In 1984, a book about the early music revival came out. It was entitled Reprise and was co-authored by Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata and Herbert Snitzer. It iwas a delightful work whose its first chapter is “The Avant Garde of the Distant Past.” I love the way that phrase rolls off the tongue! This elegant locution has been recurring in my mind as I think about the resurgent interest in classic mysteries.
This is a trend that was kick started by the British Library’s series Crime Fiction Classics. The reissue in 2014 of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story – originally published in 1937 – proved to be a runaway success, an unexpected and happy development in the British publishing world. I read it, loved it, and immediately wanted more of the same – or at least, something similar. My wish was soon granted: new entries in the series were rolling off the presses at a brisk tempo.
Joseph Knobbs, crime fiction buyer for Waterstones, put it nicely:
“The Crime Classics stand out against the darker crop of contemporary crime fiction and offer something a bit different. A lot of modern stuff skews closer to thriller than mystery. It has been a treat to see mystery writers such as John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay and J Jefferson Farjeon get their due. I think that’s a credit to the British Library, which has not only done the important work of archiving this material, but now brought it to a wider audience.”
I’ve written about this gratifying phenomenon in previous posts. At the risk of repeating myself – and because, after all, we have entered the season of gift giving – I’d like to note first of all the titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in the British Crime Classics series:
A couple of comments in passing: Capital Crimes and Resorting To Murder are short story collections. And if I had to pick my absolute favorites from among the above six, they would be Mystery in White and Murder of a Lady.
Reading in the British Library series has led to the reading of other classics. An appreciation by A.S. Byatt of the novels or Margery Allingham led me to Police at the Funeral, a witty and thoroughly enjoyable take on the English country house mystery featuring the unflappable Albert Campion and his “man,” the resourceful if cantankerous Magersfontein Lugg, called simply – and often – ‘Lugg’ by his boss.
Another favorite, highly recommended is The Emperor’s Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr. (I also read this author’s The Judas Window, which exemplifies Carr’s renowned cunning in the crafting of locked room mysteries. I did not, however, like it nearly as much as Snuff-Box.)
Finally, two terrific novels of psychological suspense: Before the Fact is the book on which Hitchcock’s film Suspicion is based. As for Mist on the Saltings, it deserves to be much better known than it is. I was alerted to the excellence of Henry Wade’s works by a post on Martin Edwards’s blog. Edwards calls Mist on the Saltings “a study in character that was ahead of its time.” I agree.
The most recent pleasant surprise for me in this category is a book called The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner. Yes, that’s the Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame. I’ve never read any of the novels featuring this most famous fictional defense attorney, but just about everyone from my generation remembers the TV show starring Raymond Burr.
More on The D.A. Calls It Murder in the next post.