Monday, 17 September 2012

Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery

I’m not sure that there’s any non-fiction book in recent times whose arrival I’ve awaited as eagerly than Curtis Evans’ new study of three Golden Age detective novelists. Curt is someone I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, and he’s also posted a number of insightful comments here.. One thing is for sure: there are very few people around today who have read as widely in the Golden Age as Curt.
His knowledge of his subject matter is evident throughout his book. Its title is Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: - the sub-title, Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961, Neither title nor sub-title may set your pulse racing if you're not already a fan of Golden Age mysteries. But I’m very firmly of the view that anyone who is fascinated by Golden Age fiction and criticism will find this volume full of interesting material.

There are two main reasons why the book is so valuable. First, Curt’s research has been extremely thorough. He’s uncovered facts about the lives of the three writers he features (Street, by the way, is better known as John Rhode and Miles Burton, while Stewart’s pen-name was J.J. Connington) which have not emerged in any previous reference book.  And knowing more about the lives of writers does sometimes give us a better understanding of their books.

Second, Curt’s judgments are invariably thoughtful and reasoned. Over the past two or three years his writing about obscure books has made me aware of, and encouraged me to track down, some hidden gems that I wouldn't otherwise have encountered. A feature of his opinions is that he is no slave to fashion, and I find something truly refreshing about that. For instance, I have found more of merit in reading John Rhode since considering Curt's advocacy on Rhode's behalf than I ever did before.  

Naturally, because we all have our own views on Golden Age fiction, some readers will have a different perspective on the merits of Rhode, Crofts and Connington .Curt often takes Julian Symons to task for downplaying the merits of the writers he labelled as “humdrums”, and although Symons is the crime critic I most admire, I would agree that he was sometimes a bit harsh on them - above all  on Henry Wade, who isn't really humdrum at all.

My feeling is that, actually, Symons would have enjoyed and appreciated this particular book. I say this even though there are many judgments made in it which he would surely have disputed.  But Symons was self-confident and sensible enough to be receptive to “reasoned contradiction”, which is one of the key reasons why he is a critic of such enduring importance. (It’s notable how many times he is referenced in the index to this book.) Any of us who venture to express our opinions on books are bound to face contradiction from time to time, but as long as the disagreement is objective and reasoned (and, I would add, courteously expressed), as Symons recognised, it's fair enough.  

The authors and novels covered in this study provided a sizeable readership with entertainment for decades, and pleasingly, digital publishing is beginning to enable a new generation of fans to enjoy their work. In addition, this trio made a contribution to our social history, even if that was not what they set out to do. Curtis Evans, by taking their efforts more seriously than most other critics have done, has performed a valuable service to crime fiction criticism and I salute him for it. This is a book to which I will, I'm sure, return again and again.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Curt is certainly thoroughly knowledgeable and I'm glad you've been enjoying the book. I'm looking forward to reading it myself.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

I'm interested in this book and the authors he covers, but its cost means that I hope the library will have a copy(I doubt that)!

Martin Edwards said...

Thank you both. Margaret, I think Curt's acutely conscious of the cost, something over which an author obviously has no control. It's a pity that quite a number of very worthwhile reference books about the genre are prohibitively priced - many cost much more than this one, in fact.