Are these the greatest ever detective novels?
It’s impossible to boil down such a rich and fertile genre as detective fiction to just ten definitive classic novels, so the following list should not be viewed as the ten best detective novels ever written so much as ten classic detective novels to act as great ‘ways in’ to this popular genre of fiction. We’ve tried to allow due coverage to the golden age of detective fiction in the early- to mid-twentieth century, but have also thrown in some earlier, formative classics as well. We’ve avoided spoilers in the summaries of the novels we’ve provided, and have instead chosen to focus on the most curious or interesting aspects of those novels.
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. T. S. Eliot called Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) the first and greatest of the detective novels. It wasn’t technically the first – that honour should probably go to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail of the Serpent (1860) – but The Moonstone, which focuses on the theft of the titular gemstone, was one of the most popular and influential detective novels of the Victorian era. All of the ingredients are there: the country house, the handful of likely suspects, the seeming impossibility of the crime, and the sleuth in search of the answer (Sergeant Cuff, although the actual investigation of the crime is something of a team effort). Read the rest of this entry
In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores a modernist war poem by an overlooked writer
As it’s Refugee Week, my thoughts have turned to poetry about refugees – such as Auden’s ‘Refugee Blues’ and the lines from the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More (which may have been penned by Shakespeare) about the plight of refugees in Tudor London. Modernist poetry, too, treated the plight of refugees during and after the First World War, and one of the first poets to do so was Ford Madox Ford, better known now as a novelist.
Ford was still known as Ford Madox Hueffer at the start of the First World War, but anti-German sentiment in Britain would see him ditch the Germanic surname, much as John Betjemann became Betjeman in an attempt to offset the overly Teutonic look of his name. His name is largely known nowadays because of his novels The Good Soldier (which sounds as though it’s about the war but isn’t) and Parade’s End (which is about the war and is actually four novels in one). But he also wrote much else besides, including collaborations with his friend Joseph Conrad (such as the science-fiction romance The Inheritors) and historical novels that prefigure Hilary Mantel in their impressionistic approach to capturing Tudor detail (see his The Fifth Queen (Vintage Classics) trilogy about the doomed young bride of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard). Ford also wrote poems, although these are not much read any more and are of variable quality. But at least one of his poems deserves to be dusted off and read because it’s one of the earliest modernist poems about the First World War. T. S. Eliot called it ‘the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war’. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of H. H. Munro’s miniature masterpiece
‘The Open Window’ is one of Saki’s shortest stories, and that’s saying something. Few of his perfectly crafted and deliciously written tales exceed four or five pages in length, but ‘The Open Window’, at barely three pages, outstrips even ‘The Lumber-Room’ or ‘Tobermory’ for verbal economy. It is so brief it has almost the air of a parable about it, except that it’s far from clear what the ‘moral’ of the story is, or even if there is one. Saki uses language so deftly and to such effect, that it is worth unpicking and analysing ‘The Open Window’ (which can be read in full here) a little.
Although on first glance it seems different from some of Saki’s better-known stories, such as his classic werewolf tale ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ and his story about a polecat worshipped as a god, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, ‘The Open Window’ follows the same essential setup as many of Saki’s other stories, in having an adolescent character whose supposed innocence (supposed by the adult character, that is) turns out to be guile, cunning, and the mischief in disguise. But whereas Nicholas in ‘The Lumber-Room’, Conradin in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, or Gabriel-Ernest actively seek to cause harm to their adult antagonists (or, in the case of Nicholas, to refuse to help an aunt who has got herself trapped in the water tank), Vera’s only weapon is her imagination. Yet this alone suggests that she shares some kinship with Conradin in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, whose cousin and guardian dislikes her ward’s imaginative streak. Read the rest of this entry