The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards – “Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators” – a BIG book!

I told you it was a big book! This is how I could read it!

The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards

I was really excited when this large book arrived, and immediately planned to take it with me to Gladstone’s residential library (so I could read it undisturbed and borrow a book cushion!). Having read Martin’s previous books – The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, I admit to wondering where this one would go. I need not have been concerned; there are whole new areas of this subject that he has managed to cover in this book. As a confirmed fan of the British Library Crime Classics series (100 and counting), crime fiction mainly set in the past as well as Dean Street Press reprints, I have a reasonable working knowledge of the genre, so I was really pleased to see familiar titles popping up in the text as well as the twenty pages of Select Bibliography. One of the enormous strengths of this book is the notes at the end of each chapter, which not only give relevant information on titles of books and adaptations but also comments about the authors – such as the political relationship between Ruth Rendall and PD James. I must admit to not reading all of these for each chapter – but when I come to use this book for reference as I have the previous two big books, I will no doubt have cause to be grateful for them.

This is a big book to read cover to cover as I did, having over six hundred pages of text, and would be a rewarding book to dip into to research certain topics and authors. It is undoubtedly an ambitious book, which looks at the history of crime fiction from the eighteenth century and the beginnings from the pen of William Godwin and The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which I read in pursuit of a literature MA, through the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins, which includes one of my favourite novels The Woman in White, and the aspects of Dickens’ novels which dealt with crime such as one of the first professional detectives, Inspector Bucket. The Edwardian period is examined, but of course the book really hits its stride with the Golden Age books which provided interwar escapism for so many. The puzzle and gimmick books are mentioned, as well as the complexity of pen names for authors which concealed other professions and actual gender. Here are the beginnings of the Detection Club and the awards it established, much prized among authors of the time. The entire book is shaped by the decision to give a certain amount of background to many of the authors and their often tangled lives, as well as revealing those books which were actually collaborations such as the Dick Francis books. 

I particularly enjoyed Martin’s choice of authors who have a chapter of their own, partly because they were the usual suspects such as Agatha Christie, but also because they provided a way into authors I did not know so well, especially the American creators of new styles of detective writing such as Raymond Chandler. The other great ambition of this book is not only to provide a history of British crime fiction, but to expand it across the world. So there are chapters on Dutch crime as well as East Asian detective fiction for example, as well as the American development of the genre. There are passing references and indeed chapters about the transmission of crime fiction, not only in printed form but big and little screen adaptations. Predictably there were tensions of many kinds in transferring novels to films, with arguments about writing the screenplays and so forth. I enjoyed the anecdotes about the famous Inspector Morse adaptations, including how the later novels by Colin Dexter changed to reflect the actors’ strengths. 

This book, which also includes Indexes of Titles, Names and Subject, is a magnificent achievement by any standards, building on previous books on the subject such as Bloody Murder by Julian Symons and Martin’s own books. It is comprehensive, yet easy to read in a style that maintained my interest throughout, even though I doubt I will ever be a huge fan of the more obscure and violent American offerings. It is a book that I enjoyed reading from cover to cover, and yet I know it would be enjoyable to dip into and consult for particular projects. I was extremely  pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys crime fiction from the past and the present, from around the world, and in enormous depth.      

4 thoughts on “The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards – “Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators” – a BIG book!

  1. Wow, what an amazing sounding book – and how good that you were able to access a book cushion for it! That reminded me of my old job in a special collections department of an academic library.

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