Last week I talked about my first encounter with both Agatha Christie and classic detective fiction, and it got me all reflective about how things built from there and brought us to the point where via magic of some sort you’re reading words that I’ve written and anticipating that this will have something to do with classic crime and detective fiction any minute now…
Undoubtedly, the key event was the UK publisher Orion releasing a series dubbed the Crime Masterworks, that sought to bring together the finest in crime and detective fiction from over the years. I was at the time hoovering up modern authors like Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Ian Rankin, John Grisham, Lee Child, and Philip Kerr, and had already pegged Orion as publishers of the kind of thing I enjoyed (their stable at the time including Crais, Connelly, Rankin, Kerr, Harlan Coben, Steve Hamilton and doubtless many others I read and have forgotten). So, my thinking went, if they say these books are worth reading then, well, they’re probably worth reading…
I ended up reading a lot of these Masterworks — I’ll put a list at the end and highlight those I got round to — and they introduced me to a number of truly significant authors and books: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson (and we know how that turned out), John Dickson Carr (and we know how that tuned out), Margaret Millar, Stanley Ellin, G.K. Chesterton, Georges Simenon, James M. Cain, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Cornell Woolrich, Ed McBain, Tony Hillerman, Joe Gores, Ross Macdonald…I’m not going to claim that I loved everything (I didn’t even like some of it), but as educations in the history of crime and detection in fiction go I look back now and realise how lucky I was. There’s no way I would have picked up even half of this stuff that Orion not told me it was important in some fashion or another (Thompson, for one, in no way sounded like my kind of thing, and — oh! — how wrong I would have been!), and I believe that it would have taken me much longer to get to the point I’m now at in my tastes had I not encountered these books when I did.
Essentially, the Masterworks series provided two main stimuli in my reading life, if you will. The first was that it got me thinking about where what I was reading at the time had come from: Poe’s stories don’t hold up now, but a part of my mind was prepared to go “Well, in the middle of the Nineteenth Century this was probably quite something…”, Conan Doyle’s ‘The Red-Headed League’ was a complete revelation for me in how a story purports to be one thing (looking for a guy with a peculiar shade of red hair to join a society dedicated to such) and actually turns out to have far more sinister and elaborate motives (I was reading a lot of PI-hired-to-find-a-missing-person-and-all-is-not-what-it-first-appears at the time, remember), and Stanley Ellin — with his changing styles and characters and intent in every story — made me finally understand how the short story works, and Chesterton showed how a moral perspective need not always be bolted on, and how psychology and humanity could be utilised together without swivel-eyed murderers maniacally frothing at the mouth before Mike Hammer shoots them and claims moral superiority.
Secondly, as my interest in the more modern vestiges of crime fiction began to pall, these books showed me that there was a vast, deep vein of quality waiting to be tapped if I was willing to have a bit of a root around (this was, don’t forget, before the internet had really kicked off — it was still thing, obviously, but there was much less independent recommendation; hell, I remember a lot of authors who didn’t even have their own websites back then — and quite a few whose “authorname.com” domain was an unofficial thing maintained by a fan). James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity was a bullet-fast, staggeringly amoral tale with an awesome twist and a dark seam of nihilism that thrilled as much as it appalled; Thompson’s The Getaway was poetry through and through, heart-breakingly beautiful and stark and bold and surprising; Simenon’s The Blue Room was surprisingly sexy and lurid and chaste all at once, and The Stain on the Snow showed how amorality could be put to uses beyond those of Thompson and Cain; Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male was simply brutal, but infused with a sort of reserve that told you far less than it could have and made those words seem infinitely more descriptive than a book five times as long. It was all there, waiting to be found, and I paid attention to these pointers and followed where they sent me.
Equally, these books helped me weed out what I didn’t like: Cornell Woolrich’s short fiction never really worked for me, Sjöwall and Wahlöö failed to deliver on the back-cover enthusiasm, Anthony Price put me through a lot of confusing to-and-fro before unveiling solutions too banal for consideration…and these disappointments were equally valid, as they started to narrow down what did work for me: I moved away from the American school, started to notice difference in theme and approach and style once the 1960s dawned, wised up to a lot of the tricks that were recycled — Interface (1974) by Joes Gores has a twist that I think he wants you to see coming — and how a particular type of story that used these ideas in fresh or unexpected ways appealed to me more than another type that didn’t. I started to leave behind my PIs and their dames and find more relief in my genius amateur and the puzzle of a death that had layer after layer behind it but didn’t lead All The Way To The Top, revelling more in petty motives and small, jealous conclaves than Big Business and the maelstroms thereof.
This was a huge formative leap in my reading, as, with Christie ticking over at the same time, I learned what beguiled and bedevilled me, and ended up in a sort of literary oligopsony where a few keys ideas and names ended up commanding an increasing amount of my reading time. I found myself dipping into the classics more and more to rejuvenate my interest as modern writers began to recycle themselves in ways that I was now aware didn’t work for me, and as I began to read more seemingly random one-offs and find them either to my liking (Tony Hillerman’s The Dance Hall of the Dead (1973)) or not (Ross Thomas’s Briarpatch (1984)) I became more willing to start to judge a book on my own intuitions — slowly figuring out my own tastes and the authors, publishers, schools, years, and styles of the books that have now come to command a lot of my time and, frankly, money over the years.