Review of The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards


Don’t be fooled by the “The life of crime: detecting the history of mysteries and their creators.” Yes, that sounds daunting, with 55 substantial chapters, each followed by detailed endnotes in fine print; a 40-page index simply listing the books discussed; and an overall weight reminiscent of a college dictionary. As all detective story lovers know, appearances can be deceiving. Start reading this mystery novel story — from Poe to PD James — and you’ll soon find it hard to follow my heartfelt advice: Slow down and space out the book’s 724 pages so you can enjoy it for more than a few days.

Of course, I suppose your will is greater than mine. I got up late three nights in a row, eager to hear what Edwards would say about some of my favorite writers. As chairman of Britain’s almost legendary Detection Club, archivist of the Crime Writers’ Association, consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics and author of the award-winning book “The Golden Age of Murder,Among many other books, Edwards is today the leading English defender of mystery in all its forms. He is also a generous reviewer, acknowledging how much he has learned from other researchers and even from a few reviewers (including myself).

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Yet, like Wordsworth who rejected Milton’s example but could never completely detach himself from his presence in his work, Edwards writes under the shadow of an outstanding predecessor, Julian Symons, whose statements he regularly quotes, if only to disagree with them. Symons’ ‘Bloody Murder’ – renamed ‘Mortal Consequences’ in the US – was for half a century, despite all its flaws, the standard detective story. Yet, while acknowledging the ingenuity of an Agatha Christie and a John Dickson Carr, Symons barely hid his disdain for mysteries that were essentially puzzles, games with the reader, and howdunits. Rather than comfortable entertainment with tricky plots, what he preferred and promoted were mystery novels – like those by Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith – that revolved around psychologically complex characters.

Compared to the opinionated Symons, Edwards certainly offers a more balanced and much longer history of the genre, but at a price: by emphasizing the virtues of all kinds of writing, he sometimes seems a little too impartial and soft. True, one can slowly gauge his personal taste – he deeply admires Francis Iles and the neglected Henry Wade – but in general Edwards avoids committing himself to particular authors. His book is a literary history, not a guide to the 100 mysteries you should read before you die – which, by the way, probably won’t be in a locked room, or on a wicked street, or on a property of isolated campaign with greedy heirs present, all of whom have airtight alibis.

As its subtitle suggests, Edwards also loves what Samuel Johnson called “the biographical part” of literature. Almost all of its chapters open with a dramatic, even sensationalized account of a transformative event in the life of a prominent crime novelist. Thus, we learn of the murder in Anne Perry’s past; the growing hatred between Fred Dannay and his cousin Manfred Lee, the two halves of Ellery Queen; the Grand National race in which Dick Francis’ horse inexplicably collapsed near the finish line; the execution by firing squad of Erskine Childers, author of the groundbreaking spy novel ‘The Riddle of the Sands’; and the horrific accident caused by the psychologically disturbed daughter of Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar.

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Likewise, while Edwards doesn’t quote much from the books he’s talking about — and, thankfully, avoids spoilers when summarizing their plots — he can’t resist a good anecdote or factoid. Jim Thompson, author of ‘The Killer Inside Me’, once said there were 32 ways to write a story and ‘I’ve used every one of them’, then added: ‘But there has only one plot – things are not what they seem.” As a publisher’s reader, Mary Francis – wife of Dick Francis – turned down Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal” when the House Un-American Activities Committee asked Kenneth Fearing, author of ” The Big Clock,” if he was a member of the Communist Party, he mumbled, “Not yet.”

There are comparable goodies found in each chapter’s copious and highly entertaining endnotes, which often amplify the points made in the main text. Agatha Christie, we are reminded, “casually divulges the solutions to four of her previous novels in ‘Cards on the Table’, probably because she thought hardly anyone would read them in the future”, while JK Rowling chose “The Tiger in the The Tiger” by Margery Allingham. Smoke” as his favorite mystery.

While focusing on British and American fiction, Edwards takes a look at the genre work of Jorge Luis Borges, Edogawa Rampo, Leo Perutz, Umberto Eco, Fred Vargas, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and Stieg Larsson. One can nevertheless dispute the degree of attention he pays to the various writers. For example, he seems oddly lukewarm about Ernest Bramah’s brilliant stories featuring the blind Max Carrados and almost immune to the charm of Edmund Crispin’s comic mysteries (“The Moving Toysshop” being one of my books all-time favourites). No one would argue with the chapters largely devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon, Josephine Tey, Ian Fleming and John le Carré, but Edwards offers little more than a courteous nod to Rex Stout and Elmore Leonard.

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In my opinion, much more attention should have been given to writers such as Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake (aka Richard Stark) and more about a trio of very influential books from the 1970s, namely the turn of France vernacular by George V. Higgins. -force “Friends of Eddie Coyle,” James Crumley’s harrowing “The Last Good Kiss,” and Charles McCarry’s spy masterpiece, “Tears of Autumn.” These are the authors and books that defined American detective fiction in the mid to late 20th century.

Ultimately, however, a masterful work like “The Life of Crime” does more than inform, entertain and provoke, it also directs new readers to old books. Fortunately, many once-out-of-print titles are now readily available through several discerning publishing programs. For example, Christianna Brand’s ultra-ingenious “Death of Jezebel” is among the most recent offerings in the British Library Crime Classics series overseen by Edwards himself, Penzler Publishing’s expansive American Mystery Classics recently released the thriller. southwest by Frances Crane, “The Turqoise Shop,” SS Van Dine’s first Philo Vance mystery, “The Benson Murder Case” and Cornell Woolrich’s suspense-filled “Deadline at Dawn,” and our very own Crime Classics program from the Library of Congress has reprinted novels as varied as Rudolph Fisher’s pioneering African-American mystery, “The Conjure-Man Dies” and Hillary Waugh’s police procedural, “Last Seen Wearing.”Yet other imprints worth checking out include Crippen & Landru, which specializes in short stories; Altus Press’s Stark House Press, Coachwhip Books, and Black Mask Library, all of which focus largely on pulp fiction; and Dean Street Press, which reprints Traditional mystery novels, often with exceptional introductions by Curtis Evans or Tony Medawar.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

Detect the history of mysteries and their creators

Collins Crime Club. 724 pages. $32.99

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