www.nytimes.com /2022/08/30/books/review/life-of-crime-martin-edwards.html

Review: “The Life of Crime,” by Martin Edwards

Jane Pek 7-9 minutes 8/30/2022


In “The Life of Crime,” Martin Edwards takes on the colorful history of the detective novel, and its enduring fascination.

The American comedian Buster Keaton (1895-1966), armed with only a magnifying glass and a copy of “How To Be A Detective,” hopes to become a great detective in the film “Sherlock Junior.”
Credit...John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
The American comedian Buster Keaton (1895-1966), armed with only a magnifying glass and a copy of “How To Be A Detective,” hopes to become a great detective in the film “Sherlock Junior.”

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THE LIFE OF CRIME: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators, by Martin Edwards

In the 1920s, the author (and priest) Ronald Knox came up with what became known as the “Ten Commandments” for writing a mystery. Among them: The character who is the criminal must be mentioned early on; the detective isn’t the culprit, and can’t be helped by accident or unaccountable intuition; only one secret room or passage per story; no supernatural agencies, Chinamen or doubles. These rules made fun of the more outlandish tropes of the genre while also reflecting a particular conception of detective fiction.

During its so-called Golden Age, in that fragile, frenetic interstice between the world wars, the detective story was a game between writer and reader, a puzzle to be solved through deduction. The rules helped ensure fairness — that the writer didn’t “cheat” by, say, murdering a victim via a hitherto undiscovered poison; as Knox might have put it, doing so “not cricket.” But this ideal was short-lived. The horrors of World War II, and the seismic social changes and dislocations that followed, made a mockery of fairness and rationality as guideposts for understanding the modern world.

Martin Edwards charts this shift, and many others, in “The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators.” Early on, he sets out his own guide to approaching this informative, entertaining and wide-ranging volume. “This book traces the development of the crime story from its origins to the present day and also explores events that shaped the lives of crime writers and their work,” he writes, adding that he has tried to convey the genre’s “sheer vitality.” A mind-bogglingly prolific author, editor, critic and historian of the genre, Edwards is well-suited to the task.

He credits Julian Symons with having written the best such history, “Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel,” first published in 1972. The book has been revised twice, most recently in 1993, but so much has changed, in terms of how we think and live, and how such changes are reflected — in the stories we tell and the writers doing the telling, in the kinds of detectives and villains we have created for the 21st century — that, in Edwards’s view, “the time is ripe to take a fresh look at how the crime story has evolved.”

However altered the world, certain themes that emerged early on in the genre — defined by Edwards as books that focus mainly on “the revelation of the truth about a crime” — have remained constant. One is the perception of crime fiction as not “literary,” and the resulting angst that authors (from Arthur Conan Doyle to Graham Greene to Willard Huntington Wright, who published under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine to “avoid soiling his good name”) have felt about writing such “entertainments.”

Another is the fidelity with which mysteries reflect the values, desires and anxieties of different eras. The Victorian confidence in science and rationality gave us detectives (most famously Sherlock Holmes) who prevailed through the application of logical reasoning; the hermetically sealed puzzles of the Golden Age, by authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, served as an escape from the devastation of one world war and the fears of another. As the moral righteousness of World War II faded into the ambiguities of the Cold War era, we saw the emergence of spymasters like George Smiley who, in the course of John le Carré’s novels, has to reckon with the rottenness of regimes he has pledged to serve. We meet the cynical, self-destructive noir PI typified by Philip Marlowe, and the amoral antihero (think Tom Ripley).

And as our lives continue to grow more complex, to feel ever less controllable, we see works by Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins featuring everyday people in nightmarish situations from which they may or may not be able to extricate themselves. Crime fiction, by definition, deals in the impermissible, in the ethical boundaries society has set down and the consequences of crossing them — and also, to some extent, considers whether these are the right lines to draw. As such, crime stories provide a powerful and enduringly relevant lens through which to examine human behavior and motivation, interpersonal relationships, and the structures and systems which keep us in place.

Perhaps this is the reason for readers’ ongoing fascination with mystery and crime, through all its incarnations. We read these stories as a form of entertainment and escapism, to match wits with a fictional detective, to enjoy the resolution of uncertainty or deliverance of justice not always afforded by the real world, to be shocked and exhilarated, but also “as a tool of recognition, a means of solving the puzzles of human nature, of understanding who we are.” Whodunit and why might be only two of the reader’s questions; another one is, what would I do?

“The Life of Crime” is at its strongest when it focuses on one or both elements of its subtitle: pinpointing the developments of the genre — especially within a wider historical context — and engaging in discussion of individual authors. The chapters dealing with subgenres (radio mysteries, adventure novels) can feel disconnected from the overarching narrative, and at times the litany of authors and titles mentioned once and never again can be overwhelming.

I wish some of the chapters had delved more deeply into the intriguing questions they raise. Passing references to the connections between science fiction and mysteries, as well as to authors such as Leigh Brackett and Anthony Boucher, who wrote in both genres or blended them in their work, piqued my interest. A chapter about East Asian detective fiction focuses almost exclusively on Japanese authors. Similarly, a chapter dedicated to difference and diversity seems to barely skim the surface when it comes to crime fiction writers from traditionally underrepresented communities, the perspectives they bring, or the ideas they are exploring.

And, while Edwards notes that his aim is to trace the evolution of the genre rather than to produce a survey of contemporary work, there is surprisingly little about how technologies such as the internet, social media and smartphones — ubiquitous in our personal and social lives — have or have not shaped crime fiction.

None of this detracts from the impressive feat that is “The Life of Crime.” Discussing “Bloody Murder,” Edwards writes, knowingly, that “the challenge facing anyone rash enough to write a book about the crime genre as a whole is how to integrate a mass of disparate material into something vaguely coherent.” Arguably, there are any number of other challenges, such as undertaking the research required — especially given that Edwards, admirably, does not limit himself to English-language fiction — and producing a work that surpasses mere coherence to become something enjoyable. There is plenty here for mystery readers, whether well-versed in the genre’s history or not — and mystery writers will welcome this book as a resource. In writing “The Life of Crime,” Edwards has played by the rules, and the result, as with all the best crime fiction, is ultimately satisfying.

Jane Pek is the author of “The Verifiers.”

THE LIFE OF CRIME: Detecting the History of Mysteries and Their Creators, by Martin Edwards | 724 pp. | Collins Crime Club | $32.99