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MARTIN EDWARDS. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017).

09 Oct

The title of this wonderful volume is a misnomer in several respects. For one thing, the book doesn’t actually present a story. Instead, it compiles brief essays by Edwards on a wide range of crime, mystery, and detective novels (along with a handful of short-story collections) published between 1901 and 1950. Edwards groups the essays into 24 chapters that correspond to various themes, topics, and approaches—from “Murder at the Manor” to “Playing Politics,” from “Scientific Enquiries” to “Fiction from Fact”—and he introduces each chapter with an overview of how writers of the period treated that subject matter. These introductory essays buttress Edwards’s individual book selections with incisive, erudite commentary on the historical and literary context in which those books came to fruition. But, taken as a whole, the book falls short of providing any sort of narrative arc. For a story about crime writing during the early 20th century, readers must turn to an equally wonderful volume called The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story (2015), which Edwards wrote as well and to which this compilation serves as a sort of companion.

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For another thing, the phrase “of classic crime” suggests that Edwards has conducted a comprehensive tour of the field in question. In fact, his tour focuses overwhelmingly on British writers and on the decidedly British milieu in which their work emerged. Of the 24 chapters, one features American writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Ellery Queen, and one features non-English-language writers such as Georges Simenon and Jorge Borges. Although the book choices here are apt and intriguing, they also have a random quality and smack just a little of tokenism. Maybe the publisher, eager to market this title beyond the United Kingdom, urged Edwards to include a small quota of yanks and other foreigners. In any event, fully embracing the parochial nature of his project might have been a wiser option. Implicitly, the book makes a powerful case for staying close to (Edwards’s) home. This case runs as follows: The modern detective story, though invented in the United States by Edgar Allan Poe, was gloriously reinvented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by men and women who lived and wrote on the other side of the Atlantic. They took a form originally designed for deploying tricks and delivering thrills, and they remade it as a vehicle for embodying and exploring a broad slice of British social life.

For yet another thing, the claim to cover the field of classic crime “in 100 books” is far too modest. Throughout this survey, and particularly in the chapter introductions, Edwards discusses dozens of other works. Clearly, he has steeped himself in a vast literature, and that deep store of knowledge has equipped him to curate an array of books that encompasses both well-known cornerstone titles and obscure gems. The scale and scope of this effort reinforces the case for giving sustained attention to British crime writers of the classic era. These writers, Edwards demonstrates, left behind a body of work marked by great richness and variety. They took steps, and indeed they took risks, that are supposedly the exclusive province of mainstream or “literary” fiction. They plumbed the quandaries of the human psyche (by, for example, taking readers inside the minds of murderers as well as detectives). They dissected the workings of society (by, for example, probing the underside of middle-class respectability from multiple angles). They experimented with narrative structure (by, for example, producing “inverted” tales that identify a culprit upfront and then recount the discovery process that leads to his or her undoing). To be sure, they created and followed certain formulas—the unbreakable alibi, the locked-and-barred room, the closed set of suspects. Yet an impressive number of them stand out for their willingness to test and tweak such formulas.

Fittingly, the last writer featured in this compendium is Julian Symons, a novelist and critic whose most notable contribution to the genre was his authorship of Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972). Symons in that book traced the ebb and flow of an entire literary tradition—its overall course and its various tributaries—and many of his summary judgments have solidified into conventional wisdom. When it came to British crime writing in the early 20th century, he argued (or at least implied) that its practitioners consisted mainly of rule-bound puzzle-setters and “humdrum” plodders. Edwards, first in Golden Age of Murder and now in this book, has deconstructed that narrow frame of understanding and replaced it with a far more expansive view.

 

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2018 in British, Golden Age, Nonfiction

 

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