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

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards has been much anticipated by fans of classic crime fiction. It follows the success of The Golden Age of Murder, Edwards’ impressive story of the famed Detection Club, and the British Library crime classics for which he’s the series consultant. Impeccably packaged with vintage style covers, the success of the series has opened up classic crime to a new generation of readers.

It must have been a near-impossible task to choose 100 books in which to tell the story of classic crime. In his introduction, Edwards emphasises that the novels have been chosen to emphasise the genre’s development and is not merely a list of the best books of the period. The introduction serves as fascinating summary of the Golden Age as do the chapter headings. The breadth of the themes identified: from serial killers to psychological thrillers,  the origins of many modern day crime fiction tropes can be traced back to the Golden Age period.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is a book to both read from cover to cover and to dip in and out of. I found myself doing both, looking for authors I was familiar with and discovering new ones. Some of the books will require determination to track down if you’re inspired to read them which makes the list all the more interesting. It’s a timely reminder that the period of the classic crime is more complex and wide-ranging that is often attributed to it. This impressive volume is a book to return to time and time again.


Crime Fiction Round Up – Nordicana, Georges Simenon and Bodies from the Library

I’ve attended a lot of excellent events over the month of June and I’m finally doing a round-up of everything that’s happened. A lot of my time has been spent working on the sequel to In Bitter Chill and also preparing articles in advance of IBC’s publication. I’m keeping Crimepieces as my reviewing website but there are lots of updates to be found about the publication of In Bitter Chill either on the dedicated page which can be found on the tab above plus my events page. I have a backlog of reviews to complete and I have read some excellent books recently. I’ll be spending much of August catching up on my reviews.

10505572_1004054222946409_2907750079026096046_nBack to the events I’ve attend. In early June Nordicana took place at the Troxy Theatre in London’s Limehouse. Readers of Crimepieces will be aware that I’m a judge on 11401411_1589761097972325_6182053228526913903_nthe Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian Crime Fiction. It was in this capacity that I appeared on a panel discussing the origins of Nordic Noir with expert author Barry Forshaw along with Quentin Bates (author of Frozen Out) and Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen (UCL Scandinavian Studies). The event also gave me the opportunity to sign my very first copies of In Bitter Chill. A special moment. It was an excellent event and hopefully will take place again in 2016.

The following week-end was an event hosted by PFD Literary Agents to celebrate the work of writer Georges IMG_0864Simenon. We met the author’s son, John Simenon, who spoke movingly about his father. We were also treated to a short interview with Rowan Atkinson who will be playing Maigret in a future TV series. It should be excellent. The Maigret books are being re-released by Penguin Books with fresh translations. I managed to pick up a few copies at the event and am looking forward to reading them.

Last week-end I continued the classic crime theme with a visit to the Bodies from the Library conference. I’m also a big fan of golden age crime fiction and was an avid reader of Agatha Christie and Dorothy IMG_0899Sayers as a teenager. The panels I saw were fascinating and I particularly enjoyed the presentation on locked-room mysteries. It’s a sub-genre that I’ve never really investigated and I’m determined to read more. Thanks to the organisers for an excellent event. Again, I hope to attend this event next year.

Next week, a special occasion will be taking place. My own launch of In Bitter Chill. I’ll post something on the day but thanks to all readers of Crimepieces for their support over the last few weeks. Reviewing will be back to normal by mid-July, I promise.

Classic Crime: Pamela Branch – Murder Every Monday

4686175568_19876f4c70_bIt’s been a while since I reviewed a classic crime novel. It’s not that I haven’t been reading them. They’re a very enjoyable distraction especially when I want to read a book over an afternoon. However, I often neglect to review them which is a shame as there are some very good books by authors who are now sadly neglected. One such writer is Pamela Branch whose Murder Every Monday I read recently.

Clifford Flush hasn’t murdered anyone for a long time until one day he pushes a friend into the path of an oncoming bus. The man survives but insists Clifford leaves town. He takes an entourage, all of whom have been acquitted of at least one murder, into the countryside to become homicide consultants, helping people who want to commit murder. All goes well until one of the students is killed in the middle of the course. And there are plenty of suspects to choose from.

The edition that I read was a vintage penguin. The biography of Pamela Branch on the back cover reveals a fascinating life although I can see that she later died in her forties. It’s a shame she isn’t more well-known. Murder Every Monday falls into the humorous crime category but it’s so much more than that. Clifford Flush is a Ripley style figure who is part cold calculated murderer but also keeps a reign on the more extreme members of his team. The victim isn’t given much character development until his death. The focus is on first the motley bunch that constitute the criminals and then on the guests who come to learn how to kill people. Both groups are subtly portrayed. There are degrees of ‘badness’ although no-one is completely without stain.

The humour comes from the watching the characters interact with each other. There are romances, fallings out and murders committed in others’ names. It adds up to a rich melee of murderous fun and I’m definitely going to be reading more of Branch.

Review: Sarah Caudwell – Thus Was Adonis Murdered

AdonisMoira, the excellent blogger over at Clothes in Books gave me a sneak preview of her review of one of her favourite crime novels that she’s written for the Remembering Petrona website. Like many of the book reviews that I see on the site that was set up in memory of crime fiction reviewer Maxine Clarke, it made me immediately want to read the book. Moira’s choice of crime novel is Thus was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell and although you’ll have to wait for Moira’s review on the website, she was kind enough to send me one of her second-hand copies which I gather she snaps up whenever she sees them.

I loved the book. It had a slightly dated feel to it; published in 1981, it reminded me of some the crime books I read as a teenager. But I can well see why it is one of Moira’s favourite reads.

Sarah Caudwell was the pseudonym of Sarah Cockburn, a British barrister, and the book features a group of Lincoln’s Inn barristers who discuss the predicament of one of their number, Julia Larwood, who has become embroiled in a murder on holiday in Venice. The character of Julia is seen firstly through a series of letters she sends her friends in London and also through the narrator, Hilary Tamar, a Professor of Medieval Law who observes the comings and goings of the group. Julia is portrayed as a scatty, lovable innocent and it is entirely in keeping with her character that finds herself suspected of murder. It is up to the group, therefore, to help her out of her predicament.

The quality of the writing is the first thing that strikes you. The language is witty and wry, especially the dialogue. For example:

‘Julia did very well,’ said Selena, ‘not to fall into the lagoon. How beastly of that woman to suggest she’d had too much to drink.’
‘Most uncharitable,’ said Ragwort. ‘Julia, as we all know, needs no assistance from alcohol to make her trip over things.’

Once you’ve got into the flippant tone, the book makes very entertaining and intelligent reading.

The narrator, Hilary Tamar, is an enigma. Of unclear gender, he/she casts a wry eye over proceedings and the although shocked by Julia’s predicament, the whole fiasco is portrayed as a bit of a game for the group. I suppose the book could be classified as a ‘cosy’ mystery particularly as there is a timelessness about the story. Really, it could easily have been written in the 1930s or earlier and I’m sure this is part of the attraction for the author’s legion of fans.

Thanks again to Moria for sending me one of her copies of the book.

Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – Murder at the Savoy

Continuing my read through the excellent Martin Beck series, I’ve just finished Murder at the Savoy, a slightly more downbeat read than I had expected. A dinner at the Savoy Hotel in Malmo ends in disaster when one of the guests, Viktor Palmgren is shot by an unknown assassin. The case is given to DI Per Mansson but the police have already wasted valuable time in the aftermath of the shooting. When a suspect is identified, the disaster prone duo, Kvant and Kristiansson, are asked to intercept him in Stockholm and the man escapes. Martin Beck is sent to Malmo to assist Mansson and by sifting through the clues and interviewing suspects, the case is finally solved. However, Martin Beck is filled with a sense of ennui as he considers the exploitative business practices of the victim and his instinctive sympathy for the killer.

Although the majority of the books in this series can be read as standalones, I found this to be one of the less accessible novels and the tone not particularly representative of the earlier books in the series. Whereas other books clearly comment on developments in Swedish society, the authors’ clear disapproval of contemporary business practices came across clearly in the narrative. Admittedly it is through the eyes of the various detectives that we come to see the amorality of the dead man’s working and personal life (the victim will hardly be missed by his family and friends) but it often felt like it was the writers who were speaking rather than the characters. It makes for a sometimes preachy read, although, as I have come to expect from this series, there are some wonderful light touches inserted into the book. In particular the Kvant and Kristiansson episode is very funny and reflects the original Swedish title of the book which can be translated as ‘Police, Police, Potato Pig.’

There are some intriguing developments for Martin Beck as a character in the narrative which may well be developed in the later books and also some interesting insights into the changing nature of marriage. I enjoyed the book but was glad to leave the slightly grim tone behind. I’m hoping that the next in the series, The Abominable Man, will return to a lighter touch as the authors cast their gaze around Swedish society.

I bought my copy of the book.

Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Fire Engine that Disappeared

Continuing my read through the Martin Beck series, I’ve just finished the fifth book, The Fire Engine that Disappeared.  My version had an introduction by Colin Dexter, who freely admitted that he hadn’t read any of the series until he was asked to provide an foreword for the book. What struck Dexter, and will come as no surprise to fans of the series, was the humour contained within the writing. This is particularly the case, I think, with this book.

The Fire Engine that Disappeared opens with policeman, Gunvald Larsson sitting outside a block of flats watching the movements of a suspected offender. Suddenly an explosion rips through the building and Larsson, a burly ex-seaman, rushes in to save those occupants still alive, an act of heroism that is largely ignored by his colleagues. As the police team attempt to discover whether the fire was arson or an accident, Larsson who has been signed of sick, decides to do some investigating of his own.

Previous books in the series have always emphasised the importance of the team in solving an investigation and here every policeman is given a small character precis It’s here that the brevity of the Sjöwall/Wahlöö writing comes into its own, with tiny vignettes about the methodical Fredrik Melander and his plain wife or Einar Rönn, whose young son has lost his toy fire engine.

However, detective Martin Beck whose life we have followed most closely in the series isn’t forgotten. Beck takes a lesser role in the actual investigation of the fire but the family scenes clearly show him at a crossroads as he considers his role as husband and father, as his marriage disintegrates and his teenage children grow up.

The focus of this books seems to be about the tensions that exist within a police investigation, including the relationship between the bullish Larsson and Lennart Kollberg , two completely different types of policemen whose methods are deplored by the other. But there are flashes of humour and insight- from Benny Skacke the youngest team member who wants to be Chief of Police and is prepared to drop his girlfriend at the hint of a lead, to the methodical Melander who despite (or because of) his lack of imagination, is an excellent policeman.

I found the criminal investigation to be slightly convoluted and lost the thread a few times but overall I enjoyed the book and, I suspect, it sets up a number of themes for later novels in the series.

Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime, Past Offences, Crime Segments and Mysteries in Paradise.

Classic Crime: Ed McBain – Axe

Ed McBain is an author that I’ve flirted with over the years. As a teenager, the 87th Precinct books were readily available in my local library but didn’t quite do it for me. I’ve subsequently picked up a few books over the last couple of decades but never felt particularly inspired by the series. What has got me reading McBain again is thinking about the format of a police procedural after reading Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck books which I’m still working my way through. I’ve discovered that there are many similarities between the two series and have started to enjoy the world of the 87th Precinct in the fictional city of Isola.

I’m not being as methodical reading McBain’s books; Detective Steve Carella started off with twins in the first novel I read and in the next one he was courting his future wife. However this is a series that can be read out of sequence without spoiling your enjoyment of it. I noticed I hadn’t been reviewing any of the books I’ve been reading, so I thought I’d set out my thoughts on the wonderfully illustrated (see opposite) Axe.

A janitor in an apartment building as been found with an axe wedged into his skull. Detectives in the 87th Precinct can find little in the way of a suspect although it comes to their attention that an illegal ‘crap-game’ has been taking place in the building’s basement, possibly with the collusion of the janitor. The dead man’s family consist of his mentally ill wife and his agoraphobic son. Both remain suspects despite the detectives’ instincts that both are innocent. When the next victim of the killer is a policeman from the 87th Precinct, outrage and threats of retribution mean that every cop is on the hunt for the killer.

Axe is number 18 in the 87th Precinct series and has many of the themes I’ve come to associate with McBain’s thrillers. Like in Cop Hater, the killing of a policeman is seen by his fellow officers to be the most despicable of crimes and you get the sense of everything halting until the perpetrator is found. As we would expect from McBain books, we get a series of snapshots of the city of Isola based on New York, filled with small time crooks and weary tenement dwellers. And without giving the end away, the motive of the crime is clearly the result of a minor misdemeanor that has been magnified by the perpetrator. This theme is explored further when a Rabbi is killed in The Empty Hours.

This is a short book and perhaps the mundane ending is a slight let-down as the sheer pointlessness of the killing is revealed. But McBain’s books are always been keen to show the reality of murder is often so different from the lurid portrayals in other instances of crime fiction.

An interesting review of Axe by a blogger who has clearly read more McBain than me can be found at Tipping my Fedora.

Classic Crime: Christianna Brand – Green for Danger

Picked up as part of my vintage paperback haul, the overwhelming opinion from other crime fiction enthusiasts was that Green for Danger by Christianna Brand was a classic of the genre. I found the biography of the writer inside the front cover fascinating. Christianna Brand worked a nursery governess, night club receptionist and model in Bond Street dress shops until she turned her hand to writing after she began  fantasising about doing away with an irritating colleague.

Green for Danger is set in Heron’s Park military hospital during the Second World War. A disparate group of seven protagonists are introduced to the reader in the opening chapter, through the device of a postman delivering their letters to the hospital. These include a consultant and his anaesthetist, a surgeon and a nursing Sister and three VAD volunteer nurses. These hospital workers constitute the group of suspects who come under the suspicion of Detective Sergeant Cockrill when the postman, Joseph Higgins, dies during an operation. Although his death is initially ruled an accident, Sister Marion Bates declares that she has proof that Higgins’ death was murder, and soon she is also killed.

The book was a good solid read although I think I found the first half of the novel more enjoyable than the second. The build up to Higgins’s death was expertly done, with enough information given about each of the future suspects to see the individuals beyond their professional guises and as people with personal histories that were relevant to the murder. The tension was gradually built up and came to a head with the second murder.

The second half of the book, dealing with Cockrill’s investigation, dragged a little although much was made of the interweaving relationships between the characters. Clearly hospitals have always been a hotbed of romance and broken relationships. When the eventual culprit was revealed it was slightly too melodramatic for me and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the explanation. The greatest strength of this book though was the depiction of working in a wartime hospital; taking shelter from the raids, working tiring shifts and coping with whatever casualty is admitted. The book was also good on the position of women in the hospital, enjoying their freedom away from conventional society but becoming entangled in difficult love affairs.

Overall it was en enjoyable read and I can see why it has become a classic.It reminded me a little of PD James’s Shroud for a Nightingale and I’d forgotten how hospitals can provide such rich pickings for crime fiction plots. The book was made into a 1948 film starring Alistair Sim as Inspector Cockrill and has also been highly praised.

Classic Crime – Recommendations?

At the week-end I went to a garden party which had a great second-hand book stall. I managed to pick up a few classic crime books, most of them authors I’ve never heard of. Below is a picture of my haul. Writers are Evelyn Anthony (who I do know), M G Eberhard, Nicolas Freeling, Christianna Brand, Jean Potts, Margaret Carpenter and Edgar Wallace (who I think I should recognise but don’t).

Any recommendations gratefully received.

Classic Crime – Mary Stewart

When I was a teenager, most of my reading was done through books borrowed from my local library. I only have to see the yellow hardbacks of Victor Gollancz or Agatha Christie Collins Crime Club editions to be transported back to those days. One author I regularly saw on the shelves but passed over was Mary Stewart. Given the amount of crime reading I did I’m not sure why I was disinclined to read the author but that was rectified recently when two of her books were added to my reading list. The first, Wildfire at Midnight, I acquired second-hand in Athens, Greece and is a 1956 paperback edition printed in the US. Before you even start reading the novel there is a wealth of history in the book. The cover is straight out of the 1950s with a young woman up a mountain in court shoes and a trench coat and inside the front cover, a stamp identifies the book sold by the American News Agency in Athens for 48 drachmas. The second book I acquired was Touch Not the Cat, a 2011 reissue by Hodder, with the front cover re-branded for a twenty-first century audience. And yet despite the difference in presentation, the stories inside were very similar.

Wildfire at Midnight tells the story of Gianetta, a clothes model at a London fashion house who travels to the Isle of Skye in Scotland for a rest. There are only ten or so other people in the hotel, including her ex-husband Nicholas. The group is reluctant to talk about the huge mountain, Blaven, that looms over the hotel until it is revealed that a local girl was recently found murdered there. All the guests in the hotel, with the exception of Gianetta, are suspects. When two other women disappear, the group search for the missing climbers uncomfortably aware that one of them is likely to be a murderer.

I’d forgotten that many books from this time had no blurbs to accompany them. I had no idea what to expect but it was quite fun to plunge straight into the narrative. The book was half-thriller and half-romance and I enjoyed the thriller aspect very much. There was the suggestion of the supernatural in the killings and although this wasn’t realised, Stewart effectively portrayed the eeriness of the mountains in this remote part of the world. Although I worked out the identity of the murderer early on, this was the part of the fun of it as the reader is almost one step ahead of the protagonist. The romance parts I found slightly less satisfactory, they reminded me of Mills and Boon books with the plethora of adverbs – ‘sardonically’, ‘raggedly’ –  now passée. But again quite good fun to read. This book has also been reissued with as part of the Hodder series.

In Touch Not the Cat, the supernatural element was more pronounced with Bryony, the female protagonist, having an inherited telepathic ability to communicate with someone she calls her ‘lover’ although she has no idea who he is. When her father dies, the crumbling Ashley estate in the Malvern Hills is entailed away to one of her male cousins, who with his twin brother is already looking to realise the cash value of the lands. Although initially happy to help, when she realises small items of value have been disappearing from the house, she begins to reassess her father’s accidental death and is determined to find the mysterious stranger snooping around the estate.

Like the first book, I spotted who the ‘lover’ was fairly early on but I actually enjoyed the romance more in this book. I suspect (but am not sure) that the editor’s pen has been at work in this reissue and the romance has been made more palatable for a twenty-first century reader. Once more Stewart effectively created an atmosphere of tension and evil to deliver a very enjoyable read.

Mary Stewart, born in 1916, doesn’t have a website, although there is a fun, unofficial site here, completely in keeping with the style of the books.