Blood on the Tracks – Railway Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards. An excellent British Library Crime Classic

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Ranging from Arthur Conan Doyle to Michael Gilbert, this collection of stories edited by Martin Edwards represents a Golden Age of murder mysteries encapsulated in short stories. The common theme is railways; travel on them, as settings for untimely death, and even the use of trains as weapons. As pointed out by Edwards, they are enclosed spaces in which ‘locked room’ mysteries are contrived, as only a limited number of people are travelling in the carriages and coaches, thus providing a certain number of suspects. This collection of stories, all chosen as representative of the authors’ output, are strong tales creating a world of steam trains, timetables and solutions. I was grateful to receive a copy of this book.

From the beginning the stories in this volume include mysteries of bodies found with interesting clues. Not all the bodies are found on a train; in some the bodies are found in or near the lines. Weapons must be found, means of killing established, bodies horribly mangled to conceal other wounds. Rarely are these gentle deaths by poison or other sophisticated means, but often well thought out and dependent on the accuracy of time tables. Other crimes such as theft are facilitated by the use of trains; depending on frequency and predictability, opportunity for deceit. There are also inverted tales to be found, as the murderer is described from the start and the suspense is to be found in the possibility of detection. Sophisticated stories prevail here, as men and women plot and plan but circumstances intervene. Not all the mysteries here are sorted out by detectives; the truth emerges in various ways and there is always a satisfactory ending. I particularly enjoyed the story by Dorothy L. Sayers, as the detection and resolution is not the obvious eventual solution. At least one of these stories reveal accurate knowledge of incidents on railways which ended in death; all depend on understanding of trains, signals and the way they were run.  A few of the stories relate to the supernatural or non human agencies, they are literally haunting in their use of the supernatural and atmospheric reality of trains cloaked in steam. The power and predictability of trains is well examined here, not as dreary modes of commuter transport but scenes of struggle and emotion in so many ways.

Given the range and variety of these stories and the fifteen different authors who wrote them, it would be reasonable to expect one or two weak efforts, but actually they are all strong in their way. None have the depth and subtlety of the novels set on trains as they are all brief works, but all are clever working out of mysteries set either on trains or the lines on which they run to time and significantly, signals. This book would appeal to fans of mysteries in the grand traditions of the Golden Age, even if some are earlier and later than the inter war period. It would also be of great interest to the many who appreciate the preserved trains and lines throughout Britain, and are fascinated by the railways of previous times.

Of course , Northernvicar has shown great interest in this particular volume in the British Library Crime Classics series! I imagine he will find time to polish off a few of these stories; he has already checked some of the accuracy of the circumstances. A great value for money book….

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards – the Review

This is a very, very good book. It works on so many levels; as a readable text, a history of Crime writing, and a reference book for anyone who collects and reads British Library Crime and Dean Street Press classic crime books. I was thrilled to receive a review copy of this book for the reasons above, and it proved an enjoyable and in depth read.

Basically this book is a run through the major fictional crime books of the twentieth century. Although there a hundred books mentioned in the title, there are dozens, probably hundreds mentioned in the text to explain and reinforce the headings. The chapter headings, which include such phrases as “Making fun of murder” and “Playing politics” demonstrate a lively style which carries on through a detailed examination of such sub-genres as ‘inverted’, ‘impossible’ and ‘locked – door’ crime stories, as well as the popularity of using real life crimes as the basis for fictional treatment. These headings are also familiar to anyone who has read such collections of stories from the British Library series as “Murder at the Manor”.

I am happy to report that the book is full of information/commentary/references to women authors, which is not always the case with ‘books about books’. I have not counted yet, but the stars such as Christie, Allingham, Simpson and others are well represented, with many reviews of Christie’s books in particular. Dorothy L Sayers not only gets credited for her books, but also her role in founding the Detection Club and her influential reviews collected by Edwards in “Taking Detective Stories Seriously”. Edwards also makes clear where women have adopted a male non de plume, or have written books jointly. I have not done the maths but I am fairly confident that all the brilliant women writers are fully recognised!

Edwards has obviously a great breath of knowledge of his subject and the confidence to write critically and persuasively about the history of these books. Such diverse groups as clergy get honourable mentions, as they spend hours puzzling over “a variety of matters which would puzzle many a businessman”. Books such as “Gaudy Night” are not in the hundred, but get mentioned as “a love letter to Oxford”, which really sums up the book.

Edwards is trying to flesh out and produce evidence to back up his argument for the nature, importance and popularity of classic crime that he set out in “The Golden Age of Murder”. The hundred titles effectively receive mini reviews, with references to other relevant books, and authors are mentioned in terms of sadness on occasion that they did not produce more stories, and comments which show their development of themes. I think that one of the achievements is to write about all these books without revealing the end, which is a huge success as he provides enticements to read the stories without spoiling them. This is a useful book for anyone interested in fictional crime as a reference book, and an excellent read for those who just want to expand their enjoyment of this popular genre.

So, do get hold of a copy of this book if you possibly can. It is great to recognise so many books from the British Library series, as well as look forward to many to come. Thank you, Martin, for letting me see a copy of this book,  for being such a major part of this fantastic series, and providing a great guest post!

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards – A Guest Post

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…

 

 

 

 

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

More fictional Murder! The title “Golden Age of Murder” sounds dated, but I think we still enjoy the Agatha Christies and so many other murder mysteries presented in books, television and film that this book is a fascinating insight into how it all began or at least how it got to be so popular.

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This is the ultimate source book for anyone interested in the crime writers of the interwar period in Britain. It has depth; I used some of the information for a talk on one of the writers it has large sections on, Dorothy L Sayers. It has breadth; many of the authors currently being reprinted by the British Library Crime Classics and the excellent Dean Street Press are mentioned in detail here. It is, perhaps most importantly, a very readable book about the writers of novels and stories with very few spoilers for the actual books. Edwards has published a very clearly written, detailed guide to an entire era in publishing of books that most of us have encountered at some point, and for real fans of the genre it gives so many starting points for further reading it provides a reason why it has taken me a while to read.

The subtitle of this book is “The Mystery of the Writers who Invented the Modern Detective Story”. This book features the writers, such as Sayers and Agatha Christie, who were the mainstay of The Detection Club formed by those British writers who wanted to meet to provide mutual support in the financially unpredictable pursuit of writing novel which featured mysteries, usually murder. Ritual and rules assumed different levels of support in a Society which invited members on the basis of their achievements in a genre which was emerging with the twentieth century, and gained its greatest popularity in the interwar years and in the beginnings of the Second World War. There are so many writers mentioned in this book I would suggest that most could find their own favourites among the ranks of Allingham, Berkeley, Doyle, Punshon, Jerrold and dozens more. Their interrelationships, personal issues and so forth are discussed here, as well as their relationships with other writers and publishers. The human stories behind the creation of the classics of criminal endeavour in terms of what the stories were based on, as well as highlighting why and how the stories were constructed provides some fascinating reading.

True life crime and moral questions as well as the detailed working out of seemingly impossible crimes are detailed here, especially in brief notes at the end of each chapter which can trigger many ideas for further reading. It is possible to read this book straight through as a study of people who wrote books, why and how, but it is also an extensive resource for more detailed study of an entire genre. Sometimes dismissed as cosy, dated storiess, this book covers an enormous range of writing which provides an invaluable social history and mysteries which still confuse and are popular today in their many tv and film outings.

My particular reason for enjoying this book, aside from the detailed notes and indexes, is the fascinatingly human stories of writers such as Sayers and Christie in their context. Women writers and indeed readers have been the mainstay of murder mysteries for decades. Edwards, together with the British Library and Dean Street Press, together with so many other publishers and groups, are keeping fictional murder alive (!) in all its complex and entertaining “Golden Age”.

Crimson Snow -A British Library Crime Classic for Christmas

Crimson Snow, yet another British Library Crime Classic, a collection  of stories with a Christmas theme, is a good read at this time of year. None of the stories here are so Christmas based that they cannot be read during the winter. The characteristic they all share is that they are all ingenious, whether short or long. Margery Allingham manages in her short story, The Man with the Sack, to create not only a situation, theft and resolve it, but also some deliciously unlikable characters in the process. Edgar Wallace plays tricks not only with the detectives, but also the reader, in his story of widespread wickedness. I also enjoyed Death in December, which plays on the idea of the country house murder with the somewhat unusual detective Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell.

Part of the fun of stories like this is working out whether you can get to the solution before the detective, but short stories do not leave you wondering for long. Indeed, some stories here seem to be solved before they really get going, but others take great pains to include characterisation and incident before the denouement. There are oddities here, including a little Sherlock Holmes script which will not be appearing on the BBC anytime soon, and a locked room mystery that isn’t all it seems. The Insurance Investigation is more interesting than a paper exercise, and the book includes two pieces contributed to the competition which surrounded it. The only criticism I really have is of a story which introduces a victim a bit too well, which I found disturbing. Nevertheless, it is an ingenious story, well told.

Overall, this is an interesting collection of stories which would be a good read for any fan of the Golden Age Mystery, but it stands alone as a good winter read with many twists and turns. It represents good value, as if you are not so keen on one story there will be another one along in a minute…

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Resorting to Murder – Holiday Mysteries – Edited by Martin Edwards

Another review, another British Library Crime Classic…. This one is full of short stories which take place at holiday resorts of all types, though mainly in the 1920s and 30s. It includes such noted authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, and some authors so obscure that it has obviously been difficult to get copies of the stories. It does make for a variety of styles, length and outcomes, and some are so complex as to be difficult to follow, while others are very short to the point.

As with the other books in this series that are divided into a collection of short stories, this one took much longer to read. In fact, I think that it is the first one I’ve actually finished. I do enjoy them, but find them difficult to read for long periods as I do with the single author novels. It is partly because of the variety of styles and situations, and a swift relocation with characters necessary to read short stories one after another. One involving various ski/climbing “Accidents” was very confusing, whereas another was purely a legal question which reminded me of long ago problems set in criminal law exams. This would be an excellent book to take on holiday as it is a good length and does not require extended concentration. I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to any fans of “Golden Age” mysteries or anyone keen to find out what all the fuss is about. I must admit I do prefer the single mystery novels as it is interesting following the characters and plot over many chapters as opposed to everything being dealt with in a few pages.Writing Murder Mystery short stories are difficult, dealing with introducing characters, including detectives, the crime and frequently the solving of it within a believable context. It is fascinating to see how these writers have risen to the challenge.