…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.
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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?