Martin Edwards –The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, The British Library, 2017
A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University of Belfast
Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017) offers a literary history of crime fiction of the first half of the 20th century, focusing mainly on the British tradition. The hardcover book is beautifully edited with an artfully designed cover and includes several high gloss pictures of different classic crime fiction book covers. Edwards, as a successful crime fiction author himself, has selected a wide variety of stories that cover the “Golden Age of Crime” of the thirties to the post-World War II crime fiction period.
The diversity of the crime genre is well represented in Edwards’ anthology. His carefully balanced selection points out the genre defining works such as Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (1939), but also many lesser known stories which offer an interesting change in narrative perspective or move away from the classic detective formula. For readers who are interested in classical crime fiction, the book offers new perspectives on well-known narratives as well as trivia about the behind-the-scenes lives of writers of the genre. Edwards’ work is a great way for both novices and experts of the genre to discover new stories from this period. This anthology of whodunit remains spoiler free, and Edwards keep the surprises of all the plots he succinctly presents intact for future readers. Edwards’ book is not only a great source for rediscovering classic but often almost forgotten detective stories. It also provides the reader with an illustrated history of the classic age of crime fiction as a genre. A selection of notable works, mainly British, starting with Doyle’s The Hound of Baskervilles (1902) and ending with The 31st of February (1950) by crime fiction writer and journalist Julian Symons, shows the different aspects of this classical period, inscribing it firmly within the first half of the 20th Century and anchoring it in a distinctively British cultural landscape. The book is structured in 24 chapters which follow roughly the chronological order of the works published. The first few chapters contextualize crime fiction writing in the early 20th century, the golden age and the early 1950’s. The majority of the later chapters follow the various approaches and tropes of classic, crime fiction, tracing the evolution of the genre, separating fiction from fact, exploring cosmopolitan crimes or the psychology of crime fiction. With his structure Edwards follows the different shifts in style in crime fiction writing through the century and provides a good overview of the genre. Each chapter starts with a general overview of the topic, before going into detail on the individual texts.
As an example, in Chapter One “A New Era Dawns”, Edward describes how after Sherlock Holmes’ alleged death on the Reichenbachfall in 1893, crime fiction authors were struggling to fill the vacuum and began to experiment with a variety of new types of detective characters. In this period some of the better-known female detectives were created, like Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910), the unlikely chief investigator, who only pursues her detective career to free her husband from Dartmore prison. However, not only did the characters change, but also the genre’s typical medium. Short stories, which were highly popular due to Doyle’s success, were gradually replaced by the detective novel that would become the predominant text form of the 20th century. The full length of a novel presented crime writers with the challenge to maintain the suspense and an air of mystery throughout the text and prompted them to emphasize more on long-term character development and a more complex plot.
In the more trope-oriented later chapters Edwards goes through a variety of topics and styles of crime fiction writing, for example, the psychological aspect of crime. With the rising public interest in psychoanalysis in 1920s, focusing on the behavior and psychology of the criminal became a popular trope within crime fiction writing. Certainly one of the first novels with a focus on the mind of the murderer appeared already, almost simultaneously with the first crime novel, Gaboriau’s L’Affaire Lerouge, in Fjodor Dostojewski Crime and Punishment (1866). There, the reader empathizes with the murderer Raskolnikov and his attempts to cover up his crime and escape justice. But Edwards shows that this kind of crime fiction, which focuses not on who did it, but rather on the depths and abysses of the human mind, found a deep resonance in the classic age, starting with The House by the River (1920) by A.P Herbert. Thus, with reference to works ranging from Anthony Berkeley’s The Second Shot (1930), to the highly popular The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) novels by Patricia Highsmith, Edwards describes the development and the rising success of the psychological crime story.
Overall Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books offers a varied and interesting selection of classic crime stories, displaying an extensive knowledge of the many individual titles presented. The expertise of the author and his passion for crime fiction writing is evident throughout the text and provides the reader with an interesting and rewarding inside view on the classic crime genre. The text is well structured, and the development of the genre can be traced throughout the book. Although in some cases it would have been interesting to know why exactly Edwards choose specific titles for the different chapters, as well as taking some more time to explain his thought process to the reader. Another small complaint is that Edwards as a crime fiction expert mainly focuses on British crime fiction and only devotes one chapter to the American branch of the genre. But to be fair the inclusion of the whole French and American tradition from 1900 onwards would most certainly require a much more extensive anthology than Edward can provide in his thoroughly enjoyable 280-page text. Save for this small criticism, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is a rewarding and entertaining read for anyone interested in the crime fiction genre and serves as a convenient guide for discovering unknown classic crime stories.
The book is part of the internationally acclaimed Classic Crime series of the British Library, which republishes a selection of previously hard to come by classic crime stories. Unfortunately, not all the stories discussed in Edwards’ book are part of the series, but readers who want easy access to classic crime fiction can find many popular titles there. The British Library classic series can be found here: https://www.bl.uk/shop/books-and-media/crime-classics/c-115
About the Author:
Martin Edwards is an award-winning crime writer best known for his Harry Devlin and Lake District novels. He is series consultant for British Library Crime Classics, Chair of the Crime Writers Association, and President of the Detection Club. The Golden Age of Murder, his study of the Detection Club, was published in 2015 and won several awards for the year´s best book about the crime genre. You can find our review here: https://internationalcrimefiction.org/2015/05/07/3514