Sunday, February 05, 2023

The Life of Crime, by Martin Edwards

This massive history of crime fiction and its creators, from William Godwin to PD James, is brilliant, rich and absorbing. It's especially clever to not spoil any of the many, many great-sounding mysteries, effectively adding a thousand new volumes to the things I'm eager to read. Chapters group stories by theme, making insightful connections while also telling the history of the genre more or less in chronological order. 

Along the way, it's packed with extraordinary real life. How amazing to learn, for example, that Patricia Highsmith, whose Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1983) I so admire, had a passion for snails.

"After leaving England, Highsmith moved to continental Europe, but crossing international borders with her pets presented a serious challenge. She rose to it, as she explained to her American editor, by smuggling her snails in her bra, six to ten a breast, he reported: 'That just wasn't on the one trip - no, she kept going back and forth ... And she wasn't joking - she was very serious.'" (p. 411, editor Larry Ashmead quoted from Andrew Wilson's biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2009))

Or there's the six well-known crime writers - Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Hugh Walpole, EC Bentley and Father Ronald Knox - who wrote an episode each of Behind the Screen for BBC Radio in 1930, the audience at home challenged to solve the mystery as it unfolded over six instalments, aided by each episode also being published in The Listener the same week as broadcast. However, Walpole, responsible for writing and reading the first episode, wanted to be spontaneous and insisted on reading from notes. 

"So Hilda Matheson, in charge of the [BBC] Talks Department, arranged for two parliamentary reporters to take down his words [during the Saturday-evening broadcast], and type them up on the Sunday morning, so that she or [producer Howard] Marshall could check the transcript that afternoon, and post the corrected version to the printers so that they had it at half past seven on Monday morning. Even then, publication of The Listener was delayed." (p. 260)

Hooray for Hansard, and for quick, efficient postal service even on a Sunday night!

Then there's Val Gielgud, BBC director and brother of John, whose,

"exotic lifestyle - he married five times, and often wore a cloak and carried a sword-cane - was certainly a gift for the gossip columnists." (p. 261)

What an image! This was in the 1930s; Edwards is talking about Gielgud's radio version of Rope and his collaboration, with BBC colleague Eric Maschwitz, on Death at Broadcasting House (1934). But it conjured in my head a vision more like the '60s, all Avengers and Adam Adamant. And that's what this book is so often about - writers and contributors who pushed the genre forward, who were ahead of their time.

The serious and thorough history is peppered with this odd, enthralling stuff, but Edwards also has a wry line in humour, such as describing the premiere at Carnegie Hall on 10 April 1927 of Ballet Mecanique by George Antheil. 

"Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong on the night did go wrong. There weren't even any riots." (p. 200)

His enthusiasm is also infectious, such as his wholly understandable awe in describing the novel The Living and the Dead (1994) by Awasaka Tsumao, a pseudonym of illusionist Masao Atsukawa. The book was published with its signatures uncut so that only 24 of the 215 pages could initially be read - basically every eighth verso and recto, if I've got my sums right. The title page then gives instructions on,

"HOW TO READ THIS BOOK: First of all, please read the book with the sealed binding. You'll read a short story. Next, cut each page and enjoy a full-length novel. The short story has disappeared. (signed) The Author. The Disappearing Short Story." (pp. 541-2)

Edwards tells us that,

"The short story involves a small group of people at a bar, one of whom is a sad young man who seems to have psychic abilities. But when the pages are cut, that character disappears. There's at least one gender switch, the setting becomes a magic club rather than a bar, and Yogi Gandhi (who doesn't appear in the short story) is the hero. The magic only works because of the nature of the Japanese language. It would be impossible to translate while maintaining the effect. It also can only work in a print version." (p. 542, and based on the author's discussions with Steve Steinbock)

Like Edwards, I'm now haunted by this outrageously ingenious artefact, and keep turning over how it might be restaged in English. A book to haunt a writer's dreams. 

All in all, it's a fascinating and detailed history, and also a rich source of inspiration. It covers an enormous range of material and themes. If I'm being nitpicky and selfish, I'd have liked more on the overlaps between the detective story and science-fiction, if only because that's continually churning through my head - see my thread on science-fiction and Sherlock Holmes. Edwards makes four references to Isaac Asimov, whose The Caves of Steel (1954) features a robot detective, but three of these references are in end notes, only one in the main body of text. Really, I just want him to recommend me more in that vein.

And then there's the devastating statement on the fundamental paradox of genre, taken from Janwillem van de Wetering's Robert van Gulik: His Life His Work (1987)...

"The true artist yearns to grow and move forward. The general public has an insatiable appetite for more of the same." (p. 500)


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