Mystery and Suspense Writers by
Robin W. Winks
hbk out December 98
Shortly before Christmas 1998 there landed with a huge thump on the desks of British contributors to this collection of literary assessments of the major writers of crime fiction from Wilkie Collins to Patricia Cornwell its two weighty volumes. Some time in 1999 they should be available in Britain - in a slightly revised version since the publishers, so it appears, miscalculated the interest the work gave rise to in the United States and a second printing has been decided on. No U.K. price has been announced, but with 600-plus large pages in each volume and some years of work for a fourteen-strong editorial team it will doubtless be a hefty one. At least encourage your library to acquire them. There are mounds of information inside.
Individual authors are dealt with in 68 major articles, seven of them about current
British practitioners (Barnard, Dexter, Francis, Gilbert, James, Mortimer and Rendell). These are followed by 14 round-ups of writers grouped, sometimes somewhat arbitrarily, under headings ranging from 'Armchair Detectives' to 'Women of Mystery'. This last section shows, to my mind, the bias of the whole in favour of America, natural perhaps since the work originates in the United States but detracting a little nevertheless from its ultimate reliability. Just three authors come under 'Women of Mystery', Helen McCloy, Doris Miles Disney and Dorothy Salisbury Davis, the first and last certainly worthy of inclusion. But where are Joan Fleming, Celia Fremlin and the ever-popular Elizabeth Ferrars? Nowhere, save that the last scrapes an incidental mention as, in a 1946 title, throwing light on the contemporary treatment of homosexuality in popular fiction.
Or, again, there is the heading 'Ethnic Detectives', a sad example of unthinking American superiority, as if the White and Protestant was a norm compared to which all other creeds and colours ate 'ethnic' and the heroes of such books have no purpose other than to illustrate their so-called ethnicity (Excuse a personal moan). But, a less personal observation: where is there any consideration of the career of Reginald Hill? Nothing but a few scattered references such as a comparison of Dalziel and Pascoe to Robert Barnard's two sleuths in a single book, Death of An Old Goat. Peter Lovesey, too, gets similarly uncomprehending treatment with no more than a short appreciation under the generic heading 'The Historical Mystery'. And no mention at all anywhere of such a fine writer as William McIlvanney while Ian Rankin finds mention only (under the 'Gay and Lesbian' rubric!) for a scene in Knots and Crosses where John Rebus recalls rejecting a naked soldier's advances.
On the other hand, there is at least one British entry from the past that might well raise an eyebrow or two: Ronald Knox gets one of the 68 full-scale treatments. It is given such prominence, I suppose, so that reference can be made to his well-known Ten Commandments for detective stories (though, irritatingly, they are never quoted in full, pithy though they are). They are portrayed, by Dr. Susan Oleksiw, an academic with a strong interest in British detective stories, as having had a considerable influence on writers in the genre from the Golden Age onwards. A misjudgment, I believe. All that the carpet-slippered cleric, whose own four fictional attempts are dreadfully amateurish, did was to express, with neatly whimsical wit, the rules that his fellow detective authors were discovering by the light of their own intuition.
However, there are not a few excellent studies of individual authors among the 1,200-plus pages. A splendid exception to the blurred spectacles through which the British contribution to the art is often viewed (Example: Agatha Christie's notorious disappearance said to have taken her to a hotel in Harrowgate) is Michael Dirda's entry on Edmund Crispin, pointing out with choice examples the felicities - summed up by saying how reading him can make one 'quite indescribably happy' - and meting out equal justice to the failures. While among the essays I would single out (No, I have not read them all) are Professor Thomas M. Leitch on E.C. Bentley of Trent's Last Case fame, and on Nicholas Blake, Joan Zseleczky on Chandler, Professor David Geherin on Hammett and Melvyn Barnes' thoughtful rescue of Freeman Wills Crofts from the epithet 'humdrum', together with B.A. Pike's skilful gathering together of Michael Gilbert's highly diverse output, paralleled only by George Grella' s lucid and perceptive survey of Simenon's immense body of work.
All these avoid the leaden hand of academicism - even those by the professors mentioned, But, alas, other entries are not so happy. Perhaps the choice of contributors, many from U.S. universities, is partly to blame. Perhaps the directions given to the various writers put undue emphasis on the virtues of a rigorous approach, which included full bibliographies and an emphasis on biographical detail, I will name no names in this context, but I would advise anyone sitting down to the gargantuan feast not to take as an aperitif the very first essay. Sadly A is for Allingham. Finally, I must not make the mistake, very much of the moment at the end of 1998, of failing to declare an interest: my contribution to this huge and valuable enterprise is the essay on Julian Symons.