The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards: the gift that keeps on giving

September 29, 2017 at 12:37 am (Mystery fiction)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my review of Death Walks in Eastrepps, I referred to Martin Edwards’s new book as “this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium.” Why exasperating? Because as I read his short essays on each title, I developed a strong – nearly overmastering! – desire to read the book itself – and sooner, not later. Obviously there was a need to exercise some restraint here. So I decided consider The Story of Classic Crime as a reference work, only dipping into it when I was overpowered by curiosity (which was often) or in desperate need of a work of fiction that would be gratifying rather than annoying (also often – we  all have these dry spells, I think).

As it happens, I’d already read some of the featured works, e.g. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle (I probably have lots of company there), Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne, The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton, The Franchise Affair by Joesphine Tey, and two or three others. But there is so much more on offer here!

I began the rather entertaining process of seeing which titles I could download. Here I had better luck than I’d hoped for: not only were quite a few available but they were for the most part quite inexpensive. Thus far, the following are newly resident on my Kindle app:

 

 

 

Death Walks in Eastrepps proved not to be downloadable, but I was able to acquire it through interlibrary loan. As my review clearly indicates, the effort was well worthwhile; furthermore, as with the downloading, this method of obtaining the book was helpful in my effort to cut back on the purchasing of hard copy volumes. (Forsooth, I am drowning in them, at this point.)

There is an impressive plenitude of books mentioned in this survey, other titles  being brought forward in Edwards’s essays in addition to the canonical one hundred. The following is from the review by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

To my mind, Edwards particularly shines in the prefatory essays to his 24 categories, in which he mentions some of his own favorite books, such as Henry Wade’s “Lonely Magdalen” — about the murder of a nameless prostitute — and Robert Player’s twisty “The Ingenious Mr. Stone,” which “signaled the end of the era” or, most intriguing of all, Cameron McCabe’s “The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor,” described by Julian Symons as “the detective story to end detective stories.” Introducing “Fiction From Fact,” Edwards naturally zeroes in on the true-life Julia Wallace case, which Raymond Chandler dubbed “the nonpareil of all murder mysteries.” Both Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James were comparably fascinated by this beating death in a locked room.

Dirda is deeply and widely read, both in genre fiction and mainstream works. He is also possessed of very definite opinions. (Oh dear – Do I know anyone else like that?) I was amused by the section in his review in which he differed  with Edwards concerning which were the landmark works of Agatha Christie. Edwards cites The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder at the Vicarage, and The ABC Murders; Dirda counters – gently but firmly – with And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Murder on the Orient Express. I agree with Dirda that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a game changer and should be high on the list of works that helped define  the genre. But I would also add two works by Christie which are my personal favorites and which I think are outstanding, even brilliant, although they’re rarely cited by Christie aficionados: The Pale Horse and The Labors of Hercules.

Dirda goes on to offer this caveat; namely, that “…Edwards’s history shouldn’t be viewed as a list of the absolutely greatest works of mystery and detection.” For that, he suggests consulting H.R.F. Keating’s “Crime and Mystery: The Hundred  Best Books” and “Classic Crime Fiction: The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones.”.  Those are both good recommendations, and I have more to add: the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain) Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, compiled in 1990; which was responded to in kind by the Mystery Writers America five years later. And very importantly there’s the list put together by the Independent Mystery Booksellers’ Association (IMBA). Those folks read voraciously in the field, as I was again reminded on my visit to Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland, this summer.

So – Have I managed to read any of the above recently downloaded titles? So far, two. At the Villa Rose was absorbing and elegantly written, though somewhat oddly structured. It was refreshing to be on the continent, for a change – mainly in France but also in Geneva for several brief but crucial intervals. I enjoyed being in the company of French police Inspector Hanaud, whom I couldn’t help but think of as a forerunner of Jules Maigret. In his investigations, the Inspector is frequently accompanied by a ‘Watson:’  the well meaning Julius Ricardo, who is often in the midst of some great revelation that is almost always wide of the mark, as Hanaud is at pains to point out to him.

Interestingly, Edwards informs us that Mason derived the inspiration for this novel from an actual crime. This was the murder of Eugenie Fougere in 1903.

After reading At the Villa Rose, I immediately plunged into Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. I’d been intrigued by what Martin Edwards had written about it. For now, I will say that this book merits a separate post, and it will get one. I was astonished by how good it was. I was pretty well riveted. Edwards describes it as “polished and distinctive;” it is that, and much more. A witty, urbane narrative told in the first person by a young man who has come up with a rather unique plan for self-actualization.. Israel Rank’s conflicted psychic make-up is partly due to the fact that he is half Jewish. This novel has been accused of being anti-Semitic. I don’t happen to agree with that assessment, but I understand how others might agree with it.

More on this in a later post. Meanwhile, more classics await This Reader. Thanks, Martin Edwards, for this treasure trove of reading pleasures.

1 Comment

  1. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017), by Martin Edwards – A Crime is Afoot said,

    […] In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, crossexaminingcrime, crimepieces, Cleopatra Loves Books, Books to the Ceiling, Tipping my Fedora, Noah’s Archives, Euro Crime, Lesa’s Book Critiques, The Rap Sheet, […]

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