The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Originally published in 2015.

Detective stories of the Twenties and Thirties have long been stereotyped as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Golden Age of Murder tells for the first time the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars. A gripping real-life detective story, it investigates how Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie and their colleagues in the mysterious Detection Club transformed crime fiction. Their work cast new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets, and their complex and sometimes bizarre private lives.

Crime novelist and current Detection Club President Martin Edwards rewrites the history of crime fiction with unique authority, transforming our understanding of detective stories, and the brilliant but tormented men and women who wrote them.

This is the perfect moment for a cold case review of the Detection Club: to unmask the Golden Age writers and their work, against the backdrop of the extraordinary times in which they lived.

One of the challenges in writing about a book that has been as celebrated as Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is figuring out how to approach it. It strikes me that if you are reading this blog (which you are), you are likely already interested in what is dubbed detective fiction’s Golden Age. It also seems to me quite likely that you may have read this already.

Nor can I say that my opinion of the book will likely stand out from the other opinions that have been offered about it. The work is a very enjoyable and well-researched history of the formation of the Detection Club and the part that its members played in developing the British detective novel in the period between the two world wars.

Odds are then that this may make for a pretty unimaginative review but I feel there is still some value in sharing some thoughts, though I will endeavor to keep them brief. After all, there may be some (like myself) who are late in coming to this work.

Edwards begins his work before the creation of the Detective Club, devoting his first few chapters to exploring the early writing careers of Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and Agatha Christie. These three are some of the most familiar writers of this period but it is necessary to understand the personalities of the figures most instrumental in the group’s creation. Their personalities loom large in the organization’s early years and feature frequently throughout the rest of the book.

After discussing how the Detection Club came to be founded and describing some of its rituals and rules, Edwards expands his focus to feature the many other figures who were its members. Given the number of members it is natural that some are afforded more space than others. Some, such as A. A. Milne and Baroness Orczy, are only mentioned briefly, while others’ careers get more substantial coverage. It seemed clear to me that this reflects their contribution to the development of the detective fiction and I didn’t feel that there were any obvious omissions.

Edwards often groups figures together around a common theme. For example, the fourteenth chapter deals with the impact of World War I on the members, providing biographical notes for Henry Wade, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy and Christopher Bush. It was this material that often proved the most interesting to me as several of the names and the works discussed were unfamiliar to me.

More on that in a moment…

Another source of joy for me were the notes at the end of each chapter. Edwards will quote a sentence he has written and provide additional background. In some cases that means referencing the works he consulted in his research, in others it might mean providing additional reflections on a point beyond the scope of this work. I found these to be very informative and I appreciate that these are used well to provide additional detail that could otherwise slow the work down or distract from the theme of the chapter.

Overall I was impressed by the range of themes Edwards is able to explore in the book and I particularly appreciated the way he would tie developments in the genre to the bigger socio-political events happening at that time. We get to read about how members of the Detection Club responded to the Spanish Civil War, the abdication crisis and the financial turmoil of the 1930s. Some of those stories I had heard before but there was much that was new and fascinating to me. There is also plenty of discussion of the real-life crime cases that fascinated the members and the works that they inspired.

Other than wishing that sometimes there were a few more details about some of those more elusive figures, my only other complaint is a rather minor one. While Edwards usually avoids detailing plots in full, there are a few references to works that I think give a little too much of the books’ solutions or endings away either by direct comment or in comparison. While this is rare and those elements are often referenced to illustrate broader points about the development of the genre or on a theme, do take care and be prepared to skim.

Overall though I had a really good time with The Golden Age of Murder and I felt I came away from it with a stronger understanding of the Detection Club and an interest in its members many of whom I am completely unfamiliar with. That is something I would love to correct and so, as my Twitter followers may be aware, I have decided to embark on an ambitious challenge for myself to read and review at least one work by each of its members.

My intention is that I will be tackling the members roughly in the order of the year of their admission to the club. Often multiple members were admitted in a calendar year and when that’s the case I’ll tackle them in whatever order suits me best. I will try to pick a book I haven’t read that was published prior to their admission though on occasion I will settle for whatever I can afford or easily acquire.

And that brings me to the bit where I want to enlist your help. While I have pretty good ideas of what I might read for Berkeley or Carr, there are plenty of figures whose work I am less familiar with. From time to time I may be asking for recommendations either here or on Twitter and I will appreciate your input. Which starts now.

My intention is to begin this series by reading a work by the Detection Club’s first President, G. K. Chesterton. The reason I am starting with him rather than Sayers or Berkeley is that while I have read a few of his short stories, I am not particularly familiar with his work. So, what G. K. Chesterton novel or short story collection would you recommend? I’d love to hear what you think!

The Verdict: A fascinating exploration of the Detection Club and the role its members played in developing detective fiction in its Golden Age. Highly recommended.

The Mysterious Case of Agatha Christie by Maureen Corrigan

Audiobook Details

Originally published in 2021
This work is exclusively available through Audible

The Blurb

Meet Agatha Christie, the best-selling novelist in human history. Her writing career spanned six decades, during which time she wrote 66 crime novels, 6 non-crime novels (including romances), and over 150 short stories. Not only was she a phenomenally successful novelist, but she is also the most successful female playwright of all time – her play “The Mousetrap” is the longest-running show in history.

As you learn about Christie’s experiences and her storied career, you will better understand how the circumstances of her life shaped her work and vice versa. Along the way, consider some fascinating questions:

  • How did becoming a nurse and an apothecary’s assistant influence her crime stories? 
  • Would her literary career have been different if she had not been a part of well-to-do British society? 
  • Why did Christie disappear at the height of her fame – and will we ever know the whole truth about that fateful event?

Agatha Christie’s works have been read by millions and have been adapted into film, television, plays, and more since her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduced the world to Hercule Poirot in 1920. Her famous detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple, have become beloved staples of pop culture around the world. With such a legacy, it can sometimes be surprising how much of her life remains a mystery to her readers. In The Mysterious Case of Agatha Christie, you will get an intimate glimpse of her private life, investigate the secrets of her greatest novels, and perhaps solve a few mysteries yourself.

The Verdict

An enjoyable and well-organized introduction to the life and works of Christie. Best suited to newcomers but still an entertaining listen even if the facts given are familiar.

Christie, more than any other mystery writer before her or since, was a genius at hiding clues in plain sight and awakening us readers to the realization of how blind we are to the truth before our eyes.

My Thoughts

Just over two months ago I wrote about a Great Courses series released on Audible discussing the Sherlock Holmes stories. I ended that review by noting that I’d be very happy to see a similar series of lectures released discussing the works of Agatha Christie. As you can see, my wish came true and so I naturally made a point to listen to the audiobook as soon as possible.

Before we begin I ought to offer up a short word about the way that this has been released. Like its Holmesian predecessor this is an Audible Original meaning that it is exclusive to that service. In the United States this is currently included in that service’s Premium Plus package, allowing you to listen without spending a credit while that membership is active. This may be different in other territories however.

The Mysterious Case of Agatha Christie is written and delivered by Maureen Corrigan who you may know as the book critic from NPR’s Fresh Air or mystery columnist for the Washington Post. This course is divided into ten lectures of around thirty minutes length. While they are referred to as lectures however and each part has its own themes, there is a much stronger connection and sense of development between them than was present in the Holmes series. That reflects that Corrigan’s approach is to center her discussion around the events of Christie’s life, exploring how they influenced her writing.

This results in a course that feels very accessible, even to those who do not already possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Christie’s works. Corrigan tries to avoid giving spoilers in her discussions of the stories though occasionally they might be inferred in spite of the authors’ efforts. I would advise listeners to have already read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express to be safe though I suspect almost everyone who would be interested in this course would likely have done that already.

Listeners should expect the coverage of books and stories to be somewhat uneven with a focus on some key titles that represent turning points in her career or that clearly draw on things from the author’s life. It means that the course feels more focused on the works produced in the first ten years of her career than those produced later. This is inevitable given the length of Christie’s life and also the sheer number of works she had published. Fans of Passenger to Frankfurt may be disappointed but it makes sense in the context of the author’s approach to exploring Christie as a person and as a writer.

Corrigan makes a point to discuss Christie’s accomplishments beyond the world of mystery novels, talking a little about her theatrical successes. While this could certainly have been expanded upon, I think it was proportionate to the discussion of her books which are no doubt the main point of interest for most listeners. Her romance novels however arguably deserve a little more attention than they receive here.

The discussion of Christie’s life however is excellent and organized very clearly, once again focusing on some key moments and themes that can be observed. There is quite a bit of discussion concerning Christie’s childhood and relationships with her family, her marriage to Archie and later to Max, as well as her travels around the world. Inevitably there is discussion of her famous disappearance and the different theories offered about how to interpret it, but Corrigan’s reason for discussing this is ultimately to reflect on how it would affect her career.

I also enjoyed the discussion of some key criticisms of Christie, particularly those offered by Chandler, Wilson and Barnard (the latter of whom she draws heavily on throughout the course). Corrigan’s responses feel fair and considered, offering a view of Christie that is broadly appreciative but not without acknowledging some of points of criticism such as those concerning her social and class attitudes.

It makes for an excellent broad introduction to the life and works of Christie and would offer most value to those who are taking their first steps into her fiction or who may have seen one of the movies about her life and want to learn more. If you are much more widely read, particularly if you have read her Autobiography, there may be less new information here but it is still an enjoyable and worthwhile listen. Corrigan is an engaging and entertaining speaker and I enjoyed the time I spent in her company.

Finally, if someone from Audible or The Teaching Company is reading this, I’d be very interested to listen to a similar series about the works of John Dickson Carr or Dorothy L. Sayers… (No, I don’t think that will happen this time but worth a chance, eh?)

Lecture Titles

  1. The Making of a Master
  2. Miss Agatha Miller in Love and War
  3. On the Road with Agatha Christie
  4. Agatha Christie: “The Hour of Lead”
  5. Murder Most Foul!
  6. The Mystery of the Vanished Mystery Novelist
  7. Recovery and Reinvention beyond Mayhem Parva
  8. Love amidst the Ruins
  9. Agatha Christie during World War II and Beyond
  10. “Death Comes as the End”: Christie and her Legacy

Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary by James Krasner

Audiobook Details

Originally published in 2021
This work is exclusively available through Audible to its members

The Blurb

Every hero works to soothe the fears of the people during their period in history. Heroes are not only brave, but they’re also able to navigate the convoluted corridors of society, and to see through the respectable pretense of others to detect the evil that lies within.

So, who better to take on the foggy, crime-ridden streets and strict social mores of Victorian London than the iconic literary detective Sherlock Holmes?

In Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary, you’ll investigate the history behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s whip-smart, charismatic detective. James Krasner, a scholar of British Victorian literature, will play the role of “Watson” as he offers a clearer picture of the imaginative influence Sherlock Holmes has maintained over readers from the 19th century through today. While you examine the secrets of novels like A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles and stories like “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem,” you’ll deepen your appreciation of these enduring works. You’ll also gain insights into Holmes’s continued relevance to the social problems we face in our own world.

What does the relationship between Holmes and Watson tell us about friendship? Is Sherlock Holmes just a “thinking machine”? How do these adventures lay bare gender dynamics in surprising ways?

The answers are far from elementary.

The Verdict

An interesting and well-paced exploration of Holmes and the themes found in the canon. Ideally designed for those who have read all the stories and want to dig a little deeper.

In this series we’ll talk about the history behind Sherlock Holmes and we’ll talk about how his adventures take us right into the heart, and sometimes the seedy underbelly, of Victorian England.

My Thoughts

Several years ago I blogged about The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, a lecture series from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses range that discussed the history and breadth of the mystery and suspense genres. I credited that series for encouraging me to explore the genre more widely and bringing a number of authors and sub-genres of crime fiction to my attention.

In recent years in addition to their broader video and audio courses, The Teaching Company have partnered with Audible to create shorter lecture series specifically designed for the audio format. These are often on more tightly defined topics (such as the life of Prince Albert or the history of holiday celebrations) and recently became part of the Audible Plus library that are available to subscribers (edit: this may only be true of the US Audible service – see comments below) without using up any credits. This new short course is one of those Audible Originals, discussing the Sherlock Holmes stories in depth.

The first thing to emphasize is that Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary is not designed for newcomers to the Holmes stories. Krasner discusses key plot developments of a number of stories including often identifying the villains or the manner in which they are caught. Instead it is designed for those who have read the stories and are keen to dig a little deeper with each installment teasing out and discussing certain themes that run throughout the stories.

For example, the first lecture discusses the importance of the city of London and the way it is depicted within the stories. Krasner discusses this in terms of the growth of the city in the nineteenth century and the anxiety about aspects of city life that is reflected in a number of stories. This was one of the most interesting installments for me as it focuses on how these stories were being received specifically in the period in which they were first published.

Other topics include the characters of Watson and Holmes, the construction of mystery stories, the role of women and the supernatural in the stories. There are also lectures on the relationship between Doyle and his creation and how the character has been depicted on stage and screen. The material is well-structured and varied enough that there is not much repetition between the various sections. I include a full list of the lecture titles at the end of this post.

I found Krasner’s material most engaging when he goes beyond the Doyle stories to discuss how they align with themes being developed in other stories written during the period. This places the material in a slightly different context to the way I have usually encountered it in terms of the development of the mystery genre and I enjoyed getting to consider it from that slightly different perspective.

Krasner is clearly a fan of the character, something he establishes in his introduction where he talks about dressing up as Holmes on several occasions during his childhood, but he discusses the Holmes phenomenon with enough distance to be able to make some occasionally surprising comparisons such as with Twilight, Star Trek and the Harry Potter series, particularly in relation to the development of its fan culture.

One difference between these Audible Originals and the original Great Courses releases is that the lack of visuals allows the presenter to speak directly from a script. This means that there are no hesitations or stumbles but it can also mean that in spite of the lecture label, that it feels more like a reading than a spontaneous performance. I feel that is the case with this release, though Krasner speaks clearly and I found him easy to listen to.

One slight disappointment for me was that the lectures focus pretty exclusively on the books’ and the character’s reception in the anglophone world. This is unfortunate as I believe that one of the things which most defines Holmes is his global fanbase. It is a shame that this means there is no discussion of the appeal of these stories to that global audience or of adaptations like Miss Sherlock. I do appreciate though that obviously with a limited running time a line has to be drawn somewhere and obviously these have more limited audiences than the likes of Downey Jr’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s takes on Sherlock.

Overall I found this an enjoyable and engaging listen and if you have an Audible subscription I certainly think that it is worth the listen if you are someone who has read all the stories and wants to start to dig a little deeper. And if someone from The Teaching Company or Audible happens to read this, I’d be very interested to see a similar series developed on the works of Agatha Christie.

Lecture Titles Listing

Lecture 1: The Victorian City
Lecture 2: My Dear Watson
Lecture 3: Sherlock Holmes: Man or Machine?
Lecture 4: How to Write a Mystery Story
Lecture 5: Doctors and Detectives
Lecture 6: Nice Work If You Can Get It
Lecture 7: Women and Sherlock Holmes
Lecture 8: The Supernatural and Sherlock Holmes
Lecture 9: The Final Problem: Sherlock Holmes and Popular Culture
Lecture 10: Adaptations of Sherlock Holmes

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World by Mark Aldridge

Originally published in 2020

From the very first book publication in 1920 to the upcoming film release of Death on the Nile, this investigation into Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot celebrates a century of probably the world’s favourite fictional detective.

This book tells his story decade-by-decade, exploring his appearances not only in the original novels, short stories and plays but also across stage, screen and radio productions.

Poirot has had near-permanent presence in the public eye ever since the 1920 publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. From character development, publication history and private discussion concerning the original stories themselves, to early forays on to the stage and screen, the story of Poirot is as fascinating as it is enduring.

Based on the author’s original research, review excerpts and original Agatha Christie correspondence, Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World is a lively and accessible history of the character, offering new information and helpful pieces of context, that will delight all Agatha Christie fans, from a new generation of readers to those already highly familiar with the canon.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, (probably) the greatest detective in the world, will outlive us all.

If you follow a lot of Golden Age of Detection blogs you have probably already come across a review of this book which was published in the UK last year and arrives in the US next month. Even if you haven’t you probably already will instinctively know whether this type of book will appeal to you and so rather than attempt to respond to the book in exhaustive detail it seems more productive to share some general thoughts about it that may answer some of your questions about whether it is the book for you.

Probably the place to start is with describing the book itself. Aldridge has designed this book so it could either be read cover-to-cover or dipped into on a more random basis. Knowing that I intended to write about this book here I decided to do the former but prior to doing that I opted to read the chapter on The A. B. C. Murders on its own in preparation for my reread and I found it to be perfectly self-contained and very easy to follow.

Aldridge avoids giving out spoilers in the main body of the text and while there are a few in the (excellent and comprehensive) endnotes they are flagged to warn those who wish to avoid them. That means that this is a book you can put in the hands of someone who does not have an exhaustive knowledge of the character with confidence that they won’t curse you forever for spoiling the end of Elephants Can Remember for you.

Each book and short story collection receives its own chapter. I think it is important to stress that these entries are not plot recaps or reviews, nor are they collections of facts related to the book. Instead these chapters tell the story of where a project came from, some of the background about its journey to publication including details of exchanges between Christie and her agent. Where critical opinion is offered it is usually in the form of contemporary reviews or Christie’s own reflections rather than Aldridge’s.

In addition to the core canon texts, there are also chapters discussing projects in different media such as film, television, video games and key theatrical productions as well as Sophie Hannah’s continuation novels. These are treated with the same level of detail and care, offering a fascinating glimpse into how Poirot was developing beyond the written page. While I feel I got something out of every chapter in the book, these were the ones that offered the highest concentration of new information for this reader and helped me better understand Christie’s highly possessive relationship with her own creation and the decisions that her estate is taking in more recent years. In fact some of the most intriguing pieces of information relate to the projects that didn’t happen rather than those that did.

The book does go right up to date with comments on the development of the upcoming Death on the Nile movie, listed here as released in 2020 (but now pushed back to 2022). That was of course unfortunate but the information offered is interesting and makes me even more curious to see the finished movie whenever it does finally appear.

The entries themselves are organized in chronological order rather than being grouped together by their medium meaning that we learn about the theatrical and film experiments as they occurred between the development of the various novels. This is really helpful because it adds context of Christie’s broader endeavors and also allows us to see how experiments in one field sometimes affected the chances of another quite different project happening.

The hardcover print copy is also illustrated with lots of black and white pictures, usually with various book cover images but also production photographs, hand-drawn sketches and the like. This not only adds a little visual interest to the page layout, I think it also makes the print copy feel even more special. It certainly made me feel glad I made the decision to import my copy rather than get the plainer ebook edition (which is already available in the US).

Though the book is quite thick it is a quick and accessible read that I think offers interesting information at a level that should please both those starting to love the character and those who can already claim a lifelong appreciation for him. I certainly have already made good use of it and expect I will continue to do so whenever I revisit the Poirot novels. I just hope that we don’t have to wait until 2027 for a Miss Marple-themed sequel to appear…

The Verdict: A comprehensive overview of the development of the great detective both on the page and beyond it. Pitched well to offer something to both newcomers and established fans. Let’s hope a similar volume follows for Miss Marple!

The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

Originally published 2015

The Sherlock Holmes Book, the latest in DK’s award-winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series, tackles the most “elementary” of subjects — the world of Sherlock Holmes, as told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Sherlock Holmes Book is packed with witty illustrations, clear graphics, and memorable quotes that make it the perfect Sherlock Holmes guide, covering every case of the world’s greatest detective, from A Study in Scarlet to The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, placing the stories in a wider context. Stories include at-a-glance flowcharts that show how Holmes reaches his conclusions through deductive reasoning, and character guides provide handy reference for readers and an invaluable resource for fans of the Sherlock Holmes films and TV series.

The Sherlock Holmes Book holds a magnifying glass to the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.

Dorling Kindersley’s Big Ideas, Simply Explained series is intended to provide broad and accessible introductions to a range of different topics. Other volumes had tackled topics like Politics, Philosophy and the works of Shakespeare, breaking down ideas to make them easily accessible and identifying key themes and developments.

The books are typically large format hardcovers (though there is a paperback version of this title), have a common layout and feature attractive graphics, charts and easy-to-read information boxes. While they can be read cover-to-cover, they are equally well suited to being dipped into as a more casual, coffee-table sort of read.

The Sherlock Holmes Book sticks pretty close to this formula. Its opening chapters provide biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the key characters in the series – Sherlock Holmes, Watson and Professor Moriarty. These are done well, offering some analysis into their characters and reference some of the real life figures that were sources of inspiration for them.

Following this we get to the meat of the book – a story-by-story exploration of the chronological canon of Holmes novels and short stories. Every one of the original stories is outlined and discussed with diagrams illustrating key deductions, plot points and relationships. In addition there are often sections that will explore a key reference or theme in more detail such as opium use, phrenology or myths about hell hounds.

At this point I probably should address the book’s ideal audience. The material here, while interesting and entertaining, is perhaps best pitched at the more casual Holmes fan rather than the complete newcomer or the aficionado. The inclusion of the solutions means that the entries should be read after reading the respective story and while I found some points of interest, the most seasoned Holmes enthusiasts will likely already know most of the material here.

In my own case I intend to make use of the book to browse in instances where I need to quickly refresh myself on a solution, make sure I am thinking of a correct title or to check a character name or identity. While I also own the ebook version, I much prefer to use the physical edition which is much easier to browse and more attractively laid out. The pricing is currently quite different however so if you are interested be sure to take a look at the sample pages to see which version suits you best (the physical edition can be sampled here).

The final fifth of the book discusses the enduring popularity and legacy of the character as well as his appearances in other forms, media and continuation novels. These cover many of the major releases through 2015 (it ends with Mr. Holmes) and unexpectedly for me this was the part of the book that offered me the most new information. There were several productions I was completely unaware of and I found myself making a list of other adaptations, reworkings and continuations to seek out.

Overall I am happy I picked up copies of this handsome book though I did so at a heavy discount. I enjoyed dipping into various entries and while I was aware of much of the information here already, I know this would have been enormously useful to me when I first began to delve deeper into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Whether it will have much value for you depends on how well you already know the canon and your interest in delving a little deeper into the background to the creation of those stories. For those with a stronger interest they might be better to look to some of the more scholarly works and journal articles about the series.

The Verdict: An attractive coffee table volume best dipped into after reading a particular story.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Originally published 2017.

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.

Last week Jim at The Invisible Event released the third installment in his In GAD We Trust podcast. In that installment he interviewed Martin Edwards, touching upon his work with the British Library Crime Classics range and his two nonfiction titles – The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

That conversation reminded me that I wanted to purchase my own physical copy of the latter. This is one of my (many) peculiarities as a reader – I am equally happy to read physical or ebook fiction titles but I find non-fiction, particularly reference books, much easier to navigate and absorb in hard copy.

In his introduction to the book, Edwards describes how he wrote the book to serve as a companion piece to the British Library Crime Classics range. That is not to say that it is about the books they have published – only a fraction of the titles highlighted are from that collection – but rather it provides a context for those releases and suggests further reading.

He also stresses in that introduction that the book has neither been developed to serve as an encyclopedia, nor is it an attempt to pick the 100 greatest works. There are certainly several works discussed that you might expect with multiple entries for Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley Cox, but the titles chosen are selected for how well they correspond to the theme Edwards is discussing in that chapter.

Edwards begins each chapter with an introductory essay that introduces a theme. Some are more developmental – focusing on aspects of plot construction – but most relate to an aspect of setting, style or theme. An example of this would be the sixth chapter, Serpents in Eden, which discusses examples of rural or village mysteries. Incidentally this and several other chapters share the names of short story collections that Edwards edited for the range, making these ideal reference points for readers curious how novelists approached those same themes and ideas.

The introductory essay discusses those themes in quite general terms, name-dropping plenty of authors and titles beyond the highlighted ones for curious readers to explore. This is followed by a number of shorter pieces – each of which is typically two to three pages long – that describe a particular work and how it addresses that theme.

Some of the titles Edwards selects will be familiar to many while others merit the label he applies to them of being ‘unashamedly idiosyncratic’. In a few cases I was surprised at one title by an author being selected ahead of another work I view as superior but I typically understood why by the end of the piece (an example would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but my assumption is that was avoided in favor of The Mysterious Affair at Styles because it is so hard to discuss without spoiling it).

The best thing about the book for me though was the number of titles Edwards mentions that I have yet to read and, in several cases, that I knew nothing about. For every The Hollow Man, there is a Death at Broadcasting House – particularly in the later, more thematic chapters.

I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, that the chapter on inverted mysteries opens with the Coles’ End of an Ancient Mariner – a book I am now really excited to go read. And which I now bought… As I did Anthony Rolls’ The Vicar’s Experiments along with four or five other books.

It is possible that The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books may be the most expensive book I have ever bought. This is not because it is outrageously priced – it is a standard softcover – but in the way it entices you to chase after books that are often long out-of-print. For those keen to delve a little deeper into the world of classic crime, this can be an entertaining and enlightening starting point, showcasing the diversity of the genre and in guiding you to some lesser-known or obscure works.

The Verdict: An entertaining thematic overview of crime fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. Just be aware that you will probably come away from this with a long list of obscure (and sometimes expensive) books to track down!

Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present

VictorianSleuthsI was recently asked on Twitter how many books I consume a week and I said that I like to have three on the go at any time – a print book, a digital title and an audiobook. Typically I like to listen to the latter in the car on my way to work but as my little one gets older and starts to pay more attention I have had to be more careful about what I have playing around her.

For that reason I decided to pick up another lecture series on detective fiction to listen to on my morning commutes. Previously I had listened to and enjoyed a series produced by The Great Courses and when I spotted this Modern Scholar course I thought it would be interesting to listen to a different perspective on the genre.

Recorded Book’s Modern Scholar titles may be available through your local library though the range is now defunct. These courses are shorter in length, typically running between 6 and 14 lectures depending on the topic – this is a 14 lecture course spread across 7 CDs. The lectures are usually about a half hour long and the course is accompanied by a booklet that contains notes and, in this case, often a few extra details about some of the authors or titles mentioned.

For the most part I think lecturer M. Lee Alexander makes good choices about how to organize her material and she is never hard to follow. I do question the omission of locked room fiction which is such a significant sub genre and I think it could have been included within the Golden Age lecture. Similarly the lack of discussion of Berkeley/Iles feels like a significant omission.

My feeling is that I did not learn a huge amount within these lectures though I think they would be a good introduction for someone who is interested but is taking first tentative steps into the genre. The lecturer is careful to avoid spoiling the books (with the exception of Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution) though readers will probably get more out of these lectures if they read the suggested titles before listening to the discussion.

If you are looking for a more comprehensive course I would certainly steer you towards the Great Courses set which, while more expensive, is about double the length and is able to go into much more depth – particularly when it comes to international crime works.

Continue reading “Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present”

The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction

SecretsOne of the things I promised back when I began this blog was that in addition to posting reviews of the books that I am currently enjoying that from time to time I would write something about a work or person that particularly inspired my interest in mystery fiction. While Professor David Schmid’s Great Courses lecture series came towards the end of that journey, I have been wanting to post about it for some time.

The Great Courses are a series of lectures sold as DVDs, Audio CDs and as digital downloads on a wide variety of subjects. The range has been in existence for some years now and is published by The Teaching Company. In the past few years I have been something of an addict to their history and religion courses but when this one turned up I was curious to see what it would cover.

SchmidProfessor Schmid’s course is comprised of 36 half hour lectures that aim to give a broad overview of the development of crime and suspense fiction and of some sub-genres and categories that can be seen to fall within those genres. It is designed to be an entry level course and so outlines some key works and figures rather than exhaustively covering every book or writer in a field.

The first six or seven lectures can feel a little repetitive as they cover Edgar Allan Poe’s three Dupin mysteries in considerable detail but as the series goes on it opens up considerably, going on to cover topics such as Native American mysteries, The Dime novel, stories in which the Police serve as an antagonist and Gay and Lesbian crime fiction (for a complete list check here). It is in these more specialised sections that I think the course is particularly interesting as I invariably came away from these with long lists of titles I was interested in investigating.

To give an example, in the course of the Locked Room episode he mentions the following works and authors:
Murder in the Rue Morgue – Poe (and The Case of the Purloined Letter which he notes is not a locked room but its rules are similarly constructed)
The Mystery in the Yellow Room – Leroux
French tradition: Simenon, Leblanc and Halter
Japanese tradition: Edogawa Rampo, Akimitsu Takagi and Soji Shimada
John Dickson Carr (Specifically The Hollow Man – he discusses elements of the mystery that play some role in the conclusion but does not explain how they relate to each other)

Other lectures focus on discussing the way crime fiction has addressed a theme such as urbanization, changing attitudes towards violence or the meaning of justice and these can be quite interesting as starting points for considering those topics.

Unfortunately a few key works do get spoiled along the way although generally you get a little warning when that is about to happen. From memory it is the three Poes and Christie’s The ABC Murders and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that get the most in depth discussion. This didn’t bother me particularly as it is hard to imagine any course covering these topics without doing so but I would certainly recommend that if you have a copy of The Murders in the Rue Morgue that you’ve been itching to read that you finish it before starting this series.

Schmid is a passionate and engaging speaker and is easy to follow whether watching the video or simply listening to the lectures. While a few visual aids pop up as he talks, most of the time these are cover illustrations or photographs of authors and do not contribute much so you will not be missing out if you opt for the cheaper audio option.

Cost is, unfortunately, an issue with this whole range of releases which price themselves out of the casual market if you buy them at list price. Fortunately I’ve found that quite a few libraries carry them and the audio download is eligible for a single credit Audible purchase (you can download the course guide through them too). The Teaching Company also started an unlimited streaming option for a monthly fee a year or so back and when I watched this it was through that service.

So, what role did this set play? I think it energized me and sparked me to broaden my reading horizons and explore subgenres of crime fiction I had never felt confident reading before because I didn’t know which authors to begin with. In doing more research about some of the authors mentioned, including John Dickson Carr, I stumbled upon many of the blogs I now follow and love reading each day. For that I can be very grateful!