In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle investigates the fascinating facts behind some of the greatest detective novels
The rise of detective fiction is a fascinating topic (previously, I’ve chosen 10 of the greatest examples of the genre), and it’s no surprise that a book telling the story of classic crime fiction in 100 books should yield many surprising and interesting facts. This is certainly the case with Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (British Library Crime Classics), a beautifully produced book from the British Library which charts the rise of crime fiction during the genre’s ‘Golden Age’ of the first half of the twentieth century.
Over the course of 24 entertaining and accessible chapters, which are based around various themes (including London-based crime fiction, crime fiction in the countryside, the seemingly ‘impossible crime’ of the locked-room mystery, parodies and humorous examples of the genre), Martin Edwards considers some of the most emblematic and readable examples of crime and detective fiction written between 1900 and 1950 (loosely).
As well as telling the story of crime fiction as an overall genre, Edwards also offers mini-histories of not only his 100 chosen novels but also the authors who wrote them. The Story of Classic Crime is packed full of curious biographical trivia, delving into the alternative lives (and writing careers) led by many of the writers who dabbled, or became pre-eminent, in the genre. I was intrigued to learn that Baroness Orczy, who wrote detective stories narrated by an ‘Old Man in the Corner’ (an armchair detective who sits in the corner of an ABC tea-shop, eating cheesecake and solving crimes) but who is now best remembered for creating the Scarlet Pimpernel, liked to be called ‘Emmuska’. Her full name, Edwards reveals, was Emma Magdolna Rozalia Maria Jozefa Borbala Orczy di Orci. And sticking with alternative names, it was interesting to learn that Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate between 1968 and 1972 and father of Daniel Day-Lewis, wrote his first detective story (published under the pen name Nicholas Blake) to fund the repair of a leaky roof.
I was also gratified to learn that, whilst some of these writers and novels were new to me – their works having fallen into obscurity, often quite rapidly after the heyday of detective fiction was passed after the Second World War – some of their fictional storylines are familiar, as they were adapted for film under a different title. Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank is not a well-known novel, but the plot provided the inspiration for the Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets.
It was similarly fascinating to discover that Marie Belloc Lowndes, who wrote the 1913 novel The Lodger (which provided Alfred Hitchcock with the basis for one of his first feature films in 1927), also created a series detective named Hercule Popeau, whose name probably helped to inspire Agatha Christie when she was casting around for a name for her famous Belgian sleuth a few years later. And who knew that R. C. Woodthorpe’s novel The Public School Murder (1932) may have inspired a copycat murder, when a headmaster at a school in Massachusetts was found murdered in a way that exactly matched the murder from Woodthorpe’s debut? Or that both the Chinese and Egyptian police forces used Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books as instruction manuals for their detectives for many years?
With the exception of a few notable names (Doyle, Christie, Sayers), many of these mini-histories tell a similar story: a writer achieved a modicum of success with their forays into detective fiction, but they were soon forgotten, although now a first edition of their works can fetch a substantial sum among collectors. Quite a few of Edwards’ entries on these novels end by outlining the other work the writer went on to do, but for Edwards it is the novels he’s selected for inclusion here which represent the novelists’ best work. It’s good to see Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carrados, and Edmund Crispin’s English Professor and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen, both represented here. I never knew that Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights to use a fairground scene from Crispin’s best novel, The Moving Toyshop, in his film Strangers on a Train. Such additional delights are to be found peppered throughout Edwards’ history of the genre.
Edwards knows his subject well and he succeeds in bringing to life these often forgotten works of detective fiction. For the mystery fan in your life (or for yourself, if that describes you), I can think of no better Christmas gift this year. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (British Library Crime Classics) provided me with several hours of informative and entertaining reading during a long train journey this week, and that’s often a good test for a book. Edwards is fine company, and as with many well-written examples of this kind of book, his studies of the great and the forgotten from the world of crime fiction are bound to give you at least a few additions to your ‘to read’ list.
Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.
Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.