Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw

August 10, 2007 at 2:05 am (Mystery fiction)

rough-ghude.jpg This gem of a little book just fell into my hands: The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw. There seems to be a Rough Guide for just about everything – May we expect a Rough Guide to Life in General anytime soon? – but this one is an especially welcome addition to the canon of reference works for mystery lovers. “The genre is a broad church,” Forshaw observes in his preface, “with every level of achievement available, from subtle psychological insight into the minds of murderers to uncomplicated thick-ear action.” (I like that “thick-ear,” don’t you?) He then goes on to state that he has covered all sub-genres and selected the best crime fiction written in “the last century or so.” The one thing he has no patience with or use for, he warns us, is bad writing. Amen to that! For years I’ve been telling fans of the genre that there is so much terrific writing out there that there is absolutely no need to settle for mediocre, inferior, or just plain clunky prose.

In his thoughtful foreword, Ian Rankin asks if it is possible to hope that crime fiction is finally getting the respect that has long been owing to it. He is pleased that the genre is getting increasing coverage in the major media, and yet “…when a famous prize-winning literary novelist recently turned his hand to crime fiction, he felt obliged to put it out under another name.” My (educated) guess is that Rankin is referring to Christine Falls by Benjamin Black, alias John Banville. I think we can also consider the possibility, where this particular example is concerned, that Banville wants this projected series to be more readily identifiable by being issued under his pseudonym. Certainly no effort was made to conceal his true identity; the inside jacket flap proclaims Christine Falls to be “the debut crime novel from Booker Award winner John Banville.” (The sequel, The Silver Swan, is due out in March of 2008.) The other way to look at this phenomenon is to ask the question: What is the next (really bracing) challenge a Booker-winning literary novelist would want to take on? Why, writing quality crime fiction, naturally! (So take heart, Ian.)

[(August 14) I’d like to insert an addendum here. In his blog Crime Always Pays, Declan Burke quotes my surmise concerning John Banville’s pseudonym and his purpose in using it; he then goes on to remind me (gently and graciously) that Banville has in fact already written several outstanding crime novels. This does poke something of a hole in my thesis, although I was thinking rather specifically of a character – Garret Quirke, in this case – being carried forward as the protagonist in an ongoing series. Still, point taken!]

Barry Forshaw has taken on a large task here, and by and large he has succeeded, within the confines of this diminutive volume. (Why do I keep referring to its size? Because it has roughly the same dimensions as a mass market paperback – and retails for $12.99!) The publication date is June 2007, and several entries are gratifyingly current. Yet Forshaw’s approach is thematic rather than chronological; for instance, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938) immediately precedes Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen (2000) in the chapter entitled “In the Belly of the Beast.” Leafing through this delightful volume, I was reminded of classics I had always meant to read but hadn’t, e.g. Green for Danger by Christianna Brand, and books I’ve been meaning to read again, e.g. Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley.

josephine-tey-1.jpg fossum.jpg Forshaw is a man of definite views. For instance, he states “without hesitation” that The Franchise Affair is Josephine Tey’s best book; he further asserts that “There is no room for debate: the most important female writer of foreign crime fiction at work today is the Norwegian Karin Fossum.” [Fossum is pictured above, right.] Now, I never mind opinionated people as long as they are sufficiently discerning to hold the same opinions that I do. As it happens, I agree with Forshaw about both of these superb writers, so – no problem! (You can read more of his views and reviews at the Crime Time site.) This Rough Guide includes of capsule reviews of crime films that sound terrific, though they may be hard to find.

Just one more thing, as Columbo would say: I do appreciate Barry Forshaw’s eloquence in praise of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels: “These are gracefully written, atmospheric essays in classic crime, with the cultivated, beer-loving Morse one of the great literary curmudgeons (his sniping relationship with his sidekick Lewis is wonderfully entertaining).” We still have these wonderful novels, but how we do miss the incomparable John Thaw (1942-2002). jthaw.jpg

5 Comments

  1. BooksPlease said,

    You know, you’re right – “there is absolutely no need to settle for mediocre, inferior, or just plain clunky prose.” Why do I sometimes feel apologetic about reading crime fiction when I enjoy it and it is quality fiction? I suppose it’s because of the horrific aspects of some books and films that make me squirm and want to look away? Your thoughtful post is most encouraging. And I do miss John Thaw and Morse – the new Lewis programmes are not as good, in my view.

  2. Roberta Recommends: Best of 2007, Part Two « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Indian Bride, By Karin Fossum. I’m cheating a bit on this one; it was published in 2005 in the U.K. as Calling Out for You! […]

  3. The Art of the Mystery, Part One « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Brett, who brought the Great Detective so memorably to life. In the words of Barry Forshaw in The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, “…at a stroke, the brilliant and neurasthenic performance of Jeremy Brett established […]

  4. The Art of the Mystery, Part Three: the Golden Age of British crime fiction « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Much as been written about Christie’s astounding and durable success. Her name has become, in Barry Forshaw’s memorable locution, “a copper-bottomed franchise.” I have no expertise in the […]

  5. Stieg Larsson update « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Man Who Left Too Soon, a biogrpahy of Stieg Larsson, came out in May. It is written by Barry Forshaw, author of of The Rough Guide To Crime Fiction. […]

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