#918: The Life of Crime (2022) by Martin Edwards

Life of Crime

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To me falls the honour of rounding off the blog tour for The Life of Crime (2022) by Martin Edwards, adding to the deserved praise it has already garnered elsewhere. This “personal journey through the genre’s past, with all the limitations and idiosyncrasies that implies” is a monumental achievement, encompassing the breadth and depth of a genre that is now a good couple of centuries old, and finding many nuggets to share about it along the way. And, since any study of a genre must inherently be about that genre to some extent, Edwards’ trump card here is to tell a story of crime writing that also sheds light on the need for such stories to exist in the first place.

There is, of course, no doubt that Edwards is the ideal choice for a book such as this — the man has spent decades immersed in the genre as both a fan and an author, and has explored many a corner that even the most ardent of us might be surprised to learn existed in the first place. “The most daunting challenge,” he says early on with fabulous understatement, “is the scale of the subject” — this attempt to bring into line the contributing factors and sectors of crime writing being the first truly authoritative undertaking of its kind in the half century since Bloody Murder, a.k.a. Mortal Consequences (1972) by Julian Symons, and perhaps the last time that a single-volume approach will be attempted given the mushrooming of crime writing in recent times as allowed by the blurring of genre lines and the advent of self-publishing.

Undaunted by this daunting challenge, Edwards’ approach is broadly chronological and mostly thematic, each of the fifty-five chapters starting with some framing incident before exploring the related people and their work related to this. Written in the same casual, conversational, knowledgable style of his earlier The Golden Age of Murder (2015), this enables themes to be teased out alongside the incidents that informed or enlivened the lives of the people who have shaped this genre through its many iterations. What this helps to drive home is the extent to which the crime story is in essence an attempt to make sense of the world around us — not because of the old cliché about imposing order, since even the classics didn’t guarantee this (as Edwards points out, the first collection of Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle sees the criminals go free in at least a quarter of the cases) but rather on account of the “imaginative alchemy” that finds sensation in these tales because of their universal applicability.

The good detective story, according to [G.K.] Chesterton, made the mysterious comprehensible: ‘A footprint, a strange flower, a cipher telegram, and a smashed top-hat — these do not excite us because they are disconnected, but because the author is under an implied contract to connect them. It is not the inexplicable that thrills us; it is the explanation we have not heard.’

The number of times these authors had their lives touched by some baffling or terrifying incident and sought to make sense of it in fiction — I would never have imagined that Mary Roberts Reinhart had such an exciting life — is a fascinating theme that emerges time and again through the examples cited in each chapter: one does not need to be shot at to understand that the incident must be terrifying, and it is in that terror, and the exploration of it through ever-evolving means, that so much crime and mystery fiction thrives. It is only, then, a short hop from here to consider the moral and ethical implications of the crime story, and how they can be explored in a manner that is both intellectually rigorous and entertaining. In short, what Edwards makes clear is that crime touches our lives in so many ways, and the genre became necessarily rich in order to address these.

The 1930s were a decade of anxiety: economic, social and political. People worried about the outlook for a world in which dictators like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin seemed all-powerful. Critics who patronise Golden Age detective fiction routinely neglect the way authors such as Kennedy used the framework of a crime story to explore questions of the kind put by James Southern: ‘A jury could only have secured injustice. What did the law matter – if the law could not have secured justice? People talked of judicial murder: was not judicial failure to secure the just punishment of a murderer just as bad?’

Equally, the function of the crime story has evolved, and that evolution is charted effortlessly, from the grand declarations of Edgar Allan Poe’s early Great Detective C. Auguste Dupin and the celebrity of Eugene-Francois Vidocq’s “Jekyll and Hyde” nature through to Edgar Wallace’s calamitous experiment with The Four Just Men (1905) whose “main significance…lay in [the] demonstration that detective fans wanted to solve the puzzle themselves”. Equally, come the end of the Second World War, the pastime of “escaping from personal problems by solving someone else’s” developed a new cynicism that had flourished in the American hardboiled school of Dashiell Hammett and the Noir of Cornell Woolrich. Given the number of authors involved and the number of moving parts that such development must then have, the clarity with which these changes are mapped and linked to clear ‘schools’ cropping up in the certain countries at the same time is delightful. Many fans of the genre will be aware of most of these ideas, but seeing them brought together in a narrative in this way really reinforces how masterfully Edwards views the shape and growth of this genre over this extended time period.

As the genre grew in confidence, so did its scope and intent: many early police procedurals were little more than “propaganda on behalf of the police”, yet were used to attack certain other bastions it might well be assumed inviolable such as Henry Wade’s perspective on the military. This almost complete blank slate to explore any matter they wished is perhaps what drew so many “Marxists, socialists and liberals” to the form, and also what enabled so much real world change in the way that surely no other genre has the scope to effect: look at the number of legal loopholes closed by novel-writers down the years, or the therapy of being able to murder in fiction someone it would be more problematic to do away with in life. And yet Edwards makes it clear that there were still many, like T.S. Stribling and Leo Bruce, who considered themselves to be “slumming it with detective novels” and for whom the form was little more than food on the table. The achievement here, in light of Edwards’ own high regard for the genre, is not to overstate the former at the expense of the latter. The clear thumbnail portraits painted of authors, their influences, and their work allows just as generously for those who wished their work forgotten as those who would be delighted to find themselves discussed a century or more later.

Man, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of this pleasingly encyclopedic 622-page (plus indexes — plural!) opus. Edwards really has captured what is so enduring about the crime story in both its deeper opportunities and its blood-and-thunder appeal, exploring practically every subgenre and offshoot (impossible crimes, radio mysteries, Hollywood) succinctly yet authoritatively. The patterns are so enticingly woven throughout that I didn’t even balk at the later chapters on modern psychological suspense and the neo-Noir of modern American crime writing — anathema to me on the page — since I wanted to see the arcs pursued throughout completed, and Edwards writes in such a readable style that I kept finding myself 50 pages further on than I’d intended, hoovering up details of Scandi crime fiction like it doesn’t leave me as cold as the landscapes that inspired it. That, my friends, is when you know you’re reading a good book.

Plus I, a massive Batman fan, learned something new about Batman, and that always goes over well.

So, yes, The Life of Crime is exactly the book you knew it would be when you first learned of its existence: expertly researched and structured (the 20-some endnotes on each chapter almost comprise a book-within-a-book themselves), superbly written, ridiculously easy to pick up and dip into as the spirit takes you (ensuring its status as a mainstay of quick research in the decades ahead), and just as enjoyable as a cover-to-cover narrative to satiate your inner geek with a series of fascinating historical perspectives that extend all the way up to the modern day. Anyone who thinks they’re going to follow this in another 50 years has my sympathies.

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See also

Desperate Reader: Overall Edwards’ opinion of where Crime fiction deserves to sit in terms of literary merit is particularly interesting to me. We spend a good bit of time at work debating how to break down fiction – we currently divide it into science fiction and fantasy, crime, and fiction – there’s a good argument to be made for romance having its own section, though we currently don’t have space for it, and an equally good argument to say that none of these distinctions really make sense. We do it for the convenience of customers who like their preferences signposted but there’s a lot of crossover, as well as a pernicious belief that genre fiction is somehow lesser.

Joules Barham @ Northern Reader: The other great ambition of this book is not only to provide a history of British crime fiction, but to expand it across the world. So there are chapters on Dutch crime as well as East Asian detective fiction for example, as well as the American development of the genre. There are passing references and indeed chapters about the transmission of crime fiction, not only in printed form but big and little screen adaptations. Predictably there were tensions of many kinds in transferring novels to films, with arguments about writing the screenplays and so forth. I enjoyed the anecdotes about the famous Inspector Morse adaptations, including how the later novels by Colin Dexter changed to reflect the actors’ strengths.

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