A Cavalcade of Criminals…

…and a Diversity of Detectives…

Having become addicted to the British Library Crime Classics series quite early on, and being lucky enough to receive review copies of most of the new ones, I’ve read a considerable number of them now, and fully intend to backtrack at some point and fill in the gaps. Now that there are so many of them, I’ve heard one or two people say they’d like to read some but don’t quite know where to begin. So I thought I’d put together a little list of my top ten recommendations. This is an entirely subjective choice – I’m sure everyone’s list would be different – but these are all ones that I loved and that stand out from the crowd in some way, and I’ve selected them to give an idea of the many styles that exist in a genre that we often tend to think of, wrongly, as formulaic.

I could have filled all ten slots with just a couple of authors who’ve become firm favourites now, such as ECR Lorac or George Bellairs, but I decided instead to limit myself to one book per author. And to keep the post to a reasonable length, I’m not providing full blurbs – clicking on any title or book cover that intrigues you will take you to my full review of the book. They are in no particular order – picking an overall favourite would be impossible. Here goes…

The Body in the Dumb River
by George Bellairs

Inspector Littlejohn had a long-running career and this is from the middle of the series, from 1961. I loved the twin settings in the book – the flooded fenlands and a working-class Yorkshire town. The characterisations are very good, as is the observation of our class-ridden society with all its prejudices and snobberies. In style, it’s a police procedural, and Littlejohn and his sidekick Cromwell are a likeable pair.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case
by Anthony Berkeley

Berkeley was a stalwart of the detective novel, but in this one he is having some light-hearted fun at the expense of his fellow novelists. A group of amateur ‘tecs have a go at solving the same crime from the same clues, showing how each clue can be interpreted differently and lead to a variety of equally credible solutions. Humour is the main aim, but there’s a good mystery beneath it, and it seems to have become a tradition for other authors to add their own solution – the BL edition contains Martin Edwards’ own attempt.

Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar
by John Bude

A twofer! Previously I hadn’t rated John Bude as highly as many other readers, but these two changed my mind and shoved him straight onto my favourites list. The first is set in a country house, amidst a company of theatricals, while the second has the traditional village setting, where everyone knows each other’s business, or thinks they do! Lots of humour, some darker elements and excellent mysteries – highly entertaining.

It Walks By Night
by John Dickson Carr

A madman is on the loose and threatening to murder his ex-wife before she can remarry! This has some wonderfully creepy scenes alongside a rather less credible mystery plot, and seemed to me to draw as much on the tradition of the Decadent horror writing of the fin de siècle period as on the mystery conventions of the Golden Age. The writing is great, and Carr creates at times an almost hallucinatory atmosphere of horror and tension. Spooked me good and proper, it did!

Death in Captivity
by Michael Gilbert

All three of the Gilbert books the BL has so far republished are excellent and could have made this list. They’re all very different from each other, and I’ve chosen this one because the setting is so unique and so well done – the mystery takes place among the inmates in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy during WW2. As well as a traditional murder plot, it has a side plot involving an escape attempt, which I actually enjoyed as much, if not more, than the mystery itself.

The Murder of My Aunt
by Richard Hull

We follow the awful Edward as he plots to murder his equally awful aunt. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. The writing is fantastic, and it’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. And it’s also hilarious!

Murder by Matchlight
by ECR Lorac

Lorac remains the star of the show for me, despite stiff competition. I’m clearly not alone in my admiration, since the BL has now republished more of her books than any other author, I think, and they’re all well worth reading. It’s her creation of entirely authentic settings that makes her stand out, and her wartime settings in particular are excellently done. This one makes full use of the Blitz and the blackout both as part of the plot itself, and also to create a very credible picture of plucky London keeping calm and carrying on.

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm
by Gil North

Written somewhat later, in the ‘60s, the Sergeant Cluff books feel more modern than most of the others – a kind of bridge to the grittier crime fiction of today. The story is darker and Cluff, though a man of high moral principle, is something of a maverick, following his own path to justice when the system fails. The writing style takes a bit of getting used to, but his depictions of both his grim northern town and the wild isolated moors that surround it are great, creating a brilliant atmosphere of menace and terror towards the end.

Verdict of Twelve
by Raymond Postgate

This one is considered a classic, and with good reason. It has three distinct parts. First we meet each member of a jury and learn about the attitudes and experiences they will bring to their judgement. Only then do we learn about the crime and who’s on trial. And then we see the jury deliberate and come to their decision. The jurors’ stories form a kind of microcosm of society, and cover some unexpected topics for the time, such as homosexuality (still criminalised) and child abuse, although in a more understated way than the often too graphic portrayals in contemporary crime.

The Belting Inheritance
by Julian Symons

Another later one, from 1965, this reads more like the books of Ruth Rendell or PD James than the Golden Age writers. It’s not a traditional whodunit – more of a psychological and social study of the characters, set at a time when society was on the cusp of major changes. It’s an interesting insight into the growing egalitarianism of the post-war period, as the uppity proles began to think maybe they were just as good as the privileged blue-bloods after all. I feel it crosses over into literary fiction, with our old friend “the human condition” taking precedence over the mystery aspect, and the writing is excellent.

* * * * *

So there they are – my Top Ten (or eleven if you count the twofer as two!). Have you read any of them? Are there others you feel should be included? Or if you haven’t tried any vintage crime yet, have I tempted you with any of these?

Have a Great Friday! 😀

43 thoughts on “A Cavalcade of Criminals…

  1. Of the three on your list that I’ve read, I love all of them – The Body in the River, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Death in Captivity. One of the things that I remember most clearly from The Body in the River was how seriously it took the fact that Jim had been badly bullied by his wife for years. People think that characterisation is flat in Golden Age stories and that they don’t really engage with psychological issues, but if that were the case Bellairs would have portrayed him comedically as a henpecked husband – instead, that part of the story is pretty dark, as is appropriate for the subject matter.

    If I were writing a list, those three would be on it, but I think I’d probably add The Cornish Coast Murder (also by Bude), which I really enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think these books have shown me that a lot of them had a lot more to say about society and how it works than I would have expected. I’m often surprised by the subjects they touch on, and that they managed to do it without ever becoming graphic or distasteful – something some of our current authors could learn from, I feel! Ah, The Cornish Coast Murder is one of the ones I’ve missed, but it’s on my wishlist! All I need to do is get out of my slump and find time to fit it in! 😀

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  2. This is great, FictionFan! I’m especially happy that you’ve found so many books and authors that you like this well. Not at all surprised to see the Hull on your list (and I concur!). And Michael Gilbert did do some fine books, as did North. You’ve reminded me, too, that I really do want to read Verdict of Twelve – have since you posted about it. I’ve just not gotten to it yet, and I really must.

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    • It was actually quite hard to whittle the list down to ten! I was quite surprised at how many different authors I’d enjoyed though – and worried, since among them all they must have hundreds of books for me still to read – my poor TBR! 😉 Verdict of Twelve is excellent, especially all the jurors’ stories. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when you get to it! 😀

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  3. Yay! So nice to have a list! Thank you for compiling it. I’m tempted by all of them. I’ve loved vintage crime since I first discovered Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh! Which is why it’s sad that I never heard of ECR Lorac until I read your book reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, just get them all then – you won’t be sorry! 😉 I used to read a lot of vintage crime years ago, and then got diverted into contemporary crime. But really I find the vintage stuff much more enjoyable on the whole – entertaining rather than harrowing, usually. It’s sad so many of them have fallen into obscurity, but I’m glad that several publishers are now bringing back the best of them. 😀

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  4. These all look good, I think the BL have released a few of them as audiobooks now, I’ll see what I can find. I’m especially tempted by Deaf in White Pyjamas, I remember liking the look of it when you reviewed it a few months ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There always seems to be quite a long delay before the audiobooks come out – I wish they’d come out simultaneously the way most books do these days. Death in White Pyjamas is great fun, especially with your theatrical interests – I hope you manage to get hold of it! 😀

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  5. These sound wonderful, FF, and I for one appreciate your taking time to share your picks. I’ve read quite a few of Ruth Rendell’s and enjoyed them, so when you say something evokes her writing, I’m intrigued. Now, if I can get my hands on some of them….

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    • Yes, it’s quite interesting to see how the style changed in the ’60s, away from straight mysteries to ones that are more psychological. I’m reading another Julian Symons at the moment and it feels very modern in style. Hope you can get hold of some of them – I think a lot of libraries are stocking some of them now…

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  6. Thank you! This is a handy post. I think the only one I actually have in my TBR pile is Death in Captivity, though the Carr and Bude are both on my wishlist (along with a few others you’ve reviewed that didn’t make this list).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could easily have picked a different ten – I’ve loved far more of these than I haven’t! Those three that you mention are all excellent and all very different from each other – I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy them when you get to them!

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  7. I’ve read two and enjoyed both. I still have a few waiting on my shelves but then lost track of them because BL seem to be throwing them out quite fast and I couldn’t keep up. So this list will definitely come in handy when I decide to buy a few more.

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    • They actually seem to only publish one a month but I always seem to be struggling to keep up too – especially now that they send me their horror and sci-fi releases too! I’m not complaining, though… 😀

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  8. Though I’ve only read three so far (Berkeley, Bude and Gilbert) they all seem a little familiar from your reviews. I already had the Bellairs, Lorac and Postgate on my TBR and have now added the North and Symons – nearly all of them! Thanks for your great work in promoting this series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you’re enjoying them too! I could easily have picked another ten – there have been very few real failures for me in the series so far, and it’s usually the ones that are described as ‘witty’, so I guess it’s probably just that they don’t tickle my sense of humour. I feel very fortunate to have fallen in with the BL – between these and their vintage horror and sci-fi, they’re taking over my TBR… 😀

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    • I’m loving all these vintage crime novels at the moment – they’re not too gritty and not too cosy – just right! Verdict of Twelve is excellent, especially the section that tells all the jurors’ stories – a real microcosm of society. 😀

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    • I’m so pleased that the BL and other publishers are bringing these authors back to prominence, especially since I’m out of tune with a lot of contemporary crime fiction these days, so they’re filling a massive hole in my reading. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I haven’t read any of these, but I’m sure this list will be useful, if I decide to look into British vintage crime. Recently, I reread Christie’s Death on the Nile – wouldn’t it be great if all crime novels had this standard… I remembered all the details in the plot and still thoroughly enjoyed it.

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    • I must admit that much though I’ve loved finding all these other authors, there’s still no-one who comes close to Christie – she really is the Queen of Crime! But some of these are definitely as good as the likes of Dorothy L Sayers or Margery Allingham as far as I’m concerned – sometimes better! Just be careful about diving in – they can be highly addictive… 😀

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    • Thank you – glad you think it’s helpful! 😀 There’s so many of them now it can be a bit overwhelming to decide where to start, but once you start be careful – they’re highly addictive… 😉

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