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Martin Edwards’s ‘The Life of Crime’ will thrill mystery fans

Don’t be fooled by Martin Edwards’s “The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators.” Yes, it looks daunting, what with 55 substantial chapters, each one followed by detailed endnotes in small type; a 40-page index simply listing the books discussed; and an overall heft that calls to mind a collegiate dictionary. As all devotees of crime fiction know, appearances can be deceiving. Start reading this history of the detective story — from Poe to P.D. James — and you’ll soon find it hard to follow my heartfelt advice: Slow down and space out the book’s 724 pages so that you can enjoy it for more than a few days.

Of course, I’m assuming your willpower is greater than mine. I was up late three nights in a row, eager to find out what Edwards would say about some of my favorite writers. As the president of Britain’s almost legendary Detection Club, archivist of the Crime Writers’ Association, consultant for the British Library’s Crime Classics, and author of the award-winning “The Golden Age of Murder,” among many other books, Edwards is now the leading English advocate for mystery in all its forms. He is also a generous critic, acknowledging how much he has learned from other scholars and even a few reviewers (myself among them).

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Still, like Wordsworth who rejected Milton’s example but could never wholly break away from his presence in his work, Edwards writes under the shadow of one outstanding predecessor, Julian Symons, whose pronouncements he quotes regularly, if only to disagree with them. Symons’s “Bloody Murder” — retitled “Mortal Consequences” in the United States — has for half a century been, for all its flaws, the standard history of the detective story. Yet while admitting the ingenuity of an Agatha Christie and a John Dickson Carr, Symons scarcely hid his disdain for mysteries that were essentially puzzles, games with the reader and howdunits. Rather than cozy entertainments with tricky plots, what he preferred and promoted were crime novels — such as those by Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith — that revolved around psychologically complex characters.

Compared to the opinionated Symons, Edwards certainly provides a more balanced, and much longer, history of the genre, but at a certain cost: By emphasizing the virtues of all kinds of writing, he sometimes sounds a bit too even-handed and mild. Admittedly, one can slowly gauge his personal taste — he deeply admires Francis Iles and the neglected Henry Wade — but in general Edwards avoids committing himself to particular authors. His book is a literary history, not a guide to the 100 mysteries you should read before you die — which, by the way, probably won’t be in a locked room, or on a mean street, or at an isolated country estate with greedy heirs in attendance, all of whom have airtight alibis.

As his subtitle suggests, Edwards also loves what Samuel Johnson called “the biographical part” of literature. Nearly all his chapters open with a dramatic, even sensationalistic account of some transformative event in the life of an important crime writer. Thus we learn about the murder in Anne Perry’s past; the growing hatred between Fred Dannay and his cousin Manfred Lee, the two halves of Ellery Queen; the Grand National race in which Dick Francis’s horse inexplicably collapsed near the finish line; the firing squad execution of Erskine Childers, author of the groundbreaking spy novel “The Riddle of the Sands”; and the horrible accident caused by the psychologically disturbed daughter of Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar.

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Similarly, though Edwards doesn’t quote much from the books he discusses — and, thankfully, avoids spoilers when summarizing their plots — he can’t resist a good anecdote or factoid. Jim Thompson, author of “The Killer Inside Me,” once said that there were 32 ways to write a story and “I’ve used every one,” then added, “But there is only one plot — things are not as they seem.” As a publisher’s reader, Mary Francis — wife of Dick Francis — turned down Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal.” When the House Un-American Activities Committee asked Kenneth Fearing, author of “The Big Clock,” if he was a member of the Communist Party, he mumbled, “Not yet.”

There are comparable goodies found in each chapter’s copious and highly entertaining endnotes, which often amplify points made in the main text. Agatha Christie, we are reminded, “casually discloses the solutions to four of her earlier novels in ‘Cards on the Table,’ presumably because she thought hardly anyone would read them in future,” while J.K. Rowling chose Margery Allingham’s “The Tiger in the Smoke” as her favorite mystery.

While concentrating on British and American fiction, Edwards does glance at the genre work of Jorge Luis Borges, Edogawa Rampo, Leo Perutz, Umberto Eco, Fred Vargas, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and Stieg Larsson. One can nonetheless dispute the degree of attention he allocates to various writers. For example, he seems strangely lukewarm about Ernest Bramah’s brilliant stories featuring the blind Max Carrados and almost immune to the charm of Edmund Crispin’s comic mysteries (“The Moving Toyshop” being one of my all-time favorite books). No one would argue with chapters largely devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon, Josephine Tey, Ian Fleming and John le Carré, but Edwards offers little beyond a courtesy nod to Rex Stout and Elmore Leonard.

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To my mind, far greater attention should have been paid to writers such as Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake (a.k.a. Richard Stark) and more said about a trio of vastly influential books from the 1970s, namely George V. Higgins’s vernacular tour-de-force “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” James Crumley’s heartbreaking “The Last Good Kiss,” and Charles McCarry’s espionage masterpiece, “The Tears of Autumn.” These were the authors and books that defined mid to late 20th-century American crime fiction.

In the end, though, a magisterial work like “The Life of Crime” does more than just inform, entertain and provoke, it also sends new readers back to old books. Happily, many once out-of-print titles are now readily available because of several enlightened publishing programs. For instance, Christianna Brand’s ultra-ingenious “Death of Jezebel” is among the most recent offerings in the British Library Crime Classics series overseen by Edwards himself, Penzler Publishing’s wide-ranging American Mystery Classics has recently issued Frances Crane’s Southwestern whodunit, “The Turqoise Shop,” S.S. Van Dine’s first Philo Vance mystery, “The Benson Murder Case” and Cornell Woolrich’s suspense-filled, “Deadline at Dawn,” and our own Library of Congress’s Crime Classics program has reissued novels as varied as Rudolph Fisher’s pioneering African American mystery, “The Conjure-Man Dies,” and Hillary Waugh’s genre-establishing police procedural, “Last Seen Wearing.” Yet other imprints worth checking out include Crippen & Landru, which specializes in short stories; Stark House Press, Coachwhip Books and Altus Press’s Black Mask Library, all of which largely focus on pulp fiction; and Dean Street Press, which reprints traditional mysteries, often with exceptional introductions by Curtis Evans or Tony Medawar.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

The Life of Crime

Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators

By Martin Edwards

Collins Crime Club. 724 pp. $32.99

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