Detective stories from the “Golden Age of murder” between the world wars are being discovered all over again. Thanks to enterprising publishers, and the advent of digital publishing, readers around the world now have the chance to enjoy many long-forgotten mysteries of the past. They are also finding that the critics who for decades tended to write off these books as dated and facile were way off the mark. Novels by writers such as John Bude and Christopher St John Sprigg, who were far from household names even in their hey-day are now enjoying a wholly unexpected renaissance.
The British Library’s highly popular Crime Classics series has led the way. The series features authors who were once very highly regarded and successful – like Anthony Berkeley and Freeman Wills Crofts – and also the likes of John Rowland and Charles Kingston, who never hit the heights but were capable of telling a good story. Bude in particular has become a real readers’ favourite – five of his books have now reappeared as Crime Classics, with two more in the pipeline. And now plenty of other publishers – including Harper Collins with their revived “Detective Story Club” series, and Dean Street Press, who have revived authors as diverse as Sir Basil Thomson, once a kingpin of Scotland Yard, and former naval commander Peter Drax – are following suit.
Of course, nostalgia plays a part in this revival. And the gorgeous period artwork of the British Library paperback covers has led many people to collect the whole set. But there’s much more to it than fascination with the past and high production values. The fundamental appeal of Golden Age detective fiction is that the leading authors knew how to entertain their readers.
Yet if entertainment was their priority, their books still tell us a great deal about life during the Twenties and Thirties. Read Antidote to Venom by Crofts, for instance, and you’ll be presented with an interesting picture of life in a provincial zoo, as well as a tricky murder method, and an interesting moral at the heart of the story. Sprigg was a poet and a Marxist, but his playful Death of an Airman offers a glimpse of the workings of a small Thirties airfield that is not only authentic (Sprigg was an expert on aeronautics) but also highly engaging. A visiting bishop from Australia does the detective work – you don’t find sleuthing bishops nowadays!
Crofts and Sprigg are two of the writers whose work is discussed in my new book for the British Library, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. It’s a companion to the Crime Classics series, but it’s not meant merely to be a reference book – though you can dip into it if you don’t immediately have time to read it from cover to cover, and sample some of the themes I discuss, such as country house mysteries and police stories.
The book follows my The Golden Age of Murder, which gave me a pleasant surprise by winning awards here and in the US, and earning gratifying reviews worldwide (it’s currently being translated into both Japanese and Chinese). Here my approach has been different, because the canvas – the first half of the last century – is much broader. I’ve chosen to discuss in depth books which seem to me to illustrate the evolution of the genre in an interesting way. But as with The Golden Age of Murder, I’ve endeavoured to use techniques I’ve honed as a novelist to tell a story that is much more – I hope! – than a recitation of endless facts.
What both books particularly have in common is that writing them has been a labour of love. I’ve been thrilled by the number of readers who have contacted me to express thanks for having their attention drawn to new titles. And if by any chance, you’re casting round for fresh reading, have no fear. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books can help – never mind the title. In all about seven hundred books feature!
Thank you so much, Martin! I’m not sure I’ve ever had an author guest post on Northernreader before; I would love some more.
My copy of “The Story” has travelled with me to Orkney and back, and tomorrow I hope to post my review. Needless to say it was a brilliant read, and yes, I am compiling a list of books I must read as a result…