Category Archives: Nonfiction

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

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.


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


JUDITH FREEMAN. The Long Embrace (2007).

Subtitled “Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,” this unorthodox experiment in biography throws a wan but illuminating light into precisely those corners of Chandler’s life where the sources of his unique social and literary vision are to be found. What sets his corpus of novels about private eye Philip Marlowe apart from other varieties of detective fiction is the way that it blends acute strains of both cynicism and romanticism. LongEmbrace.jpg Chandler saw bottomless corruption everywhere. He saw it not only down those “mean streets” that he famously wrote about, but also up in the Hollywood Hills and behind the neat hedges of wealthy Pasadena estates. At the same time, he summoned the hope that a man might rise above that corruption—and that, somewhere in this tarnished realm, there might be a woman who was worthy of that man’s heroism. Freeman organizes her book around two areas of inquiry that other chroniclers of Chandler’s life have explored with less than complete thoroughness. First, she looks closely at the long string of dwellings (most of them furnished rental units) that the author occupied over the course of his time as a gimlet-eyed resident of Southern California. That pattern of rootless, restless living, she suggests, forms the experiential background to the wounded-lover’s contempt for Los Angeles that hangs over his work like a sheet of smog. Second, she gives particular focus to Chandler’s wife, Cissy, the twice-divorced older woman with whom he forged a troubled yet enduring domestic alliance that spanned three decades, from 1924 to 1954. That period encompasses the prime years of his writing career, the years when he produced the series of classic titles that begins with The Big Sleep (1939) and ends with The Long Goodbye (1953). In Freeman’s telling, Cissy came to function as the unlikely muse who inspired her husband to create the hard-boiled (albeit soft-hearted) Marlowe.

A novelist in her own right, Freeman treats this project as an encounter between one imaginative intelligence and another. Here, autobiography supports—and occasionally supplants—biography. Like Chandler, Freeman emigrated to L.A. as an adult, and for her, too, the city presents a kaleidoscopic array of doleful signs and strange wonders. In recounting her efforts to visit his numerous places of residence, she repeatedly draws links to the coordinates of her own residential history. At times, her narrative descends to the level of coyly sketched trivia (as when, for instance, she discusses her internal debate on whether to bother the current resident of an apartment that Chandler rented sixty-odd years ago). In the main, though, Freeman succeeds in aligning the spirit of a place with the soul of a man’s art. From the Bunker Hill neighborhood in downtown L.A. to the city’s Wilshire District, from Santa Monica to Redondo Beach, from Big Bear Lake to Palm Springs, she follows the points that marked her subject’s wandering journey, and she connects those dots by offering a wry and perceptive account of how Chandler emerged as the ambivalent bard of his adopted city. (A frontispiece compiled by Freeman features a map of greater Los Angeles on which she has tagged and labeled each of the sites that he called home.)

ChandlerHouse.jpg In the end, however, it’s not a place but rather a person who provides Freeman with her core theme. Before Chandler dreamed up Marlowe—that knight-errant sleuth, that latter-day Sir Galahad, that would-be rescuer of wronged womanhood—he lived out an actual rescue adventure by (as he saw it) rescuing Cissy from her unhappy second marriage. Chandler’s relationship to Cissy, according to Freeman, played a hitherto under-appreciated role in his gestation as a writer. Old enough to be his mother (she was 53, and he was 35, when they married), Cissy salved the yearning for a secure human connection that he hid within his very private and often very querulous temper. She served as a queenly presence in his home, wherever that home happened to be, and she gave him a reason to keep alive his aspirations of valor. Chandler, like Marlowe, held fast to a chivalric ideal that was out of sync with the tempo of mid-century L.A. Unlike his detective hero, he was able to yoke his life to that of someone he loved.

Heroes, alas, are a lonely bunch. It goes with the territory.

[ADDENDUM: This past weekend, I was in La Jolla, California, where Chandler resided during the final decade or so of his life, and I made a pilgrimage to the oceanside house that he bought there in 1946. In the yard outside the house, there’s a dedicatory plaque; I snapped a shot of it, and I’ve inserted that image in this post. A few years back, as Freeman explains in her book, the house underwent extensive remodeling. But while the structure is apparently quite different from the one in which Chandler lived and wrote, its setting—it faces the great gray Pacific, at a slightly cockeyed angle—remains the same.]


Posted by on December 13, 2012 in American, Hard-Boiled, Nonfiction