This book tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. I see it as a tale of the unexpected. The diversity of this much-loved genre is breathtaking, and so much greater than many critics have suggested. To illustrate this, I have chosen one hundred examples of books which highlight the achievements, and sometimes the limitations, of popular fiction of that era. The main aim of detective stories is to entertain, but the best cast a light on human behaviour, and display both literary ambition and accomplishment. And there is another reason why millions of modern readers continue to appreciate classic crime fiction. Even unpretentious detective stories, written for unashamedly commercial reasons, can give us clues to the past, and give us insight into a long-vanished world that, for all its imperfections, continues to fascinate.
This book serves as a companion to the British Library’s internationally acclaimed series of Crime Classics. Long-forgotten stories republished in the series have won a devoted new readership. Several titles have entered the bestseller charts, with sales outstripping those of highly acclaimed contemporary thrillers. Nostalgia for a bygone age is perhaps a factor, but it would be unwise to assume it is the main reason for the series’ success in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. That success has been as surprising and gratifying as any of the plot twists that make the stories so delightful to read.
So how do we define ‘crime classics’? The term has been adopted several times over the years by publishers who have sought to bring old mysteries back to life, but until recently, few of these ventures lasted long or gained much attention. Fashion counts in publishing, as in other walks of life, and a pleasing spin-off from the success of the British Library’s Crime Classics has been that other publishers have followed the Library’s lead, so that readers can now find scores of vintage detective stories that were previously difficult to find, and even harder to afford once traced.
In truth, ‘crime classics’ is—like ‘vintage crime’—a broad term allowing a great deal of latitude. A convenient label is not a guarantee of literary quality, or even that the puzzle in the story is markedly original. But for a book to merit the description of a ‘crime classic’, it should surely offer the reader something of value over and above the fact that it was written in the distant past, and may have languished in obscurity for decades. That special something may concern plot, character, setting, humour, social or historic significance, or a mix of these. Crime fiction is a broad church; that breadth helps to explain its global appeal.
Here, I have defined a ‘classic’ crime book as a novel or story collection published between 1901 and 1950 which seems to me to remain of particular interest—for whatever reason—to present-day lovers of detective fiction. The British Library’s series spans a slightly longer time frame, but for the present purposes, it makes sense to concentrate on the first half of the last century. The British Library also publishes a series of Classic Thrillers, but the focus here is on crime fiction (including many detective stories, but also some books where detection is not central to the story) rather than thrillers. One can debate endlessly the distinctions between ‘detective stories’ and ‘crime stories’, and between ‘crime fiction’ and ‘thrillers’, but for a book such as this, a pedantic insistence on strictness in definition seems futile. The term ‘mystery’, disliked by some purists, is used here interchangeably with ‘crime story’. In the case of authors better known by their crime-writing pseudonyms, I have generally used those rather than the real names. Many classic crime novels have been published under more than one title; I have been selective in mentioning alternative titles, because although such minutiae are often valuable, one can have too much of a good thing.
My choice of books reflects a wish to present the genre’s development in an accessible, informative, and engaging way. So far as possible, I have avoided including ‘spoilers’ revealing solutions to mysteries. Michael Innes, a learned academic as well as a renowned detective novelist, argued in a review for the London Review of Books in May 1983 that ‘systematically to conceal the core of a story is surely to hamstring effective critical discussion’. I am not wholly convinced, but in any event, I suspect that most readers, like me, prefer not to have their surprises anticipated.
My emphasis is on topics that will, I hope, appeal to readers with no more than a casual interest in the older detective stories. Although I have not written this book primarily with the most widely read connoisseurs of the genre in mind, I hope that even they will find books (and trivia) with which they are unfamiliar. People who enjoy classic crime fiction love making new discoveries, and one of my priorities has been to help them to indulge in some happy hunting.
I have not attempted to list the ‘best’ books of the period, nor is this even a selection of all my own favourites, which would certainly include more titles by Agatha Christie, and novels such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, Henry Wade’s Lonely Magdalen, Robert Player’s The Ingenious Mr Stone, and many others. The clue to this book is in its title—the aim is to tell a story. My account of the genre’s development over the space of fifty years is highly selective; it could not be otherwise in a book of this length. This is not an encyclopedia. One would need much more space to explore every aspect of this fascinating branch of fiction throughout the course of one of the most turbulent half-centuries in the history of the world, but I hope that my references to scores of other books in the chapter introductions will encourage further investigations on the part of readers.
The ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction is another familiar but vague concept that can be defined to suit one’s purpose. Most people treat the Golden Age as roughly synonymous with the era between the two world wars, and I share that view. This book covers a much longer stretch of time than the Golden Age, though, and suggests ways in which keynote stories written before the First World War influenced those that followed, just as Golden Age mysteries inspired writers of later generations, including some of today’s bestsellers.
This book overlaps with, but is very different from, The Golden Age of Murder, my study of the lives and work of members of the Detection Club in the Thirties, published in 2015. Many of the books discussed here were written by members of the Detection Club, the world’s first association of crime writers, an elite social network with a limited membership elected by secret ballot. But the Detection Club only came into existence in 1930, and some of the genre’s foundation stones were laid before then. The hundred chosen titles are set in a wider context, but the book is designed so that those who prefer to do so may dip in randomly to read about specific topics, titles or authors.
This is not the first book to examine fifty or one hundred noteworthy crime novels, but it offers more contextual background to the chosen titles than its predecessors. Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor gathered together their introductions to the books described in A Book of Prefaces to Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction: 1900–50 (1976). Julian Symons had previously produced The Hundred Best Crime Stories for the Sunday Times in 1957–8, an undertaking that, in his characteristically modest manner, he later described as ‘dubiously useful’. Undeterred by Symons’ reservations, almost forty years later, his friend and successor as President of the Detection Club, H.R.F. Keating, published Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books. In addition, there are ‘Cornerstones’ listed by two distinguished American authorities, Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen, and a more recent ‘hundred best’ selection edited on behalf of the Crime Writers’ Association by Susan Moody. In the internet age, the list of lists is endless.
Plenty of titles featured here appear in one or more of the earlier lists, but I was not content simply to round up the usual suspects. Several of my more obscure choices are unashamedly idiosyncratic. This is partly because unpredictability appeals to crime fans, including me, and partly because of my wish to demonstrate the sheer variety of the genre. Some forgotten books, of course, are forgotten for reasons that become obvious as soon as one reads them, but even some of the flimsier stories offer pictures of character or society, even if that was not the authors’ intention. I have discussed the work of journeymen and journeywomen alongside that of writers whose fiction displays literary aspiration and, sometimes, conspicuous achievement.
The book’s structure is, in very broad terms, chronological; it starts with an undoubted classic, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and ends with a novel by Julian Symons that set the tone for British crime fiction in the second half of the twentieth century. To highlight some of the patterns in the genre, I have divided the book into thematic chapters, although many of the novels discussed illustrate several of the highlighted themes. Because this story about classic crime does not always follow a well-trodden path, I hope it offers something fresh even to those who have, like me, misspent their youth and much of the rest of their lives delving into the dusty corners of this hugely enjoyable branch of literary entertainment.
A surprising number of my chosen books were collaborative efforts, rather than the work of a single author. Similarly, it is striking that, although only two of the books selected from the years before 1920 were written by women, female authors wrote, or co-wrote, a much higher proportion of novels during the next three decades. While the never-ending success story of Agatha Christie is unique, she was not the only ‘Crime Queen’ of the Golden Age; her achievements, and those of Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and company have overshadowed those of their male contemporaries, many of whom deserve to be better known.
Classic crime novels have long been popular with book collectors. A dust-jacketed first edition in good condition of most of the titles discussed here will often fetch an eye-watering sum, and all the more so if it benefits from a signature or inscription from the author. Such hard-to-find copies may be out of the reach of most readers, but it is a source of delight to the British Library, and to me, that titles in the Crime Classics series, so attractively packaged, are themselves now being widely collected.
Novels published in that series come, unsurprisingly, from authors born or writing in Britain, and this presented me with a dilemma. The story told here concerns, first and foremost, British detective fiction. Yet in the first half of the century, many crime novels and short stories of distinction were produced in other parts of the world. This has often been overlooked, perhaps because of insularity, but also for the very good reason that, even today, some excellent work has yet to be translated into English. Space simply does not permit an extended discussion of books from overseas, but I was reluctant to ignore them altogether. In sharing my love of the genre, I seek to emphasise its extraordinary range, and so I have included a small sampling of key titles from the United States and elsewhere.
This book does not pretend to be the last word on its subject—far from it. Its overriding aim is to provide a launch point that enables readers to embark on their own voyages of discovery. My hope is to encourage an increasing number of readers to share my delight in the diverse riches that classic crime fiction has to offer.