An awe-inspiring treat for crime fans

It’s not too fanciful to claim that Martin Edwards is at the head of a literary army. The internet brought about a comeback for all kinds of crime fiction; people who thought they were alone in their obsession found their tribe, to discuss books and authors at length, and to pay out good money for new crime books, for old books, for reprints.

There’s a whole world out there of bloggers and literary conferences and societies all dedicated to crime fiction – big business combined with the best kind of amateur expertise.

Edwards has a key role: he writes detective stories, he is a tireless champion of crime fiction, he has a hand in those British Library reprints (you know, the ones with the great 30s covers that make good gifts) – and he is also creating a body of serious research into the genre.

The Life of Crime is his new contribution, and it is awe-inspiring: 600 pages followed by a 40-page list of all the books featured. It describes the entire history of crime fiction from the 1790s to right now, and is squarely aimed at those of us with a deep interest in the genre and its more obscure corners.

The book is divided into (relatively) short chapters – 57 of them – each starting with an intriguing anecdote and each dealing with a particular type of crime story, or a key stage in the history. Books are grouped both by era and by style: this structure may be Edwards’ great achievement. He has done the hard work so the reader can relax and enjoy it.

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His categories are very tempting: Carnival of Crime, Twists of Fate, Waking Nightmares, Sensation in Court, Forking Paths. But catchy titles and easy reading are beautifully combined with deep knowledge and a flair for short, satisfying descriptions of books.

He covers crime fiction from all over the world, from every language and culture. There are locked rooms and inverted mysteries, historical writing – Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose “made monk-sexy detectives” – and books based on true crime. There are spy thrillers and adventure stories, police procedures and private eye tales.

I made pages of notes of fascinating connections: Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle had dinner together; CS Lewis married the ex-wife of the writer of Nightmare Alley (as in the recent film); Magritte named artworks after Rex Stout novels.

Edwards has an enjoyable style, whether it’s naming the “unlikely sub-genre” of surf noir, or saying of a writer that his characters “make cardboard look multi-faceted”. A bad review must have left Ian Fleming “shaken if not stirred” and Edwards identifies “one of the genre’s few sociopathic dentists”.

Either you are mystified by all this, or you know you need this book. If so, you are a true fan, and, like your reviewer, will have an irresistible urge to look up an obscure writer or book in the index (mine: The Ingenious Mr Stone by Robert Player) to see if it’s there. It will be. That is who the book is aimed at: Edwards is not looking to create converts.

And yet… in the last pages of The Life of Crime, he presents a rousing defense of crime fiction both as entertainment and as a way of looking at life, ideas and people: something for everyone. And Martin Edwards’ own book is a testament to everything the genre has to offer.

The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards, £30, HarperCollins

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