We all like lists, partly because we like a good argument. Any attempt to pick the “hundred best” books, whether in the crime genre or anywhere else, is bound to prompt controversy. But this hasn’t deterred critics over the years - Julian Symons and Harry Keating, both doyens of crime reviewing in the second half of the last century, both had a go. With my new genre study for the British Library, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, however, I wasn’t trying to list “the best” books; I set out to do something rather different.
Actually, this book isn’t focused on a list – it’s about telling a story, of how crime fiction developed between the end of the Victorian era and 1950. I’ve picked titles that help to illustrate a variety of themes as that story unfolds. Of course, there are plenty of predictable choices, ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train. But I like to think that there are plenty of choices that will come as a surprise, perhaps in the same way that a pleasing plot twist in a mystery may catch even an alert reader unawares. I’ve included plenty of personal favourites, such as Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank, but again, this isn’t an attempt simply to list my own top hundred most-loved crime novels. I wanted to focus more on a diverse and appealing range of entries.
In the book’s introduction, I say that some of my choices are unashamedly idiosyncratic, and having the chance to come up with some unlikely titles was an important part of the appeal for me of writing the book. It serves, as the title suggests, as a companion to the British Library’s popular Crime Classics series, but again I’ve tried to defy expectations by selecting only a limited number of the books that have appeared so far in the series. I didn’t want simply to repeat what I’d said about books and authors in my introductions to books in the series. Nor did I want to rehash all that I said in my last book about the genre, The Golden Age of Murder. I wanted to offer readers value by trying to give them something fresh.
But, as with The Golden Age of Murder, if to a lesser extent, I used the techniques of a novelist in telling the story of classic crime, and that meant that – as writers do when they tell a story long enough to fill a book – I kept revising my ideas as I worked on the manuscript. One hundred books written over a time span of half a century isn’t really as large a number as it may seem! Some of the choices that featured in my original synopsis had to give way to other books that seemed, as time went on, better to reflect different aspects of the story. As a rough estimate, I’d say I changed about a quarter of the selections over the time (rather more than twelve months) that I was writing the book.
So some of the titles you’d expect to see in a “best of” list are probably conspicuous by their absence. Some, I hope and expect, you may never have heard of, even if you’re a real aficionado. For me, that’s a good thing, because I believe that part of the pleasure of reading a book like this lies in making fresh discoveries. (Just as I did long ago, after reading Symons’ wonderful history of the genre,) Of course, one hundred titles isn’t nearly enough – so in all, I finished up by mentioning another six hundred in addition to those discussed in depth. If this book tempts you to search out some obscure but fascinating books (and given the number of titles to choose from, there are lots of possibilities!), I’ll be delighted. Happy hunting!
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is published in the UK on 7 July by the British Library, and in the US on 1 August by Poisoned Pen Press.
More information about the author can be found on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter @medwardbooks