So I love my classic crime, we’ve established that, but where does this leave you? After all, having someone go on about themselves all the time gets a bit boring. You’re always saying that, aren’t you? Sensible person that you are. So, just for you – yes, you – here’s a list of five books I’d recommend if you’re thinking of getting started reading classsic crime fiction but are a little overwhelmed by all these books by dead authors (I feel the same about classical music, for what it’s worth).
My criteria are fairly simple: novels only, first published between 1920 and 1950, and widely available for purchase now. It’s all very well having someone recommend the most amazing book ever, but if it was last in print in 1932 and only changes hands in book-fair back rooms for the kind of money that it takes to keep your kids in shoes for a decade…well, that’s just someone showing off, isn’t it. Why share a love of something that can’t itself be shared? The list is alphabetical by author, too, because that just seems sensible:
Death-Watch (1935) by John Dickson Carr The finest detective novelist ever, mystifyingly largely out of print; I will try to keep Carr off some lists I write in future, but I am so in awe of what the man achieved that my enthusiasm for him knows very few bounds. Perhaps Death-Watch is a controversial choice, others would say one of his locked rooms (that’s another list, however), but this is so appropriately constructed like a Swiss watch – it involves, among other things, someone being stabbed to death by the hand from a clock – that it’s hard not to marvel at the intricacy of his plotting. The first half is astonishingly dense and claustrophobic, with so much going on that there seems to be no way to tie it all together. This is where Carr’s gargantuan detective Dr. Gideon Fell is at his best, however, and it unravels with a clarity that is beyond the abilities of practically anyone else who has ever written in this genre. [Available from Orion in print and ebook]
The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) by Agatha Christie Because she had to be in there somewhere, right? And I think Christie is a wonderful crime writer. Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple are undoubtedly far more famous, and the BBC has recently abominated filmed some of her Tommy and Tuppence stories, but Superintendent Battle remains my favourite of Christie’s sleuths. A sequel to The Secret of Chimneys, this, but I think it’s a better book and don’t believe it gives anything away (do correct me if you’ve read this more recently and I’m wrong, though!). The expected combination of murder, mystery and bright young things here, but it’s Christie’s use of that underworked trope (isn’t that an oxymoron? Hmmm…) – the secret society with nebulous but nefarious aims – that sets this apart. Surely one of the most underappreciated of her works, and it has some very stiff competition in that field. [Available from Harper in print and ebook]
Swan Song (1947) by Edmund Crispin Crispin can be a little uneven, but his Gervase Fen novels are fuelled by a kind of manic absurdity which pauses for moments of steel-infused determination when faced with the deaths Fen inevitably ends up investigating. Proof that frivolity can go with death when handled correctly, and Crispin’s ideas often overflow at an astonishing rate. Here you have your typical disliked personage who is found murdered, and there’s an impossible element to it to test your perception, but the joy here is really in Crispin’s acute characterisation of everyone present and the couple of moments of unabashed glee when he cuts loose with Fen’s irrepressible side (see: Thomas Shadwell). The Moving Toyshop is more harum-scarum still, but as an introduction I think this shows both Crispin and Fen better. [Available from Vintage in print and ebook]
The Frightened Stiff (1942) by Kelley Roos The nom de plume of William Roos and his wife Audrey (née Kelly), if the Carr sounds too creepy and the Crispin to frivolous then this is the perfect median. A lot of the aversion people seem to have to classic detective fiction is the perception that the humour will all be outdated or based on things which simply aren’t funny any more like Cock-er-ney po-licemen or trousers falling down and that the mysteries won’t be that confounding given the obviouly superior perspective we have from 60-odd years in the future (see: ‘The Empty House’, Conan Doyle’s return of Sherlock Holmes, now over 100 years old). Allow Jeff and Haila Troy to explode both these notions by finding a body in their bathtub and engaging in one of the most consistely funny and confounding mysteries I’ve read in recent years. I’ll even go so far as to say that if you don’t like this then you’re not going to find anything in the Golden Age to your taste. [Available from Rue Morgue Press in print only]
The Franchise Affair (1949) by Josephine Tey The classic green paperbacks published by Penguin are so sought after largely on account of the quality of the titles they printed. What they don’t get enough credit for is their superb synopses. My copy of The Franchise Affair reads The Franchise is a large country house in which Marion Sharpe and her mother live. The Affair concerns the accusations of a fifteen year-old schoolgirl that these two apparently respectable ladies had imprisoned, beaten and starved her. It is up to Robert Blair to prove the girl a liar…if he can. That there is everything you need to know, with modern editions giving far too much else away. Far and away my favourite of Tey’s novels, with Blair’s aunt being one of the most beautifully-sketched minor characters I’ve ever encountered. The plot, too, is wonderful but I’ve already said all I intend to about that. Beautiful detection, building a case strongly and convincingly based on the small details; this is why I read this kind of thing. [Available from Arrow in print and ebook]
Disclaimer: opinions are my own, other novels are available, your house is at risk if you do not keep up repayments.