When there are so many contemporary crime novels that deserve reading, is there any point in reviving long-forgotten mysteries of the past? After all, you might argue that in some cases there is a very good reason why they have been forgotten. Yet I believe there are some neglected gems of the past that are well worth bringing back into print. And it’s pleasing to see that several mysteries of long ago are now much more easily available than was the case until recently.
Crime stories, like pop songs, reflect the time when they were written. Old detective novels often have a genuine historic interest – they cast fascinating light on the period in which they were written. Sometimes it’s a disturbing light – I remember being shocked by a crudely racist remark which cropped up, completely unnecessarily and out of the blue, in an otherwise entertaining book of the 1920s, and sometimes the insight into social attitudes of the time makes one thankful to live in the twenty-first century. But one also comes across many enjoyable glimpses of appealing aspects of a past way of life.
During a short recent holiday, I binged on half a dozen or so titles dating back to the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction. Opinions vary as to the duration of the ‘Golden Age’, but the period between the two world wars is the most logical definition. And, although I chose books by writers who were leading figures in their day, the contrast with the modern crime novel was stark.
Some of the differences were trivial. You wouldn’t find a book today with a title like The Boat-House Riddle (written by J.J. Connington and published in 1931), and these days maps, plans, and family trees are the exception rather than the rule, although in the books that I read, they proliferate. Half-Mast Murder by Milward Kennedy, for instance, offers three plans of the setting of a ‘locked-room mystery’ which involves a corpse discovered in a coastal summer house.
But some of the differences – for example, in pace – are very striking. Often, the older books began in leisurely fashion, and at times their subject matter is somewhat lacking in drama. The Dangerfield Talisman, again by Connington, and dating from 1925, offers plenty of chit-chat among members of a country house party – and a chess problem – but no actual crime. There is social comment in some of the books, but it is kept to a minimum by many authors. Big Business Murder, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, begins splendidly, with a board room discussion between swindlers that sounded like something from the recent credit crunch. But once murder is done, and someone makes a false confession (mistakenly intended to protect a loved one) the suspense evaporates and half the book is wasted before the Coles’ regular detective, Superintendent Wilson, turns up on the scene.
By far the best of the older books that I read recently was Heir Presumptive (1935) by Henry Wade. This is a clever, pacy and witty book, reminiscent of the film Kind Hearts and Coronets, but pre-dating it. Wade is a fine writer, who tried many different types of crime fiction in the course of his career – he was an early, and capable, exponent of the authentic novel of police procedure – and his work undoubtedly deserves to be read and remembered today.
I’d like to think that Wade’s work will be revived before long. And there is, surely, hope. In the States, small presses like Crippen & Landru, Ramble House and Rue Morgue have revived a good many older books. And in the UK, Ostara have done sterling work with academic, clerical and historical mysteries. There are so many interesting books that haven’t seen the light of day for far too long. Let’s hope that enterprising small presses will do us all a favour by bringing even more of them back into print.
(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)