Thursday 11 December 2014

Top Ten Favourite Books About Crime Fiction

Prompted by a question posed by Lisa Shevin on the very informative Golden Age Detection Facebook forum, I've put together a list of my favourite books about the crime genre. Of course, such lists should never be taken too seriously, especially when I'm responsible for them, since I'm perfectly capable of changing my mind in a matter of hours, or forgetting titles that really should be unforgettable.

I've limited myself in three ways. First, by including only one book per author. Second, by excluding any book to which I've contributed, which rules out quite a few that I'm very fond of. Third, by excluding books about Sherlock Holmes - so many exist that they deserve a list of their own. Even so, there are many excellent books that I have enjoyed and learned from, including quite a number by good friends, that aren't on the list. So, with all those caveats (but then, I am a lawyer...), here goes:

10. The Letters of Dorothy L Sayers, vol. one. Edited by the estimable Barbara Reynolds, and the first of five remarkable collections of Sayers' correspondence,this book provides great insight into the mind and life of an extraordinary writer.

9. Whodunit? ed. H.R.F. Keating. This is a likeable book, a mixture of author bios, essays by various hands, and much more besides. I referred to it constantly in the 80s and 90s and it introduced me to some terrific novels.

8. Murder for Pleasure by Howard Haycraft. An early study of the genre, which contains bags of information, but presents it in an extremely readable form (something that can't always be said of othewise excellent books.)

7. John Dickson Carr: the man who explained miracles, by Douglas G. Greene. I was first urged to read this many years ago by Peter Lovesey, and his recommendation was spot on. Excellent about Carr, and also about the Detection Club; Doug's research was most helpful when I was working on The Golden Age of Murder.

6. A Catalogue of Crime by Barzun and Taylor. This book contains pithy paragraphs about countless otherwise obscure novels, short stories and anthologies, and more besides. The opinions are sometimes maddening,and I still marvel that they thought Knutsford (more famous as the setting for Cranford than as the town of my birth) is in Ireland. But then, all books about the genre contain mistakes - a recent example is the "academic" book that describes Ronald Knox as an American. The real test of merit is whether the book enthuses the reader, and I love this one, for all its faults.

5. Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran. John's detective work in deciphering the notebooks and putting them into context is quite riveting. No book gives a more revealing insight into the creation of classic detective novels (though there's a brilliant chapter in Barbara Reynolds' biography of Dorothy L. Sayers that is also gripping.).

4. The Collector's Guide to Detective Fiction by John Cooper and Barry Pike. This contains lots of information about (mostly) Golden Age writers, and is a real treasure trove, with fantastic illustrations of old jackets that I find irresistible. The authors are two British doyens of writing about the Golden Age whose insights I've long admired, and learned from..

3. Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. John Reilly. The first two voluminous editions of this book again taught me a great deal about many writers I'd never heard of before. There is some fascinating stuff here, and I devoured it in my younger days. Two later editions, with different editors, did include essays by me, but Reilly's version was in many ways definitive.

2. Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey. This is sheer fun - an account of pretty much every locked room/impossible crime story -with solutions in a separate section. I sometimes read extracts during library talks, and the audiences really enjoy the snippets. Masterly research, superbly and economically presented.

1. Bloody Murder by Julian Symons. This has to be my number one. As will be seen when The Golden Age of Murder is published, I challenge quite a few of Julian's opinions, and he is apt to be criticised by some Golden Age fans. Part of this is due to his trenchancy, more of it is due to the fact that he was covering a vast amount of material in a short span - you simply can't cover every base in a book that purports to cover even a fraction of the history of crime fiction, let alone the whole of it. But it is supremely readable and well-written, and I know many people, otherwise not really interested in books about the genre, who love it. Symons was writing for the 'typical' reader rather than the specialist (and that, to be truly successful, demands a higher level of accessibility and readability than writing for specialists) but he manages to cover a vast amount of ground with aplomb.


J F Norris said...

I'll confess there is one reference book that was basically my primer in educating myself about all things of the Golden Age of detective fiction. It's The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection edited by Otto Penzler and Chris Steinbrunner. Though it is a bit too heavy on movies and TV for my tastes and therefore loses vital space that could've been used on some important writers overlooked, it is nonetheless one of the definitive texts on the genre from 1860 - 1976. Added bonus: it's chock full of illustrations from movie stills to author photos, from magazine drawings to dust jackets. Over the years my first copy became so well thumbed and the binding broken in several places I had to buy a replacement copy. I still use it to this day.

Martin Edwards said...

It is a good one, John. I came to it much later than the Keating, but I do like it.

Mark Bailey said...

I would second all of these and would add in my humble opinion the following (some do have contributions by Malcolm Edwards)

Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books by David Whittle
The Adventures of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones

Dippers (ie. you can dip in and out like Barzun & Taylor - this is my favourite category and I do have a lot of these on my bookshelves)
St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (4th Edition) edited by Pederson & Benbow-Pfalzgraf
British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia edited by Barry Forshaw
The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing edited by Rosemary Herbert
1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller
Crime Scene Britain and Ireland: A Reader's Guide by John Martin
Book to Die For edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke
Murder Ink: Mystery Reader's Companion by Dilys Winn (okay, this is probably not as academic or nuanced as the rest but it was the first of these I read when I was 12)

One-Man Overviews
Snobbery with Violence by Colin Watson (I disagree with quite a bit of it but it makes me think about what I like and what I don't like)

Unknown said...

I have number five in my collection. I've always found the mind of the brilliant AC fascinating. I like the premise of #2 as well. Thanks for the list.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Mark. The St James Guide and n particular the Oxford Companion are among my great favourites of those tow which I've contributed. And there is merit in all the others. The Crispin bio is full of interest, and I like both Murder Ink and Murderess Ink, which have lots of quirky trivia and some fine essays (Ed Hoch on stories about codes is one I recall, for instance.)

Geoff Bradley said...

Might I suggest R.F. Stewart's excellent ,... And Always a Detective , a look at the development of the crime and detective story laced with Dick's dry humour. The title come from the closing line of a poem, "How to Make a Novel", published in 1864. ... And Always a Detective was first published in 1980 but is still in print, I think, from The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box.

Martin Edwards said...

Geoff, that's a really good one, I agree, and written in Dick's idiosyncratic and very intelligent and entertaining style. He is much missed.

Doug Greene said...

And Dick had the most wonderful book catalogues, often daring you to buy a book because (a) it was awful or (b) the condition was horrible.

Rick Robinson said...

Excellent post, Martin. I assume Huben isn't here because it's a straight "look it up" reference as opposed to a book about mystery/crime?

Martin Edwards said...

Doug, because I lived a short drive from his house, I used to enjoy going there for a chat and a browse. I always came away with something.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Richard. Good question, and although many of my favourites tend to have a narrative thread of some kind, I suppose my real answer is that 10 is just not enough. I refer to Hubin very regularly, I must say.

George said...

I agree with your ranking of BLOODY MURDER. Over the years, that has been my "go-to" book on the Golden Age. The other nine titles are on my shelves, too. Very perceptive selections!

Ted said...

One book that I have always relied on to discover new mystery books has been The Mystery Lover's Companion (1986) by Art Bourgeau.

Martin Edwards said...

George, Ted, thanks. Yes, there's some very useful info in Borgeau's book.