Reading some of The English Library Crime Classics

8 Dec

The  ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ (well, British detective fiction, for sure) was between the two world wars, but I think it actually includes the second world war and has in its tail a couple of great books from the fifites. I am essentially a fan of Scandi-noir and Cold War spy thrillers, oh and Raymond Chandler, but I’ve never been able to resist a good mystery. The British Library’s  Classic Crime Fiction books that cover this august period  have great covers. Of course, that’s the first thing that draws your attention to them, wonderful ‘period’ illustrations, often, but not always,  from advertisements of the time for places

However, you should never judge a book by its cover, so do the contents of these often forgotten tales match up to the promise hinted at by the covers? For sure, I’ve discovered, not re-discovered,  authors such as Raymond Postgate, (Verdict of Twelve; Somebody at the Door)  Julian Symons (The Colour of Murder)  and Freeman Wills Crofts (The 12.30 from Croydon) in my reading of these books, and those three authors delivered fascinating, exciting,  and well-written mysteries. I rate Verdict of Twelve one of the  most original, as well as readable, crime masterpieces, and if it’s originality you’re after look no further than Richard Hull’s Murder of my Aunt, with its helpings of dark humour. The Division Bell Mystery is unique in that it was written by a Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson and contains some very sharp insights into the practices of Westminster even then.

Less brilliant, but still well worth a read are Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel  with its outrageous plot and enough intuition to make hunch-merchants like Morse sit up and think, and Death of an Airman by C St. John Sprigg, a keen aviator and a communist who died in the Spanish Civil War. The aviator in him shows in his knowledge in the workings of the early aeroplanes, but never does he buff on; he makes it all interesting. Oddly enough, one of the most highly-rated books by other punters was for me the most disappointing, but it’s still a good read, and that is ECR Lorac’s Fire in the Thatch. It’s a mystery set in  Devon, and it’s a world far removed from today’s TV series The Coroner, but like that series, it does have a sense of time and place, and like many of the other books chosen by the excellent series editor, Martin Edwards, contains remarkable descriptions and glimpses into social history.

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