Sunday, February 08, 2009

British Crime Writing

Barry Forshaw's two-volume British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia runs to two volumes and a total of 867 pages. Rather than the usual cold lists of titles (after all, the Crime Fiction Bibliography compiled by Allen Hubin already lists just about everything you could possibly describe as a crime novel), this new encyclopedia opts for some 500 or so essays, some short, some long, on the highlights of British crime fiction.

The book is bang up to date with entries for a number of authors who have made a name for themselves in the past decade plus a number of literary writers, some of whose key work falls into the crime category (Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Iain Sinclair). You will find all the names you associate with the Golden Age of crime writing (Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham), spy and espionage (Ambler, Le Carre, even Stella Rimington), thrillers (MacLean, Bagley, Lyall, but sadly no Duncan Kyle), and detective—from the days of Conan Doyle to the gritty modern Rebus police procedurals of Ian Rankin.

But it doesn't stop there. The book also includes a number of themed essays taking in everything from the Gothic and penny dreadful to the British connections of Raymond Chandler. A random dipping into the pages of book reveals essays on "The Godfathers of British Crime Fiction", an essay of Jane Marple, a lengthy piece on G. K. Chesterton and an entry for Martyn Waites and his burned-out journalist Stephen Larkin. The book is littered with reviews of magazines, films and TV shows, overviews of the works of anthologists and true crime writers... it's a book that can be picked up and browsed or read from cover to cover. Either way, you'll stumble across half a dozen new things: again, a random sampling turned up the fact that Jasper Fforde began his writing career whilst working as a focus puller on blockbuster movies (amongst them the film that reinvented James Bond, GoldenEye).

For me, the joy of a book like this is to revisit authors I've not read for years. Even as I'm writing this, I've been stopped in my tracks stumbling across entries for Victor Canning, Jack Higgins and Hammond Innes. Inevitably, some of the entries are a little sparse: I think there's a lot more to be said about James Hadley Chase and Peter O'Donnell, for instance; but that's probably because what is there inspires a desire to learn more. The cast of writers includes quite a few professional crime writers—Robert Barnard, Lauren Henderson, Maxim Jakubowski, Russell James, Jessica Mann,Val McDiarmid, Margaret Murphy, Nicholas Royle, Andrew Taylor, Mark Timlin—as well as some very knowledgeable bibliographers and critics, amongst them Mike Ashley, Geoff Bradley (C.A.D.S.), Mike Stotter (Shots) and editor Barry Forshaw (Crime Time).

If you're into crime fiction in any way, this deserves to be on your shelves alongside Steinbrunner & Penzler's Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detective Fiction.

British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, edited by Barry Forshaw. Greenwood World Publishing ISBN 978-1846450228, January 2009.

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