things that happened to him.

Endnote Highlight: Martin provides examples of fictional armchair detectives and I enjoyed finding out about some new-to-me ones such as ‘Prince Zaleski, a reclusive Russian exile who solves crimes from his couch; his creator was M. P. Shiel, a writer with mixed-race origins who declared himself King of Redonda.’ I am not the biggest Julian Symons fan, but I am intrigued to read that he produced ‘an unorthodox example of the form, where the author takes the role of armchair detective’ in Death’s Darkest Face. Darn you, Martin! Making me want to give authors another go after deciding to give up on them!

Chapter 3 Guilty Secrets: Sensation Novels

A key reason for my enjoyment of the openings of Martin’s chapters is due to the way he orders his information. A born mystery writer, he knows how to keep the most shocking information until last, taking you on a journey of misassumptions before showing you the true state of affairs. This chapter contains a very good example of this, so I won’t spoil it for you!

One connection which was unexpected for me, was the link between Robert Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret and the gentleman amateur sleuths of the Golden Age such as Anthony Gillingham, Colonel Anthony Gethryn and Reggie Fortune. It was also interesting to come across an ‘early example of a storyline hinging on forensic ballistics’ from the canon of Elizabeth Gaskell. A new-to-me author was Caroline Clive, who wrote the novel Paul Ferroll. What interested me the most about this story is that its narrative includes diary extracts – a structuring device which very much appeals to me as a reader.

Bad Title Choice: From time to time in the book Martin brings to our attention some titles, which maybe their authors should have thought twice about, or at least slept on, before committing to. In this chapter it is the prequel Caroline Clive wrote to Paul Ferroll. I will let you draw your own conclusions why this title is not such a good idea: Why Paul Ferroll Killed His Wife.

Chapter 4 Detective Fever: Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Early Detective Fiction

With earlier writers it can be hard to verify certain anecdotes about their life, yet such stories are great for kickstarting off a chapter. Martin is always good at pointing out the unreliability, but only after you have enjoyed the possibility that they might be true! A possible origin for Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in the White provides a good example of this.

Whilst I am familiar with Wilkie Collin’s longer works, it was interesting to learn about his shorter fictions, which include a number of staple tropes we expect from crime fiction. A sign of a good non-fiction writer is that they leave you enthusiastic to look up authors and their works and this is very much in evidence in The Life of Crime.

Exploring the writing process was one of Martin’s aims for this work and this chapter includes another enjoyable example of this. Wilkie Collins, when writing The Moonstone, was ‘tormented by gout […] he needed heavy doses of laudanum to keep going. Good writers don’t waste experiences, and laudanum plays a crucial part in the storyline.’

In weaving together this history of the genre, Martin shows a steady hand at looking back at the writers previously discussed, whilst looking ahead to the authors yet to be surveyed. This chapter demonstrates a good example of this with a comparison of the attitudes towards criminality William Godwin and Charles Dickens held, and with a tantalising link between the work of Sheridan Le Fanu and Dashiell Hammett (a combination I certainly wouldn’t have predicted!)

Did You Know? The Woman in White had merchandise to accompany the book, including perfume!

Endnote Highlight: Bruce Graeme, an author I have become a keen fan of, wrote a mystery entitled, Epilogue, which involves ‘two investigators go[ing] back in time to solve the puzzle’ contained in Charles Dickens’ incomplete story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Double darn you Martin! How on earth am I going to find this highly intriguing book?!

Chapter 5 Poacher Turned Gamekeeper: The French Revolution: Vidocq, Gaboriau and their Worldwide Influence

If you have dipped your toe into crime fiction history, then Eugène François Vidocq is a name you are likely to have heard of. He was certainly someone I was aware of, but I really enjoyed the little details Martin includes in this chapter, which I had not come across before including an exhibition Vidocq was a part of in London in 1845. Criminal now turned detective – he embraced his dubious celebrity status in a way which would not seem out of place today.

Another idea which interested me in this chapter was the way in which a chain of writers began to develop, with each person inspiring the next author to come. What I liked was seeing how these chains developed globally, and this is an concept which bleeds into later chapters. I think this is an idea which fosters respect for the writers that have come before in the field.

Endnote Highlight: Paul Féval published a book called Les Mystères de Londres. The villain is Fergus O’Breane, yet eagle-eyed Martin points out that Anthony Boucher makes a nod to this character when he named his own detective, Fergus O’Breen.

Chapter 6: The Great Detective: Sherlock Holmes

Did You Know? Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were so useful in their ‘emphasis[ing of] the central importance of physical evidence in criminal investigation [that they] were actually used as instruction manuals by the Chinese and Egyptian police forces for many years.’

This chapter provides further evidence of Martin’s engaging manner in approaching “literary criticism”. I found this point particularly interesting:

‘A cliché of crime fiction criticism is that the detective story appeals because it shows order being restored within a disturbed community. Yet criminals elude Holmes in one quarter of the cases in the book. He contemplates breaking the law more than once, and twice he lets the culprit go free. In ‘The Five Orange Pips’, he even fails to prevent his client from falling victim to murder.’

Building on Judith Flander’s comments on this matter in The Invention of Murder, I think Martin succinctly exposes the faulty foundations for one of the many erroneous assumptions made about earlier mystery fiction. Martin proposes, instead, that: ‘What readers loved (and still love) was the resolution of uncertainty, the Great Detective’s ability to discern rational explanations for baffling mysteries.’ I very much enjoyed Martin’s discussion of the difference between the two, as well as his exploration of what makes the Sherlock Holmes stories work.

Did You Know? Doyle adapted A Study in Scarlet, for the stage. The play was only published in 2001, under the name Angels of Darkness, and interestingly he did not include Holmes in it, just Dr Watson.

Chapter 7 Rogues’ Gallery: Raffles and Other Villains

Once more we look back at the roots developed by William Godwin, yet in this chapter Martin explores how they had morphed by the end of the 19th century:

‘William Godwin’s radicalism belonged to a bygone era, and so did admiration for the likes of the highwayman Dick Turpin. Vidocq was long dead, but as the nineteenth century drew to a close, readers of detective fiction longed for a new character with a touch of his edginess and flair. They wanted something different.’

If you enjoy the short stories featuring Raffles, a gentleman burglar, then this chapter includes lots of examples of other similar characters published in the same time period. The Life of Crime is a great book for adding to your TBR pile! This chapter will be also of interest if you want to read about a literary predecessor to the amorality found in the fictional universes created by Patricia Highsmith.

Chapter 8 The Nature of Evil: G. K. Chesterton and Faith and Sin in Detective Fiction

There were lots of topics to interest me in this chapter, such as the real-life person Father Brown was based on, as well as the influence G. K. Chesterton had other writers such as C. S. Lewis and George Orwell. Another highlight was discovering the original publication context for Ronald Knox’s Decalogue. In 1924 he published Sanctions: A Frivolity. Martin describes this as ‘a mainstream novel strangely overlooked by historians of the crime genre. At that time, Knox had yet to write a detective novel, but in this book his character John Lydiard outlines the ‘ten rules of detective fiction’.’  These were the basis for the later published Decalogue. Whilst much can be said about these rules it was pleasing to see Martin demolish one of the main inaccurate criticisms of them:

‘Knox’s rules satirised incompetent crime writing. The ban on Chinamen, for instance, was a dig at racist and stereotypical portrayals of Asian villains such as Fu Manchu: ‘if you come across some mention of “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo”, you had best put it down at once; it is bad.’’

This is another chapter in which Martin makes an author I don’t hugely enjoy, sound really interesting! Very annoying of him! The author this time is H. C. Bailey:

‘Science often plays a part in Bailey’s stories, but their distinctive tang comes from his acute sense of sin. A reserved family man, Bailey had a world view much darker than Chesterton’s. Long before Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell, he examined the anthropology of evil through the medium of detective fiction. Perhaps one day his stories will be repackaged under that label beloved by publicists: noir.’

Chapter 9 Plot Minds: Marie Belloc Lowndes and Edwardian-era Detective Fiction

True crime and its influence on mystery novel plots is a topic which frequently appears in this book, and I think Martin is good at selecting interesting examples. The starting point of this chapter is a case in point involving Marie Belloc Lowndes and the then Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith discussing the disappearance of Mrs Nowill. I also loved finding out about the origins of Lowndes’ most famous book The Lodger, a crime novel based on the Jack the Ripper killings. The Lodger is a novel I read a long time ago, so it was great to revisit it, in this book, as Martin raises several interesting points.

This chapter also looks at the time Lowndes went to the Society of Authors to see if she could press charges of plagiarism against Agatha Christie as Hercule Poirot, in Lowndes’ mind, seemed awfully similar to her character, Hercule Popeau. Both published their first novel featuring their sleuth in 1920, but Martin suggests this is ‘a simple case of synchronicity.’

Endnote Highlight: Martin unearthed another Christie name coincidence involving ‘Frank Howel Evans’ Jules Poiret, who from 1909 investigated dozens of cases. Poiret’s sidekick is Captain Haven, Hercule Poirot’s is Captain Hastings.’

Did You Know? There is a ‘stop-motion animated video, using pieces of Lego,’ of Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

Chapter 10 The Science of Detection: R. Austin Freeman and Scientific Mysteries

I am aware of some mystery authors who trial certain aspects of their murder plots, to check they worked, such as John Rhode and Victoria Dowd, but I did not realise the elaborate lengths R. Austin Freeman went to in trying out his. One new-to-me author who stood out for me in this chapter, was anthropologist, Frederica de Laguna, whose mystery The Arrow Points to Murder, includes a recipe for making curare. Martin writes of her that:

Frederica de Laguna was unique among female writers of the Golden Age, a distinguished American anthropologist with a passion for ethnology and archaeology.’

I was surprised to find that Ruth Sawtell Wallis was not mentioned at this stage, but I suspect that because her first excellent novel, Too Many Bones, was not published until the 1940s, she might not count as a Golden Age author.

Even if an author is not my cup of tea, I like how Martin still makes them enjoyable to read about such as C. E. Bechhofer Roberts who ‘created the scientific detective A. B. C. Hawkes. At the time a selling point for these stories is that they were written “in collaboration with a well-known Professor of Science, so the reader may be rest assured that nothing is related that could not actually have happened”’. I love how Martin undercuts this advertising material:

‘This was a bold claim, given that A. B. C.’s debut, ‘The Island under the Sea’, involved an exotic woman preserved in “a huge slab of solid glass and crystal” and originating from Atlantis.’

Book I Would Like to Track Down to Read: Blind Circle by Maurice Renard and Albert-Jean. This story is ‘a blend of mystery and the macabre concerning the discovery of four separate bodies. The trouble is that each corpse is of the same man.’

Endnote Highlight: The Haunting Hand, The Mind Reader and The Top Floor Killer were three mysteries published by Walter Adolphe Roberts. Roberts was a Jamaican writer and poet and interestingly he began writing his mysteries before Rudolph Fisher, who is usually considered to be the first black author writing in this genre.

Chapter 11 Had-I-But-Known: Mary Roberts Rinehart and ‘Women in Jeopardy’ Novels

This chapter contained one of the best openings of the book:

‘Few authors earn enough from crime writing to employ a butler. Even fewer are victims of attempted murder. Mary Roberts Rinehart had the unique if unwanted distinction of being shot at because she had recruited a butler.’

The explanation to this event which occurred in 1947, is highly entertaining. Ethel Lina White is another of my favourite authors, so I am probably biased in wishing more could have said about her and the variety of story structures she employed in her books.

Did You Know? Rinehart’s play, The Bat, was novelised and also made into a series of films. The Bat Whispers was one of them, and Bob Kane ‘the comic-book writer and artist] cited this film ‘as the inspiration for the crime-fighter he co-created in 1939. This was Batman.’

Books I Would Like to Track Down to Read: The Unfinished Crime by M. G. Eberhart, for the sole reason that it has a crime solving butler and At Last Mr Tolliver by William Wiegand.

Chapter 12 War and Peace: The First World War and Detective Fiction

Martin takes on a big gun of crime fiction criticism, Raymond Chandler, in this chapter. Unlike some commentators on the genre, he does not unquestioningly parrot Chandler’s remarks, such as those made disparagingly made against A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery. To these Martin opines: ‘Chandler was throwing stones from a glass house. His premise that “fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic” was questionable, while his own plotting was sometimes erratic. He also missed the point. The Red House Mystery offered what readers were yearning for – pleasurable escapism.’

Other highlights of this chapter include finding out about how Henry Wade got into crime writing and learning more about Milne’s inverted mystery play, The Fourth Wall. Having seen the original dustjacket for his fugitive on the run parody, Four Days Wonder, I could also sympathise with Milne’s complaints concerning the lack of advertisement his publishers gave that title.

Chapter 13 Treacherous Impulses: Early Spy Fiction

Prior to reading this book, Esrkine Childers was to me just the author who wrote the painfully dull and boring novel, The Riddle of the Sands and whilst my views on the spy story are unchanged, I was really moved hearing about his sad demise, via a firing squad in Dublin, dubbed a traitor by the British and ‘suspected […] of being a spy’ by his Irish Nationalist colleagues. This chapter looks at the invasion literature which preceded Childers’ more famous story, and I was interested to learn of Julian Symons’ argument for the Industrial Revolution being a key factor in why ‘the genre’s leading exponents were predominantly British.’

Chapter 14 The Mistress of Deception: Agatha Christie

Did You Know? Ronald Knox when commenting on The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), ‘in a wretched misjudgement […] dismissed’ Miss Marple ‘as ‘the stupidest’ character in the story.’

It is only natural that there would be a chapter devoted to Agatha Christie, but what a challenge to set oneself, given the volume of literature out there on this author. However, I think Martin makes a good job of it and I was interested by his selection of titles to discuss. I was wondering if I would have chosen the same. It is not a matter of picking your favourites, but the ones that display Christie’s range. Martin carefully avoids dropping any significant spoilers by implicitly referring to certain novels, rather than out rightly naming them.

Did You Know? Agatha Christie, prior to her 11-day disappearance, wrote to ‘Archie’s brother, letting him know that she intended to spend time recuperating in a Yorkshire spa town, but once the press sensationalised the story, matters quickly got out of hand.’ This was a facet of this event that I was not aware about. Does this fact undermine her excuse that she was suffering from amnesia?

Chapter 15 American Tragedy: Van Dine and the American Golden Age

S. S. Van Dine is not a favourite author of mine, but it was interesting to find out more about his life. Like Edgar Allan Poe, he seems to have been his own worst enemy when it came to poor decision making. It was also good to learn about the round robin detective novel he contributed to, which was based on a mystery novel idea President Roosevelt had.

Chapter 16 Superfluous Women: Queens of Crime

This is a good chapter for those relatively new to Christie’s female contemporaries in the mystery writing field. Also, it is useful if you want some hints on how to pretend to be a man in a photograph. See Anthony Gilbert…

Chapter 17 Challenging the Reader: Detection and Game-playing

Whilst I was familiar with the epic newspaper competition failure involving Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men, (mental note made – always limit the number of winners when it comes to big cash prizes), there were many other mystery game examples, which were new-to-me in this chapter.  This included Murder in Black and White by Evelyn Elder a.k.a. Milward Kennedy, which included 12 visual clues.

Endnote Highlights: Rupert Penny worked at Bletchley Park as a cryptographer. Dennis Wheatley produced a series of Crime Dossiers, such as Murder off Miami. However, I never knew that ‘Billy Butlin, an entrepreneur as keen on self-promotion as Wheatley, tried in vain to persuade him to set a dossier in a Butlin’s holiday camp. However, in 1954, John Creasey had his series character Hon. Richard Rollison investigate the disappearance of three ‘Redcoats’ from a camp Phwelli in The Toff at Butlin’s and even gave Billy Butlin a cameo role in the story.’

Chapter 18 Locked Rooms: ‘Impossible Crime’ Mysteries

The opening of this chapter was another highlight, as I really enjoyed finding out the backstory of Stacey Bishop’s Death in the Dark, a bad impossible crime novel, penned by George Antheil, after the premiere of his Ballet Mecanique in 1927 at Carnegie Hall, went completely wrong. This book was supposed to be revenge. One of the people he blamed was Donald Friede who produced the performance. Martin writes that:

‘Friede learned the truth but put a brave face on it in his autobiography, saying that Antheil “came to hate me so very much that . . . he wrote a detective story about me, in the opening pages of which he had the reader discover me dead . . . In the balance of the book he managed to kill my mother, my wife, and my brother, as well as a psychiatrist whom he had met through me. It was a very thorough job . . .’’’

Well at least Antheil did not try to put the book into practice!

Naturally, John Dickson Carr is discussed quite a bit in this chapter, and I found it interesting the reason why he did not try to repeat the ending of The Burning Court in his later books, despite Anthony Boucher encouraging him to do so. Apparently, he said that if he did, his ‘faithful customers would murder me.’

Bad Title Choice: In this instance it is a bad subtitle choice. Virgil Markham’s Shock! is a suitably concise title, its subtitle is decidedly not… ‘The Mystery of the Fate of Sir Anthony Veryan’s Heirs in Kestrel’s Eyrie Castle Near the Coast of Wales, Now Set Down from the Information Supplied by the Principle [sic] Surviving Actors and Witnesses.’

Chapter 19 The Long Arm of the Law: Early Police Stories

Want to know what it was like being a police officer in the early 20th century? Then this is a great chapter to give you a flavour of the adventures police inspectors could find themselves on, making trips as far flung as Argentina! You can also find out how a mystery novel influenced the WW2 military plan, Operation Mincemeat.  I enjoyed Martin’s exploration of how GAD mysteries chart the negative responses to Hendon Police College recruits, such as in some of the mysteries written by Henry Wade.

Chapter 20 Blood-Simple: Dashiell Hammett

Did Dashiell Hammett kill a man who stood up for miners’ rights? Well, he did tell such a colourful story to a girlfriend, though Martin questions its truthfulness. An egg or two may have been added to the pudding… Martin looks at Hammett’s reviewing of crime fiction and he suggests it is less commonly known ‘perhaps because it does not fit the narrative spun by those who regard a love of hardboiled crime fiction as incompatible with a taste for intricate whodunits’ that Creasey enjoyed a number of traditional mysteries, from authors such as J. J. Connington and H. C. Bailey. Fans of the work of Sara Paretsky may be interested to find out in this chapter how Hammett’s stories influenced her. Martin records Paretsky’s comment that ‘if Sam Spade had never existed, neither would V. I. Warshawski.’

Chapter 21 Murder and its Motives: True Crime

F. Tennyson Jesse is another author whose work I am aware of, but whose life story I was unfamiliar with. I had to clutch my hands when I read of what happened when she stuck her hand out of a plane window to wave! British understatement was certainly at the fore when she later reflected upon her accident: ‘it got stuck. It didn’t really hurt. I pushed my hand back into my lap and watched fascinated as a pool of blood reached to my knees.’ Ouch!

Chapter 22 Twists of Fate: Francis Iles and ironic Crime Fiction

What would you do if the husband of your landlady murdered his wife because he thought she was cheating on him with you? Well in the case of William Plomer the answer was to write a mystery novel about it! I will leave you to discover how this opening story contains a twist of irony.

I am a fan of the work of Francis Iles, C. S. Forester (psychological crime novels, not Hornblower) and Donald Henderson, amongst others, so it was great to be able to read more about their work, but also discover new authors to track down, (see below). Moreover, I was interested to read about the precursors to Anthony Berkeley’s mysteries such as James Hilton’s The Dawn of Reckoning and The House by the River by A. P. Herbert. This latter story focuses on ‘what will happen to Stephen Byrne, who kills a pretty housemaid by mistake when she rebuffs his advances. He disposes of the corpse in the Thames, helped by a friend, who becomes the prime suspect. The irony of the story’s ending was echoed in many later novels as Herbert left it to others to explore the fallibility of conventional justice through crime fiction.’  

Book I Would Like to Track Down to Read: Crime in Reverse by John de Navarre Kennedy. ‘Nicholas Chetwynd K.C. accepts the brief to defend Eric Ricardo, who is accused of murdering a private detective called Makin. But we know from the start that Chetwynd himself is the killer.’

Endnote Highlights: Mind Your Own Murder by Yolanda Foldes, a mystery I really love, gets a mention! A mystery novel entitled All Fall Down, is also mentioned, which involves ‘a tyrannical bibliophile’ who ‘appears to have been crushed to death by an avalanche of books.’

Chapter 23 The Sound of Mystery: Radio Mysteries

This is a great chapter for finding out more about how early radio mysteries were produced, such as the Detection Club collaboration, The Scoop, as well as learn about the differences between British and American radio mysteries during the mid-20th century.

Chapter 24 In Lonely Rooms: Raymond Chandler

The highlight of this chapter for me was Martin’s discussion of Chandler’s nonfiction work, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, as I felt he provided a much more even-handed commentary on it: ‘No essay about the genre has exerted as much influence or been quoted as often. Through sheer verve of advocacy, Chandler disguised the holes in his case. For all his talk about realism, Marlowe is himself a fantasy figure […] Chandler is often misrepresented as despising the traditional detective story, but he admired a range of Golden Age writers, including Austin Freeman and Crofts, and regarded Philip MacDonald as the writer with “best natural charm”.’

Chapter 25 Brothers in Crime: Patrick and Bruce Hamilton

If I had to predict the topics for each chapter in this book, the Hamilton brothers would not have been one of my suggestions. However, Martin makes an excellent case for their inclusion. Their dysfunctional relationship is fascinating from a psychological point of view and Martin makes the interesting claim that ‘the Hamilton brothers represent a missing link in the story of crime fiction as it evolved from the cerebral puzzles that dominated the Golden Age into a post-war preoccupation with psychological darkness.’ I have read at least one of Bruce Hamilton’s later mysteries from the 1950s, and I have to admit to finding it dull. So it was interesting to read about his earlier writings from the 1930s which seem far less traditional and which also provide further evidence for the variety of crime novels being published in that decade. His work includes a murderous goalkeeper as well as a dentist with deadly intentions.

Chapter 26 Cracks in the Wall: Georges Simenon and European Crime Fiction

Another chapter with another gripping opening narrative. How much did Georges Simenon know about the death of his friend from the social group, ‘La Caque’ (drugs, drink, and sex, but no rock and roll). Martin does not suggest murder, but did a prank go wrong? Georges Simenon’s work does not appeal to me, despite multiple experiences of it, but I really enjoyed Martin’s exploration of his personality. I felt a real sense of his egotistical and self-promoting nature.

Chapter 27 Sensation in Court: Legal Mysteries

Erle Stanley Gardner unsurprisingly takes centre stage in this chapter, and I liked finding out about his approach to writing fiction. Quantity was definitely no problem for him! Speed seems to have been a priority, as he is quoted as saying that ‘If I couldn’t get a plot within thirty seconds, I thought I was slipping.’ For those familiar with his Perry Mason stories, you might also be interested to learn about an earlier series character, Speed Dash, a ‘“human fly detective” with a photographic memory.’ This chapter also includes an interesting example of the trend for stupid lawsuits.

Chapter 28 California Dreaming: Crime Writers and Hollywood

The main thing which sticks in my mind from this chapter is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? What remains with me, from this 1935 mystery, is Martin’s discussion of its background, dance marathons in Hollywood. The concept sounds quite fun until you realise the reality of them and the poverty which fuelled them. Martin writes:

‘Dance marathons were a Depression-era forerunner of reality television shows and The Hunger Games. Contestants desperate for food, shelter and the chance of a cash prize danced until they dropped to provide cheap entertainment for voyeurs with a taste for sadism. Sleep deprivation became a spectator sport. One woman in Seattle attempted suicide after dancing for nineteen days and only making fifth place in the contest. A young man in New York State who danced for eighty-seven hours without a break died of heart failure.’

Whilst this was by no means the only sad episode mentioned in this book, this one touched much more deeply.

Chapter 29 Carnival of Crime: Mystery and the Macabre

The author who interested me the most in this chapter was Fredric Brown, who seems to have proposed to his wife via letter, having never met her before!

Chapter 30 Waking Nightmares: Noir Fiction

The two authors this chapter left me eager to try were the writing duo Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau and Catherine Arley.

Chapter 31 Dagger of the Mind: Casebook Novels

The influence of The Woman in White’s makes a reappearance in this chapter with the discussion of the writings of Vera Caspary. I am not someone who goes out of their way to read biographies, but this chapter, like many of the others, provided interesting information about Caspary’s life story, such as her political disillusionment with communism, which pushed her into mystery fiction writing, as well as her connections to the Leopold and Loeb case.

Book I Would Like to Track Down to Read: Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock.

Chapter 32 Whose Body?: Whowasdunins: Mysteries about the Victim’s Identity

This was a chapter with a lot of familiar faces, but fortunately they were authors whose work I enjoy such as Leo Bruce, Anthony Berkeley, J. C. Masterman and Bernice Carey.

Book I Would Like to Track Down: Death Has a Past by Anita Boutell. ‘Odious Claudia Hetherton summons five female family members to her country house. We know from the start that one person is shot, and the other person commits suicide after writing a short confession. Again the questions are: who killed whom, and why?’

Chapter 33 Private Wounds: Transitioning from the Golden Age

Martin made an interesting and sound choice in using Nicholas Blake, as an example of an author’s work which evolved as mystery writing styles changed. I knew a little about his life, but it was helpful to have the further details Martin offers in this chapter and how they fed into his later writing from the 1950s, especially A Private Wound. This was influenced by his own infidelity at the start of WW2, which led to the birth of a son.

Margery Allingham is another author focused upon in this chapter and I enjoyed reading Martin’s argument concerning her ability to adapt ‘more readily than most of her Detection Club colleagues to the nuclear age.’ He includes an interesting point raised by Jane Stevenson, a historian, that a recurrent theme in Allingham’s work is how individuals react to a changing world:

‘The question that always interests her most is “why”. Her plotting is a device to express character . . . She must have been one of the first writers to observe the alienating potential of tower blocks, even while the concrete was still setting in the first wave of post war town planning. “It’s not quite like a street,” says a policeman in The China Governess, contemplating a tower-block corridor. “A lot can happen without the neighbours knowing.” Equally, she was the first mass market British writer to involve computers in a plot, as early as 1952 – a Hollerith, in fact, the punch-card precursor to true computers.’

I was surprised to discover that this precursor is mentioned in The Tiger in the Smoke, as that is a detail that must have past me by when I read the book.

Chapter 34 Out of this World: Traditional Detective Fiction Evolves in the United States

Many of you will know that Ellery Queen was the penname for two cousins: Manny Lee and Fred Dannay. I knew they started to have more pronounced creative differences as their careers progressed, but I never realised how volatile their relationship was before reading this chapter. Martin, for example, records this message that Lee sent to Dannay:

‘We are two howling maniacs in a single cell, trying to tear each other to pieces. Each suspects the other of the most horrible crimes . . . We ought never to speak . . . until someday, mercifully, we both drop dead and end the agony.’

This chapter explores how ‘after the Second World War, literary critics buried the Golden Age detective novel; it seemed like a body in a building bombed in the Blitz’ and that ‘readers craved fiction in keeping with the zeitgeist and so did a new generation of writers.’ In this discussion he looks at how writers such as Lee and Dannay adapted, but also weaves into the narrative new writers who were emerging.  

Chapter 35 Perfect Murders: Crime and the End of Empire

Australian crime fiction is the starting point of this chapter with a look at the time when Arthur Upfield’s discussion of his upcoming novel with work colleagues, inspired one friend to kill three times. I was pleased to come across a new-to-me author, Paul McGuire, although it is a shame that Patricia Carlon, Margot Neville, and Constance and Gwenyth Little don’t get a mention. Thankfully, June Wright, is discussed later in the book! The chapter then looks at mysteries set in Africa and the Middle East, before moving on to India.

Chapter 36 Mind Games: Post-war Psychological Suspense

What links a tragic car accident with an Edgar award winning novel? This is one of the questions this chapter answers. The biographical details about authors’ lives dovetail effectively with the information about their books.

Chapter 37 Deep Water: Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s love of snails kicks this chapter off and I got to relive the eww moment when I read again about her method of transporting them out of the country. Strangers on a Train is naturally talked about, and I enjoyed finding out the literary precursors to this novel’s central premise – people committing each other’s murders, in a bid to avoid police detection. My only criticism of this chapter is that I noticed that yet again Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is used as a modern-day crime novel reference point. By this stage in the book this mystery story had been referred to several times, and I guess I just felt it might have been more interesting if sometimes an alternative text could have been selected.

Chapter 38 Forking Paths: Borges and Postmodernism

I very much enjoyed finding out more about Jorges Luis Borges and how he got into writing crime stories. Who knew an infected cut could have such creative consequences? I have been wanting to read his short story collection, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, for a while now, so it was great to find out more about it: ‘Parodi is introduced in ‘The Twelve Figures of the World’ as a victim of a miscarriage of justice, which, for the authors, typifies corruption in Argentina. Fourteen years ago, he was sent to prison for a murder he did not commit, and never leaves his cell. He proves to be a master of armchair detection, solving the weird problems brought to him.’

Chapter 39 Bloody Murder: Julian Symons and Crime Fiction Criticism

This was a chapter that I got a lot from. For example, I really enjoyed finding out about the friendship between John Creasey and Julian Symons, which initially blossomed during the early days of the Crime Writers Association, but then drastically disintegrated due to their differing opinions over reviewing crime fiction. When Symons began to review mysteries for The Sunday Times, in Creasey’s eyes, Symons had been given an opportunity to be more supportive of and helpful towards the crime writing community. Julian Symons took a different view. He aimed:

‘to make distinctions in my column, to abandon the alkaline flatness of most writing about crime stories in favour of something sharper, sometimes even picric. The good should be praised, the eccentric tolerated, the bad excoriated, especially if a well-regarded name was on the title page.’

Martin adds that the opinion Symons held that ‘different levels of writing existed was something John did not understand, and that his books should stay unreviewed, or be reviewed caustically, really upset him.’

Naturally, as a blogger this debate interests me a lot and I think it is one which is still pertinent today in the current blogosphere, in which publishing negative reviews is discouraged as “mean” or against promoting “book love.” Conversely, there are also some who have the bizarre idea that it is appropriate to bring their negative review to the attention of the author who wrote the book. Two very extreme poles in play, neither of which I agree with. I don’t believe you should tag an author into your 1-star review on Twitter, but nor do I think you should not be allowed to write a negative review in the first place. A blog full of only 5 out of 5 reads just seems un-realistic. Taste is not universal, but you should be allowed to state why a book did not work for you and to describe your experience of reading the book. To not to be allowed to do that is to write out of blogging a significant chunk of your reading experience. Moreover, also stating why a book did not work for you, can show other people why they might like it. Reflecting on my own blog, I think I have gained a better appreciation of what I like and why because I have been prepared to write negative reviews, and ‘to make distinctions’ between books.

Suffice to say John Creasey did not take well to Symons’ approach to reviewing and Martin talks about how he tried to get Symons kicked out of the CWA!

Did You Know? Ngaio Marsh gave Julian Symons the title for his Sherlock Holmes themed mystery, A Three Pipe Problem.

Martin engagingly, yet concisely explores Symons views on the differences between the detective story and the crime novel, which I found interesting. My interest was also piqued with the names of the female crime authors Symons championed such as Margot Bennett, Patricia Highsmith, Shelley Smith, Margaret Millar and Mary Kelly. This in turn provided a springboard for a great discussion on whether it is better to eschew or embrace a series model when writing crime fiction.

Endnote Highlight: I had to laugh out loud when Martin described Edmund Wilson as ‘the Captain Hastings of literary critics!’

Chapter 40 People with Ghosts: Post-war Private Investigators and the Legacy of Vietnam

Whilst I am aware of the impact WW1 and WW2 had on crime fiction writing, I had never considered before the legacy the Vietnam War held for this genre, so I was glad Martin brought this to my attention.

Chapter 41 Killing Jokes: Comedy and Crime

Craig Rice is another author who makes my favourites list, so I enjoyed reading in more detail about her life story, which seems to have been blighted by self-destructive behaviour, a trait which interestingly crops up a lot in the lives of the American writers mentioned in this book.

Did You Know? Craig Rice was ‘the first crime writer to feature on the cover of Time magazine.

I enjoy a lot of comic crime authors, so this was a good chapter for me, and I liked how Martin explores the challenges of writing humorous crime fiction.

Did You Know? At one of her weddings, Craig Rice carried a copy of her novel The Lucky Stiff down the aisle and ‘the top tier of the wedding cake was circled by a string of miniature skulls.’

Book I Would Like to Track Down to Read: The Smiling Corpse by Philip Wylie and B. A. Bergman.

Chapter 42 Literary Agents: Post-war Spy Fiction

I don’t think anyone would be blamed for concluding, after reading this chapter, that most of MI5 and MI6 seems to have written at least one spy novel at some point! A lot of names were familiar, but there were many that were not. It was interesting to read about how literary opinion clashed with the commercial success of the James Bond novels, as well as how John le Carré’s crime writing led to a rift in his friendship with John Bingham, who was a fellow crime writer and work colleague.

Did You Know? Three other pennames suggested to David Cornwell, before he adopted the le Carré pseudonym were Jean Sanglas, Chunk Smith, and Hank Brown.

Chapter 43 Nerve: Adventure Novels and Thrillers

This was another useful chapter for filling in gaps in my own knowledge, this time concerning the negative life events which propelled Dick Francis into crime writing.

Chapter 44 Outsider in Amsterdam: Dutch Crime

In this chapter you can follow the intrepid route Jan Willem Lincolin van de Wetering took to writing crime fiction as a career, (I don’t think many crime fiction authors can say they were a Buddhist monk in Japan for a year), as well as learn about the pitfalls of killing off your really successful series character and why the Dutch National Forensic Biometric System is known as HAVANK.

Chapter 45 Whodunwhat?: Theatrical Murder

Murder on the stage is a ginormous topic, but I felt Martin did a good job of curating what information made the chapter and what did not. With his use of anecdotes, I felt the writers and plays included, were given a personal touch. I particularly enjoyed discovering what Anthony Shaffer did after he dined with Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan one night, as well as learning about the different murder mystery plays which had interactive elements for their audiences.  

Chapter 46 Black and Blue: British Police Fiction

Police procedurals are not my favourite type of mystery to read, but again Martin lured me into the chapter with John Wainwright’s decision to not commit perjury as a police officer; a decision which led him down the road to writing crime fiction.

Chapter 47 Home Discomforts: Domestic Suspense

A chapter beginning with Celia Fremlin is guaranteed to grab my attention and despite enjoying her work a lot, I did not know much about her early life, so I was intrigued to find out more. I was pleased that her novel Appointment with Yesterday was included, as it is possibly my favourite book written by her, yet it is often overlooked in current discussions of her work. Even more pleasing for me was that this chapter was filled to the rafters with favourite authors of mine including June Wright, Edna Sherry, Jean Potts, Evelyn Berckman, Lucille Fletcher and Charlotte Armstrong. My only criticism of this chapter, aside from another Gone Girl reference, was that it was not long enough. I definitely could have read much more on this topic.

Chapter 48 Mystery Games: East Asian detective Fiction

This is an ideal chapter, if like me, your knowledge in Chinese and Japanese detective fiction is patchy, as these are the two countries predominantly focused upon, although Taiwan and Korean also get a mention. This is a chapter jam packed with information, including on how Golden Age Detective fiction writers influenced crime writing in Asia, and it also serves as a useful jumping off point for those wanting to dive in to reading such literary waters.

Chapter 49 Early Graves: Difference and Diversity

One of the themes in this chapter is how racism and antisemitism has appeared in crime fiction. How Chinese people were depicted in earlier mysteries is one of the strands of this discussion, taking in “Yellow Peril” stories and Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels. I think Martin’s handling of this subject is sensitive, yet I thought it a shame that he did not mention Juanita Sheridan’s quartet of mysteries featuring Lily Wu, since she is considered to be the first series Chinese female sleuth in detective fiction. Her absence from the chapter partially skews the picture of how Chinese characters were depicted in the mid-20th century. A key feature of her portrayal in the books is that she is not burdened with having to speak English in a stereotypical fashion. Nevertheless, it was good to see Martin bringing up ageism and how disabilities are presented in mystery fiction too, as well as mental health issues.

Chapter 50 A Suitable Job for a Woman: Women Writing about Private Investigators

In this chapter you can find out which author started their literary career when they were ruminating over ways to murder their second husband who they were divorcing and in a custody battle with, as well as discover which bestselling author spent millions trying to prove their Jack the Ripper theory is the correct one. Whether they succeeded is open to debate…

Chapter 51 A Feeling for Snow: Scandinavian Crime Writing

Trying to balance content with comment is a tricky task and whilst I think this is achieved pretty well overall in the book, there are times such as in this chapter, where the narrative has more of a listing feel to it. However, I enjoyed finding out about more classic crime authors from Sweden and it was great to see Maria Lang and Hans Olav Lahlum discussed.

Chapter 52 Fatal Inversions: Ruth Rendell and Modern Psychological Suspense

Ruth Rendell’s life was another topic I did not know much about, and I very much enjoyed Martin’s exploration of it and how it threaded into her writing later. I also had to laugh when I read about the reason why her career in journalism ended so abruptly:

‘Her career came to an ignominious end when she failed to attend a tennis club dinner, but reported it as if she’d been there. Unfortunately, the guest speaker had dropped dead while giving his speech, and her failure to land the scoop spelled the end for her in journalism.’

Did You Know? Jacqueline Wilson started out trying to make her mark in crime fiction before turning to a career in children’s fiction.

Chapter 53 Dark Places: American Police Fiction

This chapter reminded me of two things. One that I really want to try something by Lawrence Treat, such as V as in Victim and two that I am an overly wordy person. I had to feel for James Ellroy when he had to lose 200 pages from his first manuscript. Very much made me think of my university days!

Chapter 54 Long Shadows: Historical Crime

This is perhaps another chapter with a listing rather than commenting feel to it, but I enjoyed returning to the story of Anne Perry and the time when her involvement as a teenager in a murder came to light years later. This chapter also reminded me of the need to try something by Melville Davisson Post and I was pleased to find that Boris Akunin had made the cut and got a mention too.

Chapter 55 A Taste for Death: P. D. James and the Truth about Human Character and Experience

P. D. James was one of the authors I tried early on when I got into reading mystery fiction, and whilst my reading tastes have changed since then, I found something quite nostalgic in following Martin’s journey through her books. He also touches upon her nonfiction title, Talking about Detective Fiction and again unlike some writers, he is prepared to challenge her opinions on authors such as Agatha Christie. Martin concludes with a look towards the future of the crime novel, wryly noting how its demise has been predicted multiple times in the past. He’s pretty confident it is here to stay!

Final Thoughts

Overall, I would say Martin achieves the aims he set out for this project. He certainly delivers ‘the story of fiction’s most popular genre,’ as his book successfully shows itself to be entertaining as well as informative. His overlapping structure also helped him to trace ‘the development of the crime story’ and his novelistic techniques ensure that his desire to explore ‘events that shaped the lives of crime writers and their work’ enliven every chapter. Whilst his book has to cover a lot of familiar ground to attain the previously mentioned goals, I think Martin does bring new information to the party and contains it within one easily accessible volume. At points I would have liked to have seen Martin’s opinions more overtly on the page, but I appreciate that space restrictions may well have impacted his opportunities to do so. To cram so much in to one book is an incredible achievement!

Rating: 4.5/5

Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)

9 comments

  1. Bravo for managing such an informative and well laid out review. A lot of work and many readers should be grateful for such a large undertaking . A lot of food for thought .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. I write these reviews with myself in mind too, as it makes it easier for me to track down certain points I might want to remember in the future.

      Like

  2. Great blog review (although I’ve appreciated the others, too). Couldn’t get this in US until August but Book Depository came through again and it should be slogging across the great Atlantic and in my arms (I’ve needed to up my workout routine anyway) in less than two weeks!

    Liked by 1 person

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