The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, by Martin Edwards (2017)

StoryofClassicCrime_Website-350x525When I talk about a reference book such as this, it’s not common for me to first tell you about my emotional reactions upon first reading it. One doesn’t usually, after all, have an emotional reaction to a reference book. But if you’ll pardon me for a minute, I’ll get a little personal and nostalgic.

Back in the 1970s, I was a teenager who spent a lot of time reading everything and anything in the way of genre fiction that I could get my hands on. I read Erle Stanley Gardner and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Robert Bloch and dozens — hundreds — more writers. Paperback originals, series characters, comic books, novelizations, all were meat and drink to me. Then one day I came upon a copy of Bloody Murder (From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel), (1972) a reference book by the late great Julian Symons, and it was a profound experience.

Up until then, I had learned — by listening to teachers and librarians — that literary fiction was worthy of scholarly attention but science fiction, detective fiction, horror, and other genres were not. A librarian at a former school had led a campaign to get Nancy Drew out of the school library, for instance, because it was “trash”. But here was Symons, obviously an intelligent, well-read, and scholarly writer, and he was taking detective fiction seriously. And if I read everything that he had read and talked about, I too could be seen to be taking detective fiction seriously (and perhaps somehow get to make a decent living doing it, although I confess that never happened).

I remember reading and re-reading that book, seeing how Symons talked about the history of the genre and where various books and authors fit into it as it moved forward. I began to understand the grand sweep of the genre and I began to develop my first primitive critical instincts; I already knew what I liked and disliked, and now I was starting to figure out why I felt that way. And Symons gave me lists of books and authors that would enable me to read in a guided way, to help me read more of what I was liking and avoid with foreknowledge the books I wouldn’t like.

I’m not sure I can even describe the emotions that Bloody Murder provoked in me when I first read it; a sense that it was not only me who liked these books and took them seriously, but there were others out there as well who could be my friends. I do know, though, that when I embarked upon my current topic, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, I had a strange surge of emotion. Because I realized that somewhere, in some small town in England or North America or somewhere where English is spoken and read, some young person is picking up this book from a library shelf or as a gift from an intelligent aunt/uncle, and becoming inspired by the grand sweep of Golden Age detective fiction. That young person is about to acquire a lifelong habit of reading, and has a scheme of books that she can follow to guide her towards books she will like and away from books she won’t. And I can envision her in her bed reading this volume late into the night and making mental notes about which books to start looking for first.

If you’re still with me — my apologies. As I said, it’s not common to talk about how a reference book made you feel. But honestly, I had a kind of thrill when I read this book (which, for the sake of space, I’ll shorten to Classic Crime); not only for the nostalgic reasons noted above, but because it is a better book for the purpose than Symons’. This is a book that I never thought of writing, but might have done; there is no need now, because Martin Edwards has done a better job than I ever could. This is the book I would have sent from the future to my younger self to guide and shape my reading for decades to come.

Decades after acquiring my copy of Bloody Murder, I’m a very, very well read fan of classic detective fiction. In a way, Classic Crime is written not only for that teenager or neophyte of whatever age who wants to know what to read next, but also for me; someone who’s read perhaps 95% of the books mentioned here and very much wants to read the other 5% immediately.  Let me tell you, as someone who is known in a small way as an expert — Martin Edwards is an expert’s expert. I know of very few people who can speak authoritatively about such a wide range of books and authors, but Mr. Edwards knows whereof he speaks. He didn’t just read about these books, he read them. He has read in depth; he has read in breadth. He understands what he’s read; he is convincing about its relative merits and/or flaws. He has the knack of being able to sum up what he’s read in a few sentences, which is tough, and he has a lively and engaging writing style that communicates the pleasure he finds in this genre in an intelligent way. I learned a few things, and got pointers to a few books and authors that I haven’t yet tracked down but intend to.

Perhaps the most worthwhile thing he has done, in this book of many virtues, is crystallized a number of sub-genres into easy groups — a kind of skeleton or schema for how to look at detective fiction. Chapter topics like “country house mysteries” or “impossible crimes” … I’m tempted to give you my bullet points that described each of the 24 chapters in a few words. I think, though, that it would improve your knowledge of how Golden Age detective fiction fits together to make that experiment yourself. It amused me to speculate that, like the Crime Club symbols of old, someone should produce 24 little emoji that link a book to a specific sub-genre of the 24 he outlines. It would simplify the GAD reviewer’s task immensely 😉

Of course there are things that Edwards says with which I disagree; frankly, that’s half the fun of a book like this. “Why, that’s not the volume he should have chosen to represent such-and-such author!” What it really provoked in me was the desire to buy the author a beer and sit down for an hour or two in a pub to hear why he chose what he chose, and perhaps argue for my own substitutions. I’m not going to say he’s actually wrong about anything; his opinion occasionally varies from mine and it would be fun to hash it out and maybe learn something, or change my mind. To be honest it would be fun to sit down over a beer with anyone who’s read most of the books described here.

Although one of the flaws that badly dated Julian Symons’ work was that he tried to predict the future of crime fiction (and, unfortunately, missed the mark by a long shot), I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction. This incredibly well-done volume should win every award for non-fiction of its year in both the American and British detective fiction awards — and if not, I’d like to know what can beat it.  A magnificent achievement and one that should be on the reference shelf of every single one of my readers.

I get no financial benefit from this; here is a link to Edwards’ American publishers, which link has the added advantage of a long excerpt from the introduction that should whet your appetite.  Buy a copy of Classic Crime in 100 Books immediately for yourself; pay it forward and buy one for any 15-year-old ferocious reader of mysteries you know. I’m looking for an opportunity to get a signed copy and shake the author’s hand in person.  And buy him that beer!

 

10 thoughts on “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, by Martin Edwards (2017)

  1. lesblatt says:

    Noah, Martin is frequently in attendance at some (not all) of the major mystery conferences. I don’t know if he’ll be at Left Coast Crime 2018, which will be in Reno, Nevada – at the moment, he’s not listed – but he will be at Malice Domestic in April (though that’s a lot farther away for you – in Bethesda, MD). I assure you that Martin would enjoy that drink as much as you would – he’s every bit as gracious in person as he is in print.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I never attend mystery conferences or indeed most other gatherings of more than a few people; I’m very much a homebody and I hate, hate, hate traveling. If I ever do get that beer it will be downright miraculous ;-). Maybe I’ll summon up my courage and ask him to sign a copy for me if I handle the postage to and from.

      • lesblatt says:

        Remind me when we get closer to the end of next April for Malice Domestic – I’m sure he’d be delighted to sign a copy for you. We’ll talk…

  2. Paula S S Carr says:

    This really is a reference book, although I read it straight through like a novel. It’s one I’ll keep forever. It is so handy! I did have a few quibbles, as you did, with particular works chosen. But it’s an awesome book. I haven’t read Symons (read ABOUT it forever), and even with your caveats, I’ve ordered a copy to read. Thanks!

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Bloody Murder is a very useful book and Symons was a very well read aficionado — but yes, there are some issues. He is clear that he prefers what he calls the “crime novel” to the “detective story” and my preferences are quite the opposite. And he completely misread the future path of the genre, thinking that espionage novels would continue to be important (and he missed the burgeoning of the cozy completely, although to be fair he had no reason to suspect its rise).

  3. JJ says:

    What’s delightful for we GAD nuts is that Edwards, unlike Symons, is a massive fanboy of GAD as well — a sort of double-whammy, because not only does the book exits to revel in it, but it does so from the shared perspective of love for the genre. Oh, heaven! That said, I’m still yet to read Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, but your enthusiasm and joy here is making me eye it up on my bookshelves, wondering how it’s remained unread for this long…

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Golden Age of Murder is also wonderful and deserved all the awards it received … I love it when an intelligent writer can balance hard fact and well-founded opinion with the occasional hint of scandal 😉
      And your TBR pile will grow and swell even further, I’m sure.

  4. I’d be very interested to hear a few of your thoughts on the books that missed out, or the books that you feel weren’t the correct choice. It’s such disagreements that make all of this conversation fun.

    Kate’s review of this book over on Cross Examining Crime had me really interested in looking into Patricia Carlon. Have you read any of her books?

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Patricia Carlon was entirely new to me and it’s a fascinating story, in that her publishers, etc., didn’t know she was profoundly deaf until after she died.
      The only specific disagreement I had offhand that I can recall was that I didn’t think She Had To Have Gas was the most representative Rupert Penny novel; I would have said Sealed Room Murder but I recognize that would have overlapped with the “impossible crimes” category. Perhaps Sweet Poison would have been better. But like I said, there are no “wrong” answers, merely differences of opinion.

  5. Christine says:

    Very much with you on this, Noah. I have had the opportunity to talk with Martin about GA fiction and very enjoyable it was – I hope you get the chance one day.

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