I really wish I had the energy and focus of Martin Edwards - there are the novels, the editorial work for the British Library Crime Classics series, and now 3 impressive doorstoppers of books that give an overview of the crime writing genre, meanwhile I struggle to hold down a job, keep up with my reading, and fit in some knitting time.
I've had 'The Life of Crime' for about 10 days, so full disclosure I've only been able to dip in and out of it - even excluding the 80 pages that make up the select (!) bibliography and index there's still 622 pages book; it's fair to say it's comprehensive. Dipping in and out is also probably going to be the best way for most of us to approach this book anyway - unless you want to fully immerse yourself in the history of crime fiction in which case you might also want to arm yourself with Edwards' earlier books. 'The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books' published by the British Library, and 'The Golden Age of Murder' from Harper Collins'. I've enjoyed both but I think 'The Life of Crime' has the edge.
It's a combination of Edwards enthusiasm for his subject (he makes it very clear how much of a fan he is as well as a writer) the signposts he gives us for following our own lines of research and enthusiasm, and his acknowledgment that this is his journey through the history of the genre's past 'with all the limitations and idiosyncrasies that implies'. He's a charming, courteous, and well-informed guide to the world of classic crime fiction who knows how to deliver a good anecdote and tell a joke. In short, we're in good company with Edwards.
'The Life of Crime' is both good company and a constant source of distraction - where can I find a cheap copy of Joanna Cannan's 'No Walls of Jasper' which is dedicated to her friend Georgette Heyer, apparently the model for one of the characters? Do I need to read William Godwin, there's a compelling case here for his role in the development of the crime novel (common sense says no, it'll probably be on a par with reading Samual Richardson)? The examination of how elements from 18th century Gothic fiction make their way into crime fiction in the first chapter, 'Revolutions' is fascinating, and something I'll bring with me if I ever read Jane Austen's 'Emma' again.
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.
Arguments about literary merit aside, books written and marketed to have a popular appeal are an excellent way to understand contemporary opinions on almost any subject, and again as Edwards discusses in his introduction "...if a book written decades ago evinces attitudes that we now deplore, that isn't a reason to airbrush it from history. If we ignore the follies of the past...we'll fail to understand what caused them, and what continues to cause them..." Reading older books is often an odd mix of finding attitudes that seem remarkably enlightened alongside ones that are absolutely not.
So, 55 chapters, an excellent bibliography, pages of notes with gossip, trivia, and more suggested reading to follow up on. Household names and almost forgotten ones, a chronology that takes us from the 18th century to the present day and which looks beyond the usual English-speaking writers to take in some of the bigger European names should provide something of interest for any crime fiction fan. I think the biggest compliment I can pay this book though is to tell you that despite its weight and size it's the one I've been carrying in my bag all week to read on breaks as well as at home - it's very unusual for anything but a slim paperback to make it into my bag.
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