CRIME WRITERS' CLASSICS by Martin Edwards
Forty years have passed since the Crime Writers'
Association, the UK sister organisation of the Mystery Writers of America, produced its first anthology
of crime stories. The latest volume, Perfectly Criminal, is the
first to appear under my editorship. Although in some respects a new era has begun, it is
worth looking back, as well as forward, because during the last four decades the series
has included work by almost all the leading British crime writers of the period, as well
as major American figures such as Ellery Queen, Anthony Boucher, John Dickson Carr, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky.
The CWA held its first meeting on 5 November 1953 and its first anthology appeared a mere three years later. Butcher's Dozen set out to include "thrillers, detective stories and suspense stories to cover the widest possible range of styles and to cater for all tastes" and also to show "the versatility and ingenuity of the modern crime writer." It was a sound approach, one that has persisted to the present day. The book was edited by a distinguished trio of members, Josephine Bell, Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons and other contributors included Maurice Procter, one of the pioneers of the police procedural, and the talented novelist L. A. G. Strong. Interestingly, the editors reflected in their prologue on the market for crime stories in the UK and concluded "that upon the whole the outlook is bleak". Nevertheless, the reception accorded to Butcher's Dozen was sufficiently enthusiastic to prompt a follow-up volume in 1958. Choice Of Weapons was edited by Michael Gilbert who noted in his introduction that: "Writers of crime fiction are commonly heard to complain that it is damaging to them to have their work too much segregated and categorised." Again, it is sobering today to realise not how much but how little has changed. The contributions included an Inspector Cockrill story by Christiana Brand and a short article by Margot Bennett about Palmer the poisoner; Bennett was then at the height of her crime-writing career and it is strange, as well as a matter for regret, that a year or so later, she gave up mystery writing for good.
Later the same year came Planned Departures, edited by Elizabeth Ferrars and in 1960 Some Like Them Dead, edited by Roy Vickers. After a four year gap, Vickers put together the fifth CWA anthology, Crime Writers' Choice. The irregular appearance of the anthologies in this period may have been due to the existence of competition, perhaps surprisingly from a series of Mystery Bedside Books edited by John Creasey, himself the founder of the CWA. The Bedside Books comprised fact and fiction selections from John Creasey's Mystery Magazine and many of the authors were not members of the CWA; the outstanding example was Agatha Christie, who was never persuaded to join the Association (she declined Symons' invitation rather charmingly, on the basis that she was of an age to be giving up memberships rather than acquiring them.
Herbert Harris took over as editor of the Mystery Bedside Book in 1966 and from then until 1990 the CWA produced an annual collection edited by him and bearing the founder's name (the Mystery Bedside Book title continued until 1976; thereafter the anthology was known as John Creasey's Crime Collection). Many fine stories appeared in the series; their authors included Dick Francis, P. D. James, Eric Ambler, Anthony Price, Andrew Garve and Nicholas Blake. Herbert Harris worked tirelessly in putting the books together, but although he often made the point in his introduction that the market for short stories in the UK was limited, reprints dominated the anthology during the last few years of his incumbency.
When he retired, one of the leading figures in the genre, H. R. F. Keating, held the fort for a year. The book came out with a new title, Crime Waves 1 - although it was to have no direct successor. Almost 20 years earlier, Harry Keating had edited Blood On My Mind, an excellent collection of brand new studies of real-life crime mostly written by CWA members, such as William Haggard, who were better known for their fiction (Incidentally, Tim Heald also edited a couple of original collections by CWA members, the endearingly eccentric The Rigby Pile and A Classic English Crime, which coincided with the Agatha Christie Centenary.) Crime Waves 1 boasted a characteristically pithy introduction from its editor, but otherwise was, again, largely a collection of reprints.
Things took a very different turn in 1992. Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin became editors of the anthology and a new publisher was found who was willing to make a substantial investment in a three-year contract. The result was the lavishly designed Culprit series. The books, which each had a soft cover and a vivid dust jacket, were described as "Crime Writers' Annuals" and, although there were no introductions, the idea was to provide material that was both original and very varied. There were cartoons, puzzles, poetry, non-fiction and - in 2nd Culprit - an acrostic composed by Sara Caudwell and Michael Z. Lewin, as well as short stories. With access to more funds than had been available to their predecessors, the editors (who were joined for 3rd Culprit by Peter Lovesey) were able to persuade distinguished authors both in the UK and the USA to contribute fresh work. Nor did they overlook less well-known writers; one of the best stories in 1st Culprit was a short-short by Susan Kelly, who proceeded to contribute a poem to the next volume. It was a bold and impressive project, but the books did not quite achieve the sales levels that they deserved. One can only speculate about the reasons for this; I suspect that it had a great deal to do with the state of the crime fiction market in the UK, which after enjoying a boom in the 80s then suffered something of a depression from which even today it has not fully recovered. In any event, the contract was not renewed and it proved impossible to find another publisher. So in 1995, for the first time in three decades, the CWA did not produce annual anthology. This was a pity, because the series had for many years provided a hard core of loyal readers with a great deal of pleasure, as well as offering an excellent showcase for the work of CWA members and helping to raise the public profile of the Association generally.
Two CWA collections did, however, come out in 1995. Three years earlier, I had edited Northern Blood, a collection of fact and fiction by members of the CWA's Northern Chapter. It was a paperback published by a small local press which later went out of business, but reviews and sales far exceeded expectations, prompting a follow-up, Northern Blood 2. At much the same time, the East Anglian Chapter compiled Anglian Blood, edited by Robert Church and myself; one of the highlights was an essay by P. D. James on the regional settings for her work.
Perhaps because of this experience, I was asked to take over as editor of the national anthology. I felt it was time for another change of direction and to move from the concept of the "annual" to a themed collection of short stories. I had in mind the example set by the Mystery Writers of America and I was also influenced by the views of British publishers made jittery by the abolition of price-fixing of books. They told me that a combination of fact and fiction was almost impossible to market effectively and that anthologies are usually very difficult to sell in the UK; although I still wonder whether they are right, I had to be guided by what was realistically possible. Like the Culprit editors, I felt it important to concentrate mainly on new stories - and also to choose as much work by unsung writers as the publishers would find commercially acceptable. In the end, Severn House offered a three year contract and Perfectly Criminal, an anthology of perfect crime stories by writers such as Reginald Hill, Val McDermid, Peter Lovesey and Harry Keating (as well as Deadly Pleasures' own Mat Coward and a number of other younger writers) appeared towards the end
of 1996. The 1997 collection which will be "whydunit?" will feature stories by Ruth Rendell, Margaret Yorke and Edward D. Hoch as well as, I hope, a number of tyros. I have been heartened by the support of CWA members, who have been ready to contribute fresh work of real merit with little concern for personal reward. Their enthusiasm, as well as their talent, deserves the utmost praise. The team spirit which guided the original contributors to Butcher's Dozen is a strong as ever.
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