Today was due to have been the sixth (sixth!) Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library but, for obvious reasons, it’s not. I can’t, alas, give you a whole day of GAD-based discussion, but I can at least fill an hour with someone from that line-up of exceptionally knowledgable people, Tony Medawar.
Today, three previously very hard to find novels by Freeman Wills Crofts are republished by HarperCollins: Death on the Way (1932), The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936), and Man Overboard! (1936). September will add Mystery on Southampton Water (1934), Crime at Guildford (1935), and Sudden Death (1932) to that, bringing the total of Crofts’ works in ready circulation up to twenty. I have no idea why they’re being published out of order, and frankly I don’t really care — it’s mainly just delightful to see him getting some traction — and I wanted to celebrate by continuing my broadly chronological reading of Crofts with this, the first of his which ever came to my attention.
Agatha Christie famously wrote the final novels to feature her two biggest sleuths well ahead of their publication, and where Hercule Poirot’s swansong Curtain (1975) was a joyous return to the heights for a character she had grown weary of, Sleeping Murder (1976) — the last hurrah for Miss Jane Marple, a character you can’t help but feel Christie had a growing respect for as she aged — is…fine. Yes, it had a cogency and precision that At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) and Nemesis (1971) sorely needed, but in all honesty the sound and fury on display here signifies something that doesn’t even add up to a hill o’ beans, if you’ll forgive my mixing of classics.
Can a book still be a masterpiece if it’s not brilliant? In the case of Gaston Leroux’s debut The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) — which plays up to and anticipates so many of the established and forthcoming trappings of detective fiction — I’d say yes. The focus on propelling the plot at a time when even those who were focussed on plot weren’t exactly propulsive is both admirable and impressive, and the creativity Leroux brings to a subgenre that would utilise the secret passage for another 60+ years is staggering. But it would be folly to claim that age has not caught up with it and that this was in the same class as the genre’s genuine masterpieces of the 1930s.
You’ve doubtless heard of Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher books in which the gargantuan ex-serviceman does plenty of fightin’ and figurin’, and if there’s a bigger name in publishing today it’s only because James Patterson has, like, 86 co-authors.
Recent years have been very kind to the Golden Age Detection nerd seeking non-fiction reference works. Indeed, if it didn’t seem like so much of a rip-off of the Reprint of the Year Award Kate runs over at CrossExaminingCrime, I’d be inclined to start a GAD Reference Work of the Year Awards.
The majority of Agatha Christie referred to on this blog has been from her later, less popular phase while I work through her canon chronologically. So it’s lovely to be able to refer to some of her early work with this collection of 18 stories originally published between 1923 and 1936.
While Freeman Wills Crofts’ work has caused me much delight over the last few years, that of his fellow ‘Humdrum’ John Rhode/Miles Burton doesn’t inspire in me quite the same raptures. Rhode (as I’ll call him here) writes swift, events-focussed novels, and constructs plots with the same deliberation and consideration from multiple sides…so maybe it’s that his plots always feel like a single idea with some people bolted onto it. Here as in Death Leaves No Card (1944) or Invisible Weapons (1938) I come away with the impression that he read about a single obscure murder method and thought “Yeah, I can get 60,000 words out of that”.
As his seventh published novel, Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927) shows Freeman Wills Crofts again subtly altering his approach to take us through the minutiae of crime and detection, introducing a structural change which addresses the issue of “whodunnit” that these early GAD trendsetters sometimes struggled with. While you may well be aware of the guilty party from about chapter 4, rest assured that Inspector Joseph French eventually cottons onto his target at around the halfway stage, and the final third of the book is then devoted to tracing the criminal. And a lot of fun is to be had along the way.
At some point in the 1980s, Britain started pumping out crime fiction by authors who literary darlings could feel smug about admitting they slum it with: Colin Dexter, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and today’s experiment, Reginald Hill, among others — authors I’ve sampled here and there and who generally leave me cold. My precise objection to them is difficult to pin down, but they seem to me to be forcing upon the genre a staid acceptability it neither needed nor flourishes under, and that’s something I can’t get further into without reading more of it…and, well, I’m reluctant to do that. A Killing Kindness (1980) perfectly exemplifies why.