Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards book review

The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards book review

Don’t be fooled by Martin Edwards’s “The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators.”It looks daunting with 55 chapters and detailed endnotes in small font. There is also a 40-page index listing the books. The overall weight of the book reminds me of a college dictionary. As any lover of crime fiction knows, appearances can be deceiving. Start reading this history of the detective story — from Poe to P.D. James — and you’ll soon find it hard to follow my heartfelt advice: Slow down and space out the book’s 724 pages so that you can enjoy it for more than a few days.

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Of course, I’m assuming your willpower is greater than mine. I stayed up late three nights a row, eager for Edwards’ thoughts on some of my favorite authors. As the president of Britain’s almost legendary Detection Club, archivist of the Crime Writers’ Association, consultant for the British Library’s Crime Classics, and author of the award-winning “The Golden Age of Murder,”Edwards, among many other books is the leading English advocate of mystery in all its forms. He is also a generous critic. He acknowledges how much he has learned and even shared with a few reviewers (including myself).

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Still, like Wordsworth who rejected Milton’s example but could never wholly break away from his presence in his work, Edwards writes under the shadow of one outstanding predecessor, Julian Symons, whose pronouncements he quotes regularly, if only to disagree with them. Symons’s “Bloody Murder” — retitled “Mortal Consequences” in the United States — has for half a century been, for all its flaws, the standard history of the detective story. Symons admitted the genius of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, but he didn’t hide his dislike for mysteries that were essentially puzzles or games with the reader. Rather than cozy entertainments with tricky plots, what he preferred and promoted were crime novels — such as those by Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith — that revolved around psychologically complex characters.

Edwards provides a more balanced and long-lasting history of the genre than Symons. But Edwards comes at a cost. He sometimes sounds too neutral and mild by emphasizing the virtues and merits of all writing. Admittedly, 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 mean street, or at an isolated country estate with greedy heirs in attendance, all of whom have airtight alibis.

Edwards loves Samuel Johnson, as his subtitle suggests. “the biographical part”Literature. Nearly all of his chapters begin with a dramatic, even shocking account of a transformative event in a crime writer’s life. Thus we learn about 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’s horse inexplicably collapsed near the finish line; the firing squad execution of Erskine Childers, author of the groundbreaking spy novel, “The Riddle of the Sands”; and the tragic accident caused in part by the mentally disturbed daughter of Ross Macdonald & Margaret Millar.

What percentage of the top 100 crime novels in the early 20th-century have you read?

Similarly, though Edwards doesn’t quote much from the books he discusses — and, thankfully, avoids spoilers when summarizing their plots — he can’t resist a good anecdote or factoid. Jim Thompson, author “The Killer Inside Me,”One of the 32 ways to tell a story was to use the 32 methods. “I’ve used every one,”Added then “But there is only one plot — things are not as they seem.” As a publisher’s reader, Mary Francis — wife of Dick Francis — turned down Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal.”Kenneth Fearing was asked by the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer a question about his book. “The Big Clock,”If he was a member the Communist Party, he mumbled. ‘Not yet.’ ”

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

Edwards is primarily focused on American fiction but does occasionally glance at the works of Edogawa Rampo (Jose Luis Borges), Leo Perutz and Umberto Eco. It is difficult to dispute his attention to different writers. For example, he seems strangely 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 Toyshop”It is one of my most favorite books. No one would argue with chapters largely devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon, Josephine Tey, Ian Fleming and John le Carré, but Edwards offers little beyond a courtesy nod to Rex Stout and Elmore Leonard.

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I’m not a fan of flashy mystery novels. Here’s what I’d pick instead.

My opinion is that writers such as Mickey Spillane or Donald E. Westlake (a.k.a. Richard Stark) and more said about a trio of vastly influential books from the 1970s, namely George V. Higgins’s vernacular tour-de-force “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” James Crumley’s heartbreaking “The Last Good Kiss,” and Charles McCarry’s espionage masterpiece, “The Tears of Autumn.”These were the books and authors that defined American crime fiction in the mid- to late twentieth century.

But, in the end, a magisterial piece like “The Life of Crime”It does more than inform, entertain, and provoke. It also sends readers back to old books. Many titles that were once out of print are now easily available thanks to several enlightened publishing programs. For instance, 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 wide-ranging American Mystery Classics has recently issued Frances Crane’s Southwestern whodunit, “The Turqoise Shop,” S.S. Van Dine’s first Philo Vance mystery, “The Benson Murder Case” and Cornell Woolrich’s suspense-filled, “Deadline at Dawn,” and our own Library of Congress’s Crime Classics program has reissued novels as varied as Rudolph Fisher’s pioneering African American mystery, “The Conjure-Man Dies,” and Hillary Waugh’s genre-establishing police procedural, “Last Seen Wearing.” Yet other imprints worth checking out include Crippen & Landru, which specializes in short stories; Stark House Press, Coachwhip Books and Altus Press’s Black Mask Library, all of which largely focus on pulp fiction; and Dean Street Press, which reprints traditional mysteries, often with exceptional introductions by Curtis Evans or Tony Medawar.

Every Thursday, Michael Dirda reviews Books for Style

The History of Mysteries and Their Creators: How to Detect It

Collins Crime Club. 724 pp. $32.99

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