2018 Macavity Award winner for Best Nonfiction
2018 Anthony Award nominee for Best Critical/Nonfiction Book
This book tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. The diversity of this much-loved genre is breathtaking, and so much greater than many critics have suggested. To illustrate this, the leading expert on classic crime discusses one hundred books ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train which highlight the entertaining plots, the literary achievements, and the social significance of vintage crime fiction. This book serves as a companion to the acclaimed British Library Crime Classics series but it tells a very diverse story. It presents the development of crime fiction-from Sherlock Holmes to the end of the golden age-in an accessible, informative and engaging style.
Readers who enjoy classic crime will make fascinating discoveries and learn about forgotten gems as well as bestselling authors. Even the most widely read connoisseurs will find books (and trivia) with which they are unfamiliar-as well as unexpected choices to debate. Classic crime is a richly varied and deeply pleasurable genre that is enjoying a world-wide renaissance as dozens of neglected novels and stories are resurrected for modern readers to enjoy. The overriding aim of this book is to provide a launch point that enables readers to embark on their own voyages of discovery.
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About the Author
MARTIN EDWARDS is an award-winning crime writer best known for two series of novels set in Liverpool and the Lake District. He is series consultant for British Library Crime Classics, the Vice Chair of the Crime Writers' Association, and President of the Detection Club. The Golden Age of Murder, his study of the Detection Club, was published in 2015 to international acclaim, and has been nominated for both the Edgar and Agatha awards for the year's best book about the genre.
Read an Excerpt
A New Era Dawns
As the Victorian era gave way to a short-lived phase of Edwardian elegance, detective fiction was, like Britain itself, in a state of transition. Readers continued to mourn the loss of Sherlock Holmes, killed (or so it seemed) at the Reichenbach Falls because his creator Arthur Conan Doyle felt the need to save his mind 'for better things'. Doyle's fellow writers struggled to fill the vacuum. As his brother-in-law, E.W Hornung put it, 'there is no police like Holmes'. The sheer ordinariness of stout and cordial private detective Martin Hewitt, created by Arthur Morrison, made a striking contrast to Holmes' brilliant eccentricity, but also meant Hewitt was easily forgotten.
More exotic and interesting was Hornung's gentleman-burglar A.J. Raffles. The moral unorthodoxy of the stories was intriguing, but when Raffles joined the forces of law and order, before dying a hero in the Boer War, he sacrificed his dangerous charm. His fellow anti-heroes, notably Morrison's amiable sociopath Horace Dorrington, and the crafty Romney Pringle, created by Clifford Ashdown (a pen-name for R. Austin Freeman and John J. Pitcairn) were in some respects years ahead of their time, but they soon disappeared from sight.
Writers strove for originality, none more energetically than Baroness Orczy. In addition to the Old Man in the Corner, she created a second-string detective, Patrick Mulligan, an Irish solicitor with dingy offices in Finsbury Square and a confidential clerk who narrates his cases and rejoices in the name Alexander Stanislaus Mullins. Mulligan is known as Skin O' My Tooth in tribute to his flair for securing the acquittal of clients whose conviction seemed certain. Ostracised by dignified fellow lawyers for being so unprofessional as to act as an amateur detective when the case demands it, Mulligan is unprepossessing, but he gets results. His cases, belatedly gathered together in Skin O' My Tooth (1928), illustrated the fictional potential of the single-minded and sometimes unscrupulous solicitor-detective, which was further developed by H.C. Bailey in his books about Joshua Clunk, and by Anthony Gilbert (a pen-name of Lucy Malleson) in her long series featuring Arthur Crook.
Nor did the Baroness stop there. She also created Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk, an unlikely Head of Scotland Yard, who achieves eminence as a woman detective for the sole purpose of helping to free her husband from Dartmoor, where he has been incarcerated since his wrongful conviction for murder. Richard Marsh created Judith Lee, a teacher of the deaf and dumb, who found that her ability to lip-read was an invaluable aid to solving crime. There was a vogue for female sleuths around the turn of the century, and Matthias McDonnell Bodkin was quick to jump on the bandwagon, introducing Dora Myrl, 'the famous lady detective, whose subtle wit had foiled the most cunning criminals, whose cool courage had faced the most appalling dangers'. But if Bodkin ever intended to strike a blow for feminism, he changed his mind; Dora's ultimate fate was to marry his male protagonist Paul Beck, 'the rule of thumb detective', and resign herself to domesticity. Their union produced Paul Beck Jr., whose genetic inheritance made it inevitable that he too became a capable sleuth; his achievements were recorded in Young Beck, a Chip off the Old Block (1911).
Holmes and his rivals were seen at their best in short stories. After Wilkie Collins' masterpiece The Moonstone appeared in 1868, only a handful of first-rate British detective novels were published in the next thirty years. Crime writers had not learned how to combine a memorable detective, capable of solving a series of baffling crimes, with the form of a novel. A short story can succeed through a single trick; the length of a detective novel demands a complicated plot, or development of character, or both.
In his essay 'A Defence of Detective Stories', published in 1901, G.K. Chesterton argued that 'the first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life'. Chesterton, a poet, journalist and much else besides, created in Father Brown the outstanding new detective of Edwardian England, and became a powerful and passionate advocate for the genre: 'Not only is a detective story a perfectly legitimate form of art, but it has ... real advantages as an agent of the public weal ... When the detective in a police romance stands alone ... it does certainly serve to make us remember that it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure.'
Crime writers began to explore the possibilities that Chesterton had identified. They tackled a dazzling variety of subjects: political unrest (Edgar Wallace), philosophy about human nature (Godfrey Benson), scientific enquiry (R. Austin Freeman), and social class (Roy Horniman). Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes came back from the dead by public request, although it was widely accepted that despite escaping the icy torrents, he was never quite the same man again.
Times were changing. In 1912, the sinking of the 'unsinkable' RMS Titanic resulted in the death of one of the most talented American writers of detective fiction, Jacques Futrelle. The tragedy also seemed to herald a transition from confidence to unease and uncertainty. At much the same time, novels such as At the Villa Rose signalled the changing nature of crime fiction. A.E.W. Mason's book was inspired by a real-life murder case, and so was Marie Belloc Lowndes' The Lodger.
The detective short story was giving way to the detective novel. As crime writers struggled with the challenge of maintaining suspense and an air of mystery for the whole length of a novel, they experimented with techniques that their successors would refine. The significance of these developments went far beyond much-increased word counts. The genre was undergoing a metamorphosis that opened up opportunities for a brand new type of crime writing.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)
Sherlock Holmes is so closely associated with Victorian London's foggy, gas-lit streets in the popular imagination that it is surprising to realise that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote more stories about him in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth. Similarly, more of his cases were recorded after his apparent demise at the Reichenbach Falls in 'The Final Problem', in 1893, than before.
The idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles came from a young journalist (and occasional crime writer) called Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who told Doyle about a legend concerning a gigantic hound which terrorised the people of Dartmoor. The two contemplated co-authorship, but the story needed to be built around a compelling central character. Once Doyle decided that the material suited Sherlock Holmes, it became inevitable that he would write the book alone, although Robinson shared in the proceeds. Holmes experts disagree about the precise date when the story was set, but Doyle was untroubled by the fact that he had killed off the great detective: 'there was no limit to the number of papers he left behind or the reminiscences in the brain of his biographer'.
The story opens with a superb tour de force of deduction from the evidence of a walking stick (a 'Penang lawyer') left by a caller at 221b Baker Street, Dr James Mortimer. When Mortimer returns, he reads out to Holmes and Watson a story in an old manuscript about the ancient curse of the Baskervilles, and a recent newspaper account of the mysterious death of Mortimer's friend and patient, Sir Charles Baskerville. No signs of violence were found on Sir Charles' corpse, but there was 'an almost incredible facial distortion'. Mortimer reveals that he found footprints close to the body: 'Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!'
Sir Henry Baskerville, last of the line, is determined to live in the family home on Dartmoor, but Mortimer fears that 'every Baskerville who goes there meets with an evil fate'. Are they victims of a diabolical curse, or is there a more rational explanation? Holmes agrees to investigate.
Atmospheric and gripping, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best of the four long stories about Holmes, although the structure is unsatisfactory, with Holmes off-stage for too long. Melodramatic elements such as the hereditary curse hark back to the Victorian 'novel of sensation', and it is easy to identify the villain. But Conan Doyle was not writing a tightly plotted whodunit of the kind that was to become so popular during the Golden Age of detective fiction. His fascination with the macabre, and his brisk, memorable descriptions of people and places, suited him ideally to writing short stories.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote tales of historical romance, horror and the supernatural, as well as non-fiction, but his fame rests primarily on his creation of the most famous of all detectives. Shortly after The Hound of the Baskervilles was published (it was serialised in the Strand magazine in 1901 before appearing in volume form the following year), the offer of a huge fee persuaded him to bring Holmes back from the dead in 'The Empty House' in 1903, and Holmes stories continued to appear until 1927. To this day, the great consulting detective enjoys worldwide popularity, fuelled in part by successful film and television adaptations, and a never-ending flow of pastiche stories by authors who find the appeal of the character, and the chance to write in Watson's distinctive narrative voice, impossible to resist.
The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace (1905)
The Four Just Men launched Edgar Wallace's career as a popular novelist in a blaze of publicity — and scandal. While working as a journalist for the Daily Mail, Wallace came up with the idea of writing a crime novel with a difference: the public was to be invited to solve the mystery. A man whose reckless self-confidence was matched only by his energy and vivid imagination, he dashed off the novel in a burst of feverish activity, but found it harder to interest a publisher than he had expected.
Undaunted, he set up his own business, the Tallis Press, and published the story himself, with a massive advertising campaign, including the offer of prizes totalling £500 to readers who deduced the correct solution to the mystery. The book was bound with a detachable competition form at the back, but the interactive publicity stunt proved so successful that it almost ruined Wallace financially. A large number of correct solutions were sent in, and he could not afford the prize money. His delay in announcing the winners led to suggestions that he was a swindler. To avoid bankruptcy, he had to borrow the money from Alfred Harmsworth, owner of the Daily Mail. He sold the copyright in the book cheaply, and failed to profit from later sales.
The Four Just Men amounted to an innovative example of the 'challenge to the reader' which — stripped of cash prizes — became a popular feature of later detective stories. Wallace's thriller was not only highly topical at the time it first appeared, but also, more than a century later, seems strikingly modern in its concerns — immigration and international terrorism.
A shadowy group, the 'Four Just Men' threaten to kill the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Philip Ramon, if he does not abandon the Aliens Extradition (Political Offences) Bill. The new law will, they claim, 'hand over to a corrupt and vengeful government men who now in England find an asylum from the persecution of despots and tyrants'. Ramon, cold-blooded but courageous, refuses to bow to intimidation, and the authorities take every precaution to protect him. The tension mounts as Wallace evokes the febrile atmosphere of a London gripped by fear of anarchy and assassinations. When death occurs, it takes place in a locked room, and appears inexplicable.
The attitudes of the Four Just Men seem, to say the least, morally ambiguous, and when Wallace resurrected them in later books, he aligned them more closely with the forces of law and order. A later move towards respectability has often been made by the genre's anti-heroes, but it is striking that the leading exception to the rule, Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, remains the most memorable and consistently interesting homicidal protagonist.
The Four Just Men's ambivalent nature reflected the personality of their creator. Even when Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace became not merely a bestselling author but a high-profile celebrity, he remained a maverick and an outsider, rather than a pillar of the establishment. His gift for capturing a scene or character in a few vivid strokes compensated for the often slapdash nature of much of his work. For all his success, his extravagance meant that he died in debt, while working in Hollywood on the film King Kong. Like the fictional ape, Wallace was larger than life, and doomed to die too soon.
The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy (1905)
In 1901, Baroness Orczy published 'The Fenchurch Street Mystery', which introduced an unusual and distinctive detective, the Old Man in the Corner. This was the first of a series of half a dozen magazine stories, 'Mysteries of London', which were swiftly followed by seven more stories, each concerning mysteries in major cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Dublin. The stories about the Old Man in the Corner were eventually revised and collected in three volumes, of which The Case of Miss Elliott was the second in chronological terms, but the first to be published.
The Old Man sits at the same table in an ABC tea shop (one of a large chain of popular self-service tea shops operated by the Aerated Bread Company) on the corner of Norfolk Street and the Strand. There he drinks milk, eats cheesecake and fidgets incessantly with a piece of string. He acts as an armchair detective, with a 'Watson' who is a female journalist, originally unnamed but later called Polly Burton. The focus of the stories is on solving the puzzles rather than on ensuring that the guilty are punished for their crimes. The Old Man is not one of those detectives with a passion for justice, and he is dismissive of the forces of law and order, maintaining that the police 'always prefer a mystery to any logical conclusion, if it is arrived at by an outsider'.
The title story is typical of the series as a whole, as Polly and the Old Man discuss the discovery in Maida Vale of the body of a young woman, Miss Elliott, whose throat had been cut. The dead woman was clutching a surgical knife in her clenched hand, and at first it was unclear whether she had committed suicide or had been murdered. Miss Elliott was matron of a convalescent home, and then, as now, the finances of care homes were often in a perilous state. The Old Man has stirred himself to attend the inquest, where he learns enough to deduce the truth about a seemingly perfect alibi.
The Old Man is conceited and misanthropic, and even, it appears, capable of committing murder and getting away with it. The story-telling formula, although inherently limited, was neat and original, and the book enjoyed considerable popularity; it was included in the tiny library taken by Sir Ernest Shackleton on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1915. In later years Orczy wrote a further set of stories about the Old Man which were collected in a third volume, Unravelled Knots (1925), but by then his moment had passed.
Baroness Orczy liked to be called 'Emmuska'; her full name was Emma Magdolna Rozalia Maria Jozefa BOrbala Orczy di Orci. She was born in Hungary of noble descent, and moved to Britain with her family in 1880. She was a talented artist, but found fame and fortune as a writer, eventually earning enough money to buy an estate in Monte Carlo. Her increasing focus on historical fiction meant that she contributed little of note to the crime genre after the First World War. She became a founder member of the Detection Club, established in 1930, although by that time her main claim to literary fame lay in her stories about Sir Percy Blakeney, alias the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Excerpted from "The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books"
Copyright © 2017 Martin Edwards.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 A New Era Dawns 7
The Hound of the Baskervilles Arthur Conan Doyle 11
The Four Just Men Edgar Wallace 13
The Case of Miss Elliott Baroness Orczy 15
Tracks in the Snow Godfrey R. Benson 17
Israel Rank Roy Horniman 19
The Blotting Book E.E Benson 21
The Innocence of Father Brown G.K. Chesterton 23
At the Villa Rose A.E.W. Mason 26
The Eye of Osiris R. Austin Freeman 28
The Lodger Marie Belloc Lowndes 30
Max Carrados Ernest Bramah 32
Chapter 2 The Birth of the Golden Age 34
Trent's Last Case E.C. Bentley 36
In the Night Lord Gorell 39
The Middle Temple Murder J.S. Fletcher 41
The Skeleton Key Bernard Capes 43
The Cask Freeman Wills Crofts 45
Vie Red House Mystery A.A. Milne 47
Chapter 3 The Great Detectives 49
The Mysterious Affair at Styles Agatha Christie 53
Clouds of Witness Dorothy L. Sayers 55
The Rasp Philip MacDonald 58
Mr Fortune, Please H.C. Bailey 61
The Poisoned Chocolates Case Anthony Berkeley 64
The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop Gladys Mitchell 67
The Murder at the Vicarage Agatha Christie 69
The Case of the Late Pig Margery Allingham 71
Send for Paul Temple Francis Durbridge John Thewes 73
Chapter 4 'Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!' 75
The Floating Admiral-The Detection Club 80
The Body in the Silo Ronald Knox 83
She Had to Have Gas Rupert Penny 85
Chapter 5 Miraculous Murders 88
The Medbury Fort Murder George Limnelius 92
Murder of a Lady Anthony Wynne 94
The Hollow Man John Dickson Carr 96
Chapter 6 Serpents in Eden 99
The Secret of High Eldersham Miles Burton 104
Death Under Sail C.P. Snow 106
The Sussex Downs Murder John Bude 108
Sinister Crag Newton Gayle 110
Chapter 7 Murder at the Manor 112
The Crime at Diana's Pool Victor L. Whitechurch 116
Some Must Watch Ethel Lina White 118
Death by Request Romilly Katherine John 120
Birthday Party C.H.B. Kitchin 122
Chapter 8 Capital Crimes 124
Death at Broadcasting House Val Gielgud Holt Marvell 129
Bats in the Belfry E.C.R. Lorac 132
What Beckoning Ghost? Douglas G. Browne 134
Chapter 9 Resorting to Murder 137
The Red Redmaynes Eden Phillpotts 141
Mystery at Lynden Sands J.J. Connington 143
Murder in Black and White Evelyn Elder 145
Chapter 10 Making Fun of Murder 147
Quick Curtain Alan Melville 152
Case for Three Detectives Leo Bruce 154
The Moving Toyshop Edmund Crispin 157
Chapter 11 Education, Education, Education 159
Murder at School Glen Trevor 164
Murder at Cambridge Q. Patrick 166
Death at the President's Lodging Michael Innes 168
Chapter 12 Playing Politics 170
Vantage Striker Helen Simpson 174
Silence of a Purple Shirt R.C. Woodthorpe 177
The Nursing Home Murder Ngaio Marsh Henry Jellett 179
Chapter 13 Scientific Enquiries 182
The Documents in the Case Dorothy L. Sayers Robert Eustace 186
The Young Vanish Francis Everton 188
Death of an Airman Christopher St John Sprigg 190
A.B.C. Solves Five C.E. Bechhofer Roberts 192
Chapter 14 The Long Arm of the Law 195
The Grell Mystery Frank Froest 199
The Duke of York's Steps Henry Wade 201
Hendon's First Case John Rhode 204
Green for Danger Christianna Brand 206
Chapter 15 The Justice Game 208
Trial and Error Anthony Berkeley 212
Verdict of Twelve Raymond Postgate 214
Tragedy at Law Cyril Hare 216
Smallbone Deceased Michael Gilbert 218
Chapter 16 Multiplying Murders 220
The Perfect Murder Case Christopher Bush 223
Death Walks in Eastrepps Francis Beeding 225
Xv. Rex Martin Porlock 227
The Z Murders J. Jefferson Farjeon 229
The ABC Murders Agatha Christie 231
Chapter 17 The Psychology of Crime 233
The House by the River A.P. Herbert 238
Payment Deferred C.S. Forester 240
No Walls of Jasper Joanna Cannan 242
Nightmare Lynn Brock 244
Chapter 18 Inverted Mysteries 246
End of an Ancient Mariner G.D.H. M. Cole 250
Portrait of a Murderer Anne Meredith 252
The Department of Dead Ends Roy Vickers 254
Chapter 19 The Ironists 256
Malice Aforethought Francis Iles 259
Family Matters Anthony Rolls 261
Middle Class Murder Bruce Hamilton 263
My Own Murderer Richard Hull 265
Chapter 20 Fiction from Fact 267
Death to the Rescue Milward Kennedy 271
A Pin to See the Peepshow F. Tennyson Jesse 273
Earth to Ashes Alan Brock 275
The Franchise Affair Josephine Tey 277
Chapter 21 Singletons 279
Darkness at Pemberley T.H. White 284
The Division Bell Mystery Ellen Wilkinson 286
Death on the Down Beat Sebastian Farr 288
Chapter 22 Across the Atlantic 291
The Dain Curse Dashiell Hammett 297
The Curious Mr Tarrant Q. Daly King 299
Calamity Town Ellery Queen 302
The Red Right Hand Joel Townsley Rogers 304
Strangers on a Train Patricia Highsmith 306
Chapter 23 Cosmopolitan Crimes 308
Six Dead Men Stanislas-André Steeman 313
Pietr the Latvian Georges Simenon 315
Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi H. Bustos Domecq 317
Chapter 24 The Way Ahead 319
The Beast Must Die Nicholas Blake 323
Background for Murder Shelley Smith 325
The Killer and the Slain Hugh Walpole 328
The 31st of February Julian Symons 330
Select Bibliography 332
Index of Titles 337
Index of Authors 347