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Curious Facts about the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

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, which delve into the alternative lives Read the rest of this entry

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The Book of Forgotten Authors: Forgotten Writers Who Are Worth Reading

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Christopher Fowler’s enthralling account of the writers who time forgot

I’ve always been fond of the curious coincidence that in the 1960s there was a writer of novels about boxing who wrote under the name Frank Bruno. Or that Robert Shaw, who turned in a booming performance as Henry VIII in Fred Zinnemann’s superlative film of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, was a successful novelist as well as a fine actor. The literary associations of such names have now largely been lost, but it’s great fun to recover them and re-examine the work of the authors in question.

So I was thrilled to receive a copy of Christopher Fowler’s new book, The Book of Forgotten Authors, which bears a glorious pink cover dotted with silhouettes of now-unfamiliar literary figures, and salvages 99 names from the mists of writerly obscurity and puts them back under the spotlight. And some of the revelations on offer here are truly fascinating. Read the rest of this entry

Karel Capek’s Apocryphal Stories

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the charming short stories of Karel Čapek

The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title. The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race (shades, or rather a foreshadowing, of The Terminator here). This sense of ‘robot’ is taken from the earlier one defined above – namely, the Czech for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’.

Karel Čapek himself didn’t coin the word. The word ‘robot’ was in existence before he wrote his play. But nor did Čapek come up with the idea of taking the word ‘robot’ and using it to describe the man-made droids that feature in his play. He originally called them labori, from the Latin for ‘work’, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Josef, himself a gifted artist, would later write a volume of poems from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in which he was interned. In April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war, he became one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s Final Solution.

Most readers who know the name Karel Čapek associate it with robots and little else. Yet Čapek was also the author of some charming short stories and skits, which were collected together as Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics). Read the rest of this entry