I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Martin Edwards is a pretty amazing chap. A busy blogger (Do You Write Under Your Own Name?), a lawyer by trade, a fine and prolific mystery author, he is also the consulting editor for the bestselling range of vintage mystery reprints from the British Library (and he writes the intros too). He is also Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association and in 2015 was elected eighth President of the Detection Club. He is also Archivist of the CWA and of the Detection Club.
Now he has a new book out, one that tries to paint a picture of the Golden Age of detective fiction through its best books. Over to you Martin:
Long-forgotten detective stories from the “Golden Age of murder” between the world wars are being discovered all over again. A new generation of readers is now sharing the pleasure I’ve long taken in these entertaining mysteries of the past. And this is all the more pleasing because so many of these books have been under-estimated for so long. Many of them haven’t even managed to be under-estimated – because they have been out of print for around three-quarters of a century.
The British Library’s highly popular Crime Classics series has introduced today’s crime fans to neglected authors who were once big names – like Anthony Berkeley and Freeman Wills Crofts – and those who, for all their consummate professionalism, were never best-sellers – such as John Bude and Miles Burton. Bude has become a real readers’ favourite – five of his books have now reappeared, with two more in the pipeline. And now plenty of other publishers are following suit, bringing back authors as diverse as Sir Basil Thomson, once a kingpin of Scotland Yard, and former naval commander Peter Drax.
Of course, nostalgia plays a part in this revival. And the gorgeous period artwork of the British Library paperback covers has led many people to collect the whole set. But there’s much more to it than fascination with the past and high production values. The fundamental appeal of Golden Age detective fiction is that the leading authors knew how to tell a good story. And story-telling has an appeal as powerful as it is timeless.
These books tell us a great deal about life during the Twenties and Thirties, even though the authors aimed primarily to entertain. Read Antidote to Venom by Crofts, for instance, and you’ll be presented with an interesting picture of life in a provincial zoo, as well as a tricky murder method, and an interesting moral at the heart of the story. Christopher St John Sprigg was a poet and a Marxist, but his playful Death of an Airman offers a glimpse of the workings of a small Thirties airfield that is not only authentic (Sprigg was an expert on aeronautics) but also highly engaging. A visiting bishop from Australia does the detective work – you don’t find too many sleuthing bishops nowadays!
Sprigg’s book illustrates the truth that the best Golden Age writers were much more skilled at evoking character and setting than is often thought. But of course, for many Golden Age writers, the plot was the thing. And what plots they supplied! A personal favourite is The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley, a writer Agatha Christie much admired. Berkeley’s witty and highly ingenious mystery offers no fewer than six different solutions to a baffling whodunit puzzle.
Death of an Airman and The Poisoned Chocolates Case are just two of the novels discussed in my latest book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. I’ve explored the evolution of the crime genre during the first half of the twentieth century, taking in along the way a host of acknowledged masterpieces, but also quite a few books that may seem like counter-intuitive choices. I like to think that I’m offering much more than a mere list, more even than a conventional account of the genre’s development. I’ve tried to tell a story that not only informs but also entertains.
Sergio, many thanks for hosting this guest post. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be travelling around the blogosphere, talking about different aspects of the book, and of classic crime. Here’s a list of all the stops on my blog tour:
Wed 28 June – Lesa’ Book Critiques – https://lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com
Thurs 29 June – The Rap Sheet – http://therapsheet.blogspot.com
Fri 30 June – Pretty Sinister Books – http://prettysinister.blogspot.com
Sat 1 Jul – Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (interview) – https://margotkinberg.wordpress.com
Sun 2 Jul –Eurocrime – http://eurocrime.blogspot.co.uk
Mon 3 Jul – Tipping My Fedora – https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com
Tue 4 Jul – Desperate Reader – http://desperatereader.blogspot.co.uk
Wed 5 Jul –Clothes in Books – http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk
Thu 6 Jul – Emma’s Bookish Corner – https://emmasbookishcorner.wordpress.com
Fri 7 Jul – Random Jottings – http://randomjottings.typepad.com
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is published in the UK on 7 July by the British Library, and in the US on 1 August by Poisoned Pen Press