The Heritage of Crime Fiction

CrimeSquad's Chris Simmons talks 'Forgotten Authors'

Just a week ago I was ‘tweeting’ Emlyn Rees, the author of ‘Hunted’ about a question he threw out in to the ‘twittersphere’. Did anyone know of a novel that had criminals in it where nobody actually got murdered? My reply to him was ‘Uncle Paul’ by Celia Fremlin. It was Fremlin’s second book released just as her first, ‘The Hours Before Dawn’ was given the ‘Edgar’ for Best Crime Novel 1959. I had paid about £10.00 for ‘Uncle Paul’ five years ago. Emlyn came back to me advising me to get my copy insured as they were selling at £120.00! And it isn’t even a first edition! Since her death in 2009 Fremlin’s titles have rocketed in price. I knew they had increased but after a quick look on the Internet I didn’t realise it was to such a degree! On average I paid about £5.00 per book. This is the problem with out of print authors – readers have to pay exorbitant prices for their passion. The point I am trying to make (in my usual roundabout way) is to ask if this is where the wonders of the digital-book come in to play?

Publishers can now start bringing these forgotten writers of the past to a brand new audience (without major expense to the publisher or the buyer). I wanted to read ‘The Silent House’ by Fergus Hume first published in 1899. With ‘1 Click’ it was on my e-reader in seconds and for free! Subsequent books have been ‘The Haunted House’ by Hilaire Beloc and many others. For me, it is wonderful to obtain classic crimes stories without handing out half my wages to some bookseller. (BTW: I am not suggesting to publishers they give books away for free – would be nice, though). I am hopeful that others will follow and that other forgotten writers like Fremlin, Margaret Millar, Margaret Erskine, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mabel Seeley, Elizabeth Ferrars, Edgar Wallace and Miles Burton (some were big guns in their heyday) will finally find a new audience thanks to the wonders of the e-book.

And that is what is so marvellous about the Harrogate Crime Festival. It is a celebration of crime fiction, but all us fans of the genre should be mindful of the long path it has taken over the past century and that not everyone has worn the test of time like Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers, Wentworth, Tey and Marsh. These are not even a handful of the crime writers that entertained crime reader’s decades ago.

At this year’s Harrogate Crime Festival there is an event I am looking forward to. The 1920’s and 30’s have always been referred to as ‘The Golden Age’ which is the title of a panel including Nicola Upson and David Roberts who will defend the honour of the golden age against contemporary crime fiction. It will be fascinating to hear the arguments for and against classic crime. We have to remember crime fiction was still in its infancy and that like some, we should not lampoon those writers who may have sacrificed character for plot.

It is of little surprise that many contemporary writers are losing themselves within history to combat the headache of dealing with a camera on every street corner. The brilliant Stratton series by Laura Wilson is a perfect example. Her first, ‘Stratton’s War’ encompassed the Second World War and her latest, ‘A Willing Victim’ takes place in 1956 when the science of detection was still finding its feet. And yet Wilson still manages to make her characters three-dimensional with a thrilling plot to boot. It is the same with Nicola Upson and her Josephine Tey series. Both writers bring their characters to life whilst preserving the ‘glow’ and nostalgia you would feel when reading any classic crime novel. Despite writing in a contemporary style they are still acknowledging their crime fiction roots.

So I guess my piece is two-fold. I will always campaign for publishers to bring forgotten classics to new readers. Vintage have done just that by re-issuing the work of Nicholas Blake (Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis) with some gorgeous covers. I hope that whether via the printed page or digitally, more forgotten writers will be brought back to a new audience. We shouldn’t sneer at them, but celebrate them for shaping crime fiction as they are the forefathers and foremothers of crime fiction.

My second point is that festivals like the Harrogate Crime Festival is a wonderful celebration of crime fiction and we must, writer and reader alike, continue to support our writers of today so that they won’t be forgotten like our crime fiction ancestors. And while at Harrogate contemplate how we have arrived where we are today – if it hadn’t been for the championing of those forgotten writers then maybe crime wouldn’t be such the booming industry it is today. So, instead of turning your nose up, read a classic crime novel. It won’t harm you and as they say ‘a change is as good as a rest’!

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Check out more from Chris Simmons on the CrimeSquad site, including in depth reviews, Fresh Blood and Classic Crime features and discover some great reads with his round up of the top ten crime books of the past year.

2 thoughts on “The Heritage of Crime Fiction

  1. Pingback: Author interview with crime fiction guru Chris Simmons | Morgen's Author Interviews

  2. Lesley Cookman

    My sentiments exactly! If it wasn’t for Ngaio Marsh, Marjory Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin…I could go on and on. I still have my copies of most of their books, and I re-read all of Marsh at least once every two years. That I grew up to be a series mystery writer is no surprise.