In 2015, Martin Edwards brought out “The Golden Age of Murder,” a history of Britain’s Detection Club that went on to sweep nearly all of crime writing’s nonfiction awards. Little wonder. It is an irresistible book, packed with insider anecdotes about a secretive association boasting such celebrated members as G.K. Chesterton and R. Austin Freeman (creators of Father Brown and Dr. Thorndyke); the crime queens Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie; that master of the locked-room puzzle, John Dickson Carr; and, not least, co-founder A.B. Cox, equally accomplished whether writing as the witty Anthony Berkeley (“The Poisoned Chocolates Case”) or the bone-chilling Francis Iles (“Before the Fact”).
Since “The Golden Age of Murder” appeared, Edwards — himself a gifted and prolific writer of mysteries, as well as a scholar of the field — has emerged as a driving force behind the republication of older detective fiction, contributing introductions to many of the titles in the series British Library Crime Classics. All that reading lies behind his new work of critical appreciation and rediscovery, “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.”
Note that phrase “classic crime.” Edwards focuses on the first half of the 20th century, the period between Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1902) and Julian Symons’s “The Thirty-First of February” (1950). While he does include a few Americans — Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith — as well as the Belgian Georges Simenon and the Argentine H. Bustos Domecq (the collaborative pen name of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares), the emphasis is overwhelmingly on British writers. To ensure as wide a net as possible, he generally selects just one title by his chosen author, usually his or her first major work. Agatha Christie is the principal exception: She is represented by “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and “The Murder at the Vicarage,” which introduce, respectively, her detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. However, Edwards can’t resist adding another Poirot, “The ABC Murders.”
Though all three of these whodunits showcase Christie’s excellence, only the last approaches the ingenuity of her supreme masterpieces, “And Then There Were None,” “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” This is worth emphasizing because Edwards’s history shouldn’t be viewed as a list of the absolutely greatest works of mystery and detection. If you need such a guide, you should look for H.R.F. Keating’s “Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books” or the unannotated “Classic Crime Fiction: The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones” (freely available online). Edwards instead emphasizes the genre’s artistic range. He draws especial attention to titles that “cast a light on human behaviour, and display both literary ambition and accomplishment” and those that highlight an era’s sociopolitical concerns: “Even unpretentious detective stories, written for unashamedly commercial reasons, can give us clues to the past, and give us insight into a long-vanished world.”
For each of his 100 titles, Edwards provides a two- or three-page mini-essay, outlining the mystery’s setup — while carefully avoiding spoilers — and closing with a brief paragraph about the author. Good as these appreciations are, they might have avoided a certain stylistic sameness by quoting more frequently from the chosen books.
Being of taxonomical turn of mind, Edwards also organizes his many titles by kind rather than chronology, usually settling on three to five works to represent various categories. In “The Justice Game,” for instance, he covers “Trial and Error,” by Anthony Berkeley; “Verdict of Twelve,” by Raymond Postgate; “Tragedy at Law,” by Cyril Hare; and “Smallbone Deceased,” by Michael Gilbert. All these will be familiar to detective story aficionados. More often, his titles will be recognized by only the most well-read. Happily, Christopher St. John Sprigg’s tantalizing “Death of an Airman,” J. Jefferson Farjeon’s “The Z Murders,” and Anthony Rolls’s “Family Matters,” among others, are now available from the aforementioned British Library Crime Classics.
To my mind, Edwards particularly shines in the prefatory essays to his 24 categories, in which he mentions some of his own favorite books, such as Henry Wade’s “Lonely Magdalen” — about the murder of a nameless prostitute — and Robert Player’s twisty “The Ingenious Mr. Stone,” which “signaled the end of the era” or, most intriguing of all, Cameron McCabe’s “The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor,” described by Julian Symons as “the detective story to end detective stories.” Introducing “Fiction From Fact,” Edwards naturally zeroes in on the true-life Julia Wallace case, which Raymond Chandler dubbed “the nonpareil of all murder mysteries.” Both Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James were comparably fascinated by this beating death in a locked room.
In “The Birth of the Golden Age,” Edwards stresses the pivotal importance of E.C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case” (1913), partly for its sprightliness but mainly because the hero’s obviously correct solution to the murder turns out be completely wrong. By 1929, Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” and Dashiell Hammett’s “The Dain Curse” were both able to present multiple solutions to a single crime: Berkeley’s dazzling novel offers six different interpretations of the same murder. Fifty years later, Christianna Brand — author of the wartime classic “Green for Danger” — came up with a seventh solution and in 2016 Edwards himself published an eighth.
Let me end, like many good mysteries, with a confession: After reading “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books” I quickly bought secondhand copies of Christopher Bush’s “The Perfect Murder Case,” George Limnelius’s “The Medbury Fort Murder” and Gladys Mitchell’s “The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop.” Edwards made them sound so good that right now I’d almost kill for a quiet week at the beach.
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By Martin Edwards
Poisoned Pen. 353 pp. Paperback, $15.95