Review published on July 13, 2017.
Martin Edwards’ latest nonfiction book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, serves as a companion volume to the British Library’s excellent Crime Classics series and it aims to tell the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. While the so-called “Golden Age” of detective fiction (that is, roughly, the period between the two world wars) is very well-known (and is itself the subject of another great book by Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder), the period said to encompass classic crime fiction actually extends quite far beyond that timeframe. Of course, defining a classic in any genre is a tricky business, but for the purposes of this book, a crime classic is “a novel or story collection published between 1901 and 1950 which seems … to remain of particular interest – for whatever reason – to present-day lovers of detective fiction.” Using such an expansive definition when selecting the titles to include in this book means that Edwards has been able to feature an amazing range of books that highlight the best (and, occasionally, the worst) of the crime genre.
As The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is intended to discuss the development of the crime genre as well as to illustrate its startling breadth and significance, it is organised thematically rather than in a straightforward chronological fashion, with each of the twenty-four chapters being dedicated to a particular facet of classic crime fiction. For instance, the “Murder at the Manor” chapter concerns the hugely popular strand of detective stories that take place within English country houses. Such a setting allows for a closed circle of suspects, which certainly helps armchair detectives to keep pace with the investigations of their fictional counterparts, and provides a perfect backdrop for the time-honoured final chapter denouncement that was used so well by authors such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.
Each chapter begins with an overview of its theme, which allows Edwards to reference a host of germane books, before moving on to look at several key titles in detail (albeit without venturing into spoiler territory). For example, the “Multiplying Murders” chapter, which concerns the arrival of serial killers within crime fiction, includes tantalising references to books such as Before the Fact by Francis Iles, The Silk Stockings Murders by Anthony Berkley and The Sweepstake Murders by J.J. Connington in addition to a detailed exploration of Christopher Bush’s The Perfect Murder Case, Francis Beeding’s Death Walks in Eastrepps, Martin Porlock’s X v. Rex, J. Jefferson Farjeon’s The Z Murders and Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders.
One of the joys of the British Library’s growing collection of classic crime anthologies is the inclusion, alongside works by still famous authors, of lost treasures by authors who were once at the pinnacle of their genre but who have now been largely forgotten. Happily, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books adopts a similar approach by mixing discussion of well-known books with that concerning far more obscure titles. Indeed, due to the thematic approach, in addition to the 100 key titles that are discussed, approximately another 700 crime books are referenced, so there’s pretty much no way readers (whether classic crime buffs or more casual fans) are going to escape without adding a considerable number of new books to their “to be purchased” lists. Some of the more obscure titles might currently prove costly and difficult to track down, but books such as The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books and the continuing popularity of reprints of classic stories will hopefully mean that they become more widely available again in the future.
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is a highly readable volume; it’s densely packed with information, anecdotes and recommendations, but Martin Edwards’ writing style is such that every snippet concerning every book or author is interesting and well told. The amount of research that must have gone into preparing the book is tremendous, since even when discussing extremely well-known books, he manages to include some surprising and little-known facts. For instance, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the most beloved of crime novels and it is arguably Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular book, but surly not many people know that the idea behind the story actually came from a journalist (and occasional crime writer) named Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who was at one time going to co-write the book (which would not have featured Sherlock Holmes) with Conan Doyle.
In addition to the text providing a wealth of fascinating information, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is a beautifully produced volume, which includes a fine selection of photographs of iconic book covers as well as some delightful maps and plans of [fictional] crime scenes. It really is a joy to read, whether cover to cover or on a more “dip in, dip out” basis. It’s definitely a “must have” book for anyone with an interest in classic crime fiction.
Erin Britton 5/5
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards
British Library Publishing 9780712356961 hbk Jun 2017