Orion’s digital crime arm The Murder Room will apparently be ceasing operations in the near future, meaning to those of us in the UK the loss of high-quality e-books from classic Golden Age authors like Anthony Boucher, Pamela Branch, John Dickson Carr, J.J. Connington, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Geoffrey Household, Ronald Knox, John D. Macdonald, Helen McCloy, and E. L. White, and more contemporary fare such as Charles Willeford and many others.
They have excelled in the high standards of their output, the range of authors they promoted, the fact that they made these books available to the widest possible market, and their commitment to the Golden Age long before it was fashionable again. Goddammit, this has really spoiled my day.
Existing somewhere between an early 2000s romantic comedy – probably starring Chris O’Donnell or Matthew McConnaughaghay – and The Count of Monte Cristo, John Dickson Carr’s The Bride of Newgate was his first foray into the historical mysteries that would come to typify his later career. You never write Carr off – like Christie he waned as he wore on, but there are enough flashes of fire after his peak for everyone to have two or three Later Carr highlights – but these dalliances with the extra detail required show a different side to our man. Mainly they show that he was a massive history nerd – detailing not just what people are wearing, say, but also what they would have removed from their outfit to be left with what they’ve got on – and that he was able to fit this into his wonderful brain and stir up something both necessarily of its setting that also fulfilled the expectations raised by his name on the cover.
I’m not going to tell you the plot – the opening four or five chapters are full of schemes, plans, and revelations enough that you should really experience completely pure – and will instead focus on the writing. Because while he gradually loses his grip on his narrative, his powers of portraiture are sent to their grandest heights with a renewed enthusiasm that is both this book’s chief joy and its main undoing. In a way it’s like a debut: he gets it wrong, but he tries hard and would improve after a few more attempts.
Following my torrent of Sherlock Holmes I was tempted to do a ‘Five to Try’ on the short story collections, picking my favourite story from each. But it’s not as if the Holmes canon doesn’t have enough words dedicated to it already, and thus I thought I’d opt for collections by other authors instead.
So, the rules: collections of short stories by a single author (no compendiums, wherein the quality always varies horrendously), readily available today…that just about covers it. And so, alphabetically by author, we have:
Fen Country (1950-79) by Edmund Crispin
The second of Crispin’s two short story collections, published posthumously. My choice of the two because of the way a lot of the stories hinge on a very simple core idea – homonyms, for example – that might come across a gimmicky but manage in about six or seven pages to communicate setting, setup, event, outcome and misdirection. Frankly no small feat! Yes, consequently the characters tend to suffer (the ebullient Fen is a curiously neutered presence in the stories in which he features) but for sheer inventive interpretation after inventive interpretation this is hard to beat. And as an example of Crispin’s tight hold on the reins of his plots (which could, let’s face it, get a bit beyond him in his novels) this reinforces his reputation in a form that has often proved the undoing of lesser talents. [Available in ebook and thoroughly unattractive print form from Bloomsbury]
Recommended reading: ‘Death and Aunt Fancy’, ‘The Hunchback Cat’, ‘Outrage in Stepney’ Continue reading →
John Dickson Carr wrote just shy of 80 books and, since he is the finest practitioner of detective fiction the world has ever seen, you would like to know where to start in this cavalcade of brilliance (because some of them are bound to be, er, unbrilliant). I am here to help.
Just to be clear on the rules: novels that are readily available, as always, restricted to impossible crimes because that’s why we love him, and presented in order of recommended reading (so, start with the first one). That is all, here we go…
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) Hey, you; yes, you, with the cup of tea. I want you to write a book about people inexplicably hurling themselves out of a window when sleeping alone in a room at the top of a tower. I want it to be creepy, I want it to be fast-moving, I want it to have an undertone of threat; it also has to be fairly-clued, the culprit resonsible must be a complete surprise and you can kill as many characters as you like. Oh, and make it funny. Make it laugh out loud, technicolour funny, but light enough to take up residence in your brain without leaving so much as a shadow and without undoing the threat mentioned above. What’s that? It’s already been done? Oh, forget it, then I’ll just read that book instead. [Available from Rue Morgue Press in print only, the recommended version as some other publishers inexplicably and unforgivably give away key points in their cover art]
While I technically popped by blog Carr cherry a few weeks ago in recommending Death-Watch, it was at best a passing thumbs-up to the man and his achievements. And, following the disappointment of my intended novel under review, the time is probably ripe to dive in, get the first Carr review up and prop open the floodgates. And why not The Hollow Man (a.k.a. The Three Coffins)? Carr’s most well-known work, an arguable masterpiece of detective and impossible crime fiction, surely the most widely written about impossible crime novel on the internet…why not trot out the usual platitudes, recommend it unreservedly and fill the gap in my schedule?
Except, and here’s the different perspective I’m hoping to bring to this, the first time I read The Hollow Man I hated it. I hated it. It was published as part of Orion’s Crime Masterworks series and that alone stimulated sufficient interest for me to give it a go but, being in my nonage of classic crime fiction, I couldn’t really tell you what an ‘impossible crime’ was and so didn’t know what to expect. I somehow knew of Carr vaguely (the internet was not quite so well-informed then as now), had ten or so Agatha Christies to my name – including Murder in Mesopotamia, which I failed to recognise for the impossible crime it is – and figured that alone meant I would be in for a similar kind of experience and knew what I was doing.
Simple criteria: novels only, readily available, not conceived in the fertile ground of John Dickson Carr’s imagination. I’ve also restricted the impossible crime to being the comission of the murder – people stabbed or shot while alone in a room, effectively – more to help reduce the possible contenders than anything else. Several stone cold classics are absent through the inclusion of other invisible events but that’s a future list (or five…).
Carr – doyen of the impossible crime, responsible for more brilliant work in this subgenre than any other three authors combined – will eventually get his own list (or five…), I just have to figure out how to separate them out; restricting it to five novels was hard enough for this list, but if you’re looking to get started in locked room murders these would be my suggestions:
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: