The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Books, books, glorious books…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having fallen deeply in love with the whole British Library Crime Classics thing, this book was bound to be right up my alley – a dark alley, full of sinister shadows and red herrings, of course! Martin Edwards has done a lot of the introductions for the novels in the BL collection and is the editor of all the great themed short story anthologies, so he knows his stuff. Here he looks at the rise of the crime novel and its development throughout the first half of the last century.

The book is split into themed sections, and is arranged roughly chronologically, although with some crossover in dates between the different groups. It starts with A New Era Dawns, which takes us back to look at some of the authors and books that pre-dated the Golden Age but influenced it: for example, Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men. The next chapter looks at The Birth of the Golden Age, then on to The Great Detectives, and so on; through to The Psychology of Crime, as straight mystery novels began to give way a little to the more character driven books, like those of Patricia Highsmith, which formed a kind of bridge to the more psychological crime novels of today. Some of the chapters look at particular sub-genres with chapter titles that often mirror the themed short story collections – Capital Crimes (London based), Continental Crimes, Miraculous Mysteries (locked room mysteries), etc. And, although the vast majority of the books listed are British, Edwards takes a brief look at what was happening Across the Atlantic and also a few from Europe and elsewhere around the world.

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.

Edwards writes knowledgeably but conversationally, so that it never feels as if one is being lectured by an expert – rather it’s like having a chat with a well-read friend. He starts each chapter with a discussion around its theme, in which, I feel I have to warn you, he routinely mentions umpteen books which aren’t part of the hundred but all sound like must-reads! He shows how the genre and various sub-genres developed, and gives a clear impression of how back then crime writers were as much of a community as they are now, feeding off each other and often referencing each other’s work. Several of the authors were also critics and reviewers, and Edwards draws on their work to show how particular books and authors were thought of at the time. He discusses how the books reflect and were influenced by contemporary society and events, putting into context the “snobbishness” of some Golden Age writers that can sometimes be off-putting for the modern reader.

With relatively few exceptions, they [Golden Age crime writers] came from well-to-do families, and were educated at public school; many went to Oxford or Cambridge. . . .

Theirs was, in many ways, a small and elitist world, and this helps to explain why classic crime novels often include phonetic renditions of the dialogue of working-class people which make modern readers cringe. Some of the attitudes evident and implicit in the books of highly educated authors, for instance as regards Jewish and gay people, would be unacceptable in fiction written in the twenty-first century. It is worth remembering that theirs was not only a tiny world, but also a very different one from ours, and one of the pleasures of reading classic crime is that it affords an insight into the Britain of the past, a country in some respects scarcely recognisable today.

Following these interesting introductions, he lists the books he has selected for each section. He makes it clear he doesn’t necessarily think they’re all brilliant – rather, he feels they’re either an important link in the development of the crime novel, or a good representative example of the sub-genre under discussion. There are some well known classics here – The Lodger, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Franchise Affair, The Dain Curse, etc. But there are also zillions that I had never heard of. Talking of zillions, I should mention that the 100 Books are actually 102 Books – a baffling mystery in itself! Edwards gives a brief spoiler-free preview of the plot of each book and then discusses why he’s included it. He also includes some biographical details of the author, mainly more literary than personal, but often including interesting anecdotes about them. Edwards is the current President of the Detection Club amongst other things, and he tells us quite a lot about the history and membership of that organisation as he goes along too.

Martin Edwards

So you can tell the book is positively stuffed full of info, which left me with a much greater understanding of the development of the genre and an uncontrollable desire to pop off and search for all 102 books. And the good thing is that, following the BL’s lead, lots of publishers are bringing these old books back into print, or at least into e-books, so of the sample of 20 or so that I checked, the vast majority are available at prices that won’t require me to defraud a bank or poison a rich relative. Though I’m pretty sure that I’m knowledgeable enough now to do either and get away with it…

Highly recommended to anyone who’d like to know more about the history of the crime novel, or who’d like to read some of the classic books but doesn’t know quite where to begin. But I’d say this book would also be great for people who already know quite a bit about the genre – it’s so packed with goodies I can’t imagine many people wouldn’t learn something from it as well as being entertained by some of the stories about the authors. Personally, I feel a new challenge coming on… watch this space!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press (who publish the Kindle versions of the British Library Crime Classics series).

Amazon UK Link
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53 thoughts on “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

  1. *gasp* I cannot live without this book, absolutely not. But then, I fear, I will be unable to live without the vast majority of books included within and I might never emerge from my TBR! Although, if I do, I will join you in bank heists and poisonings that will invariably lead to more books being written about our exploits… which I will then have to read… Argh! (Absolutely spiffing review, by the way, it has brightened my morning immensely!!)

    • Hahaha! I know! That’s how I felt about it too, and now my TBR has nearly doubled in size. There ought to be a law against books like this! But oh yes! I think we should definitely become a criminal duo – like Thelma and Louise. Or Dick Dastardly and Muttley! (Aww, thank you! 😀 Glad you enjoyed it!)

  2. I’m so pleased you enjoyed this as much as you did, FictionFan. Isn’t Edwards knowledgeable? And he’s chosen such interesting books, too. It’s the sort of book, too, that you can dip in and out of, and really digest. Not surprised (although I am very happy) that you loved it.

    • An awful book – my poor TBR will never recover! There ought to be a law against it, I tell you! 😉 Yes, I think it’s actually probably meant as a dipper, though I enjoyed reading it straight through too. But it’s one I’ll go back to as I gradually track down some of the books – I love that it’s so accessible to the general reader… 😀

  3. Totally want this! I love behind the scenes looks at writers (though sometimes you discover facts you wish you hadn’t discovered). I’m glad to see five grins on this one. 😀

    • It really is a goodie – well worth getting hold of! And actually Edwards is such a generous writer that the vast majority of his tales of the authors are affectionate – I can’t think of any author he put me off reading. He’s good at making allowances for the different times… 😀

  4. I admit most of the Dective crime stories I have seen are on the screen. However, I have wanted to read these books for some time. This book sounds like a great companion book for when I begin my collection, for my readings. I am curious. Is Agatha Christie’s books mentioned?

  5. Absolutely my cup of tea – or perhaps poison would be more appropriate. martin Edwards should be classed as a National Treasure!

  6. Ooohh this sounds really good, especially because I could use this info when doing my radio segments, I always like to give a similar ‘intro’ to the books and what genre they fit into, etc.

    • His little intros are great – they get just the right balance between giving enough and not too much information and never spoil the plot. I find I often quote his intros as part of my reviews – he’s so knowledgeable but not in that annoyingly know-it-all kind of way… 😀

  7. This sounds fascinating, though as I’ve only read one of the British Library Crime Classics so far, I wonder if it would be better to wait until I’ve read a few more before reading this one? I’ll look forward to hearing more about your new challenge…it sounds very bad for the TBR! 🙂

    • Although some of the books have been published by the BL, a lot of them haven’t (but have been re-issued by other publishers, mostly), so though it’s a companion piece to some extent, it’s not totally tied to the BL series. I think it’s a great way for people who don’t know much about the genre to get pointers of where to start – he gives enough info about each book to give an idea of whether it might be the kind the thing you’d enjoy. My TBR may never forgive me for reading it though… 😉

  8. I’m really looking forward to exploring this book which I bought due to your excerpt post. It sounds as though it will be a worthwhile purchase packed full of informative facts about the history of crime fiction. I’m looking for review of the 102 books 😏

  9. Oh dear.

    I’ve seen this advertised and was immediately tempted. ‘What a great way to get into a genre to which I’ve had little exposure’, I thought. Then I realised the implications of that and where it might lead and I stepped away.

    But NOW I’ve gone and read your review which even mentions spreadsheets (drooling at that point) – and I see there’s another post mentioning your new challenge and I’m guessing there’s a connection. So I must steel myself for regular reviews of crime novels and references to this book for an indefinite period.

    And the season’s turning to darker nights – the perfect time for crime …..

    I am not strong enough….. 😐

    • Hahaha! That was pretty much what I felt when I started reading it – oh no! My TBR! But then I realised what a brilliant excuse it was for a spreadsheet and was happy again…

      I’ve spent the last couple of days hunting the older books down and my poor TBR is groaning. All I need to do know is find time (and energy!) to read and review them all. What will you do if they’re all 5-stars? You’ll have to read them then… 😉

  10. I’m never reading this, never! Oh dear, it sounds perfect, but I fear it means I’ll be found in a locked room with no mystery as to how I died – buried under my enormous toppling TBR! I’m going now, trying to wipe all memory of this book from my mind…

    • Hahaha! Go on – you know you want to! And it’s only 102 – you’ll be able to read them all before Christmas! Oh dear, my own TBR has pretty much collapsed under its own weight – I’m going to have to teach the cats to read and write reviews…

    • Thanks for popping by and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Haha – yes, your enthusiasm came through loud and clear, and has crippled my TBR for the next several years! But I forgive you… 😉

  11. It’s a book about books! I’ve read books on the histories of certain literary periods, but the author never really gives facts about writers, recommends books, or includes synopses. Mostly, it’s like, “Oh, Victorian Lit? Read Dickens, of course.” Erm, okay. Is that it?

    • Yes, I bought a book about Scottish fiction once and was disappointed that there were no lists and synopses (is that the plural of synopsis? Hmm… well, anyway…) just a bunch of academic-style essays. This one is so much better for either using for a challenge, like me, or for just seeing from the separate entries which books might appeal…

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