Tuesday 9 December 2014

Writing about the Crime Genre

I'm fascinated not only by crime fiction, but also by books about the genre. This stems from my teens, when I first read Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, and learned a great deal about my favourite form of entertainment reading. One of the many strengths of the book is the pointers that Symons gives to titles worth reading (including many that took me a very long time to track down - one or two I've still never seen) and I continue to refer to it regularly. Another great merit of the book, by the way, is that Symons' prose is lean and highly readable.

The book prompted me to write a letter that was the closest I've ever come to sending a fan letter. Shortly after I left university, I had the temerity to drop Symons a line, and tell him how much I admired his book - but I questioned one or two things he'd said about Francis Iles' books, and suggested that he might have mentioned C.S. Forester's Payment Deserved, which somewhat anticipates Malice Aforethought, To my delight (and surprise) he responded with a charming and very thoughtful letter; he was well aware of Forester's book, and in fact he included it in a revised edition of Bloody Murder. He had a reputation in some quarters as being a rather grumpy chap, but I found him delightful, and did so all over again, when I  met him in person two or three times, many years later.He was clearly happy to debate opinions that conflicted with his own, as long as they were expressed in a courteous and measured way, and that is surely one of the marks of a civilised mind.

Since then, I've devoured scores and scores of books about the genre in all its aspects. On Thursday, I plan to write a post about ten favourites, but now let me just mention some new or forthcoming books by friends that are quite excellent, although like many other fine books, they are not in the list. I'll be covering B.J. Rahn's The World of Sherlock Holmes shortly, and I'm very much looking forward to an ebook reissue of Jessica Mann's Deadlier than the Male which will become available soon - details to follow.

And then there's Peter Lewis's Eric Ambler: a literary biography, a revised edition of which is now available from Endeavour Press as an ebook and via Createspace in print form..Peter contributed a guest blog about the book recently, and I was delighted by its new incarnation, almost a quarter of a century after it first earned acclaim. He makes the telling point right at the end that Ambler did so much to blur the boundaries between "the novel" and "the spy novel" or "the thriller". I would add that one thing that can be wearisome in books about the genre (if overdone) is extensive discussion of distinctions between, say, "thrillers" and "detective novels" or prolonged agonising about the precise definition of a "crime novel" or a "mystery". These are all useful terms,and they have their place, but they can also assume undue importance. Focus too much on such detail, and you risk losing sight of the big picture, or becoming uncertain of its true nature. I'm not sure, for instance, whether the great Julian's thesis that the detective novel had transformed into something superior, the crime novel, was really as helpful as it may have seemed when Bloody Murder first appeared. But to say that does not diminish his overall achievement. Just as the perfect novel can't be written, nor can the perfect book about crime fiction.

Last week, Curt Evans included on his blog an interesting piece which focused on writing about the Golden Age, and mentioned The Golden Age of Murder in very positive terms. As Curt anticipates, my views differ from those of Symons and Colin Watson (whose Snobbery With Violence is nevertheless a very good read) in numerous respects. Both men had a clear and credible point of view, but it led them to overlook some of the more interesting sub-texts in Golden Age fiction. Or at least, that's what I think, and that's what The Golden Age of Murder is -in part - about. In the run-up to publication, I'll discuss a number of aspects of my approach to writing the book. It was quite a departure for me, and one that has taken a great deal of work over a good many years. But now, thank goodness, the manuscript has been copy-edited (by another writer about popular culture, in fact) and best of all, Harper Collins have agreed to take on the task of preparing the index! .


Unknown said...

I can't wait to hear your thoughts about the mystery books. How interesting that the author wrote you back.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Clarissa!