British Crime Classics
Jeremy Black’s recommendations for a murderous British genre
The locked room, no entry by anyone, even to that floor, bar by the victim. No windows, no chimney, a door that is flush to the surround and has a fixed handle and a covered keyhole. How did I kill Sir Gerald, my uncle? The ’tec of course works it out, a dissolvable poison dart in the dumb waiter. Instead of drawing myself up to my full height (which you should rarely do – most men hate looking up) and saying ‘I have never heard anything so ridiculous. If you repeat that you will be hearing from my attorney/solicitor,’ I, of course, self-incriminate by pulling a shooter/pistol, trying a runner, or blubbing that I had to as he was cutting me out of his will as a result of his intended marriage. Consider the degree to which the traditional novel relies on self-incrimination, and that most Poirot/Wolfe et al. solutions would not stand up a moment in court but for that, even if Keir Starmer, an obvious villain for a French crime series on crime/politics/judiciary corruption, was still being a dire DPP. My idea is to make the protagonist-narrator a dumb copper, for him to solve the case, and make the arrest, and for the novel to end as the case proceeds towards trial, and for that to work for c.60 per cent of the readership, for c.25% to realise that I have made a mistake but not to know who did it, and for c.15% to work out who did it, but not to know if they will get away with it. I am sometimes asked if I will write detective novels, but it is a competitive field, and I may already be a novelist read by you under a different persona. If curious, you might think of the most arresting narrator in a Fleming Bond novel, the one, indeed, that is conceptually most interesting although not the best of the stories which is Moonraker. I sometimes amuse myself with the idea of winning a literary prize under a different persona.
Anyway, for a lover of detective novels who put reading them in a hot bath as one of my hobbies in my Who’s Who entry, the British Crimes Classics is a wonder. I have always preferred reading Golden Age (and later) detective novels that are not well known, which has meant many minutes of pleasure in second hand bookshops. Now, there is a series that produces these in a modern edition at a reasonable price: £8.99 each, and if you go to the shop at the British Library you can buy three for the price of two. On top of that, there is a short but highly pertinent introduction by the series editor Martin Edwards, the President of the Detection Club. These introductions do not give the plot away, but they provide very valuable contextual information and notably so on the author. Indeed, from that perspective, readers are offered more information than contemporaries had, because the authors can be better understood in retrospective. The books also have very fine covers, many of which come from travel posters of the past. These covers help make the series collectable and should encourage retention.
What then should you read? Well you have two alternatives. There are superb collections of short stories on a specific theme. Edited by Edwards, these cover a wide range of topics, such as trains, Christmas, abroad, and so on. Titles include Crimson Snow. Winter Mysteries; Silent Nights. Christmas Mysteries; Miraculous Mysteries. Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes, and Murder at the Manor. Country House Mysteries, while Settling Scores. Sporting Mysteries is soon out. Edwards is very good on drawing on short stories that are not well known. I have greatly enjoyed every collection I have read.
Separately, and far more frequently, is the publication of full-length novels. Some are by writers that are well-known, for example John Dickson Carr and Julian Symons, but most are not, and even for familiar authors there are works that are less well known today, such as Symons’ The Belting Inheritance, a work in which identity in the shadow of World War Two plays a role, as with a number of other important instances of the genre. His The Colour of Murder brings in psychiatry and the problem of justice.
My favourite is E.C. Lorac, and it is a delight to see so many of those in print, although there are still many to go. A writer of the middle decades of the century, she has a fine sense of place, as she shows with London and Devon: Bats in the Belfry and Fire in the Thatch. The Fell Murder, set in rural north Lancashire and published in 1944, reflects her feel for the pressures of a farming family in wartime. The detective, Inspector Macdonald, is deliberative and far from flashy. Plenty of space is left for the reader to try to work it out (I failed). Her Crossed Skis. An Alpine Mystery is due out in April.
There are also less familiar detective writers. Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt is a work of comic delight, with the protagonist wonderfully captured. A good work to give those who feel low. The series has now brought out another fine study, a courtroom drama, Excellent Intentions, although the cover blurb is mistaken to claim that Anstruther Blayton is the Attorney General. I very much hope they can press on to tackle some of his other works, notably Keep it Quiet and Until She Was Dead. In the series, the tone, subject and period of the stories vary greatly, as do the villains. Wide-ranging conspiracy can play a role as with the mysterious ‘Spider’ in Anthony Gilbert’s Death in Fancy Dress, which, quite frankly, I found weak and a waste of time. Classic improbables include Miles Burton’s very fine Death in the Tunnel. Train travel of course is prominent, as with Raymond Postgate’s Somebody at the Door, which is also interesting on wartime conditions. A sense of milieu is strong in some, notably the idiocies of the musical theatre in Alan Melville’s witty Quick Curtain, the country weekend, as in Thirteen Guests by J. Jefferson Farjeon, whose The Z Murders is also in the series, the House of Commons in Ellen Wilkinson’s The Division Bell Mystery, and an aero club in Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death of an Airman. Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case includes two new solutions.
I recommend the series. It also deals with the question of how to reply if asked what you would like for a present. Moreover, a simple index of popularity is that friends want to borrow my copies and sometimes forget to return them.
The entrepreneurial nature of BL Publications deserves attention, emulation and praise. Hopefully it can be rolled out in other spheres, although without harming the interests of rival publishers. The series also begs the question of what future excellence will be discerned in current and recent generations of writers and whom subsequently, having been neglected, will be seen as worthy of re-evaluation, and with what consequences. In short, at one level we are at that most contentious of issues, that of the canon, but, given that hopefully we will be spared the self-regarding trendiness of academics and critics, we will have a canon that devotes more attention to the role and impact of consumer choice. As Martin Edwards’ excellent study The Golden Age of Murder indicated, the Golden Age writers were far from having the limitations and conceits that harsh politicised critics so readily discern in what they do not like. Hopefully later writers will be spared the same strictures.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe