One sunny weekend twenty-five years ago, during a crime writing conference at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, I chatted with a fellow British author. This was Andrew Taylor, a novelist equally at home with writing contemporary fiction as with producing his multi-award-winning historical mysteries. Andrew and I were discussing Julian Symons’ classic study of the genre, Bloody Murder (known in the US as Mortal Consequences), which we both admired. Knowing of my lifelong interest in the heritage of crime writing, Andrew urged me to have a go at writing a book that would, in effect, be a modern version of Symons’ masterpiece.
At that time, I liked the idea, but it seemed like a pipe-dream. My career as a crime novelist was still in its early stages and it made sense to prioritize fiction. Yet I’ve been a fan of the genre for as long as I’ve wanted to be a crime novelist. In those long ago days, I kept a card index with notes on favorite books, authors, and topics. I’d written plenty of articles about the genre as well as reviews and I’d contributed essays to several reference books. I liked the idea of writing a book of my own about the genre, but my thinking was vague. But I never forgot that conversation with Andrew.
One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed taking part in crime festivals is that not only do I relish the company of fellow crime writers, I am fascinated by the nature of the crime writing life. Before I achieved my dream of having a novel published, I could never understand why so many established authors simply retire from the fray. After I talked to experienced novelists, and gained an insight into the ups and downs of literary life, I began to see why even apparently successful writers sometimes experience doubts about their work, or even downright demoralization. The reasons include financial pressures and changing literary fashions, but there are plenty of others. It’s a privileged life to be a published author; nevertheless, challenges abound.
I was lucky, in that I had a separate career as a partner in a law firm, so I felt I could write books that I believed in rather than those that a publisher wanted me to write. And I gave talks, as I do to this day, about ‘My Life in Crime’. In the 1990s, I focused on my juggling of two distinct careers. And I found that readers were interested, as they are interested in the lives of all writers whose books they appreciate. This set me thinking.
A decade or so passed, and I started work on the book that became The Golden Age of Murder, in essence a study of mysteries from the 1930s during the first years of the Detection Club, of which Symons was once President. My agent, whose support had been invaluable, felt such a book wouldn’t sell and that I’d do better to concentrate on fiction. But I kept working at it, and when it was finally ready to be submitted, her successor in the agency managed to persuade HarperCollins to take it. The book did far better than I’d ever dared to hope. Soon I was casting my mind back to that conversation with Andrew…
As a result, I’ve found a pleasing way to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first edition of Bloody Murder. My own history of crime fiction is about to be published, again by HarperCollins. In truth, seven years have passed since I signed a contract for The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators. So what took me so long?
Well, the history of our genre is a huge subject. You only need to glance at the essays on CrimeReads to see that. Tens of thousands of mysteries must have been written since Bloody Murder first appeared, and in any event, I wanted to cover more ground than Symons did, taking in film, radio, TV, the theatre, and true crime as well as fiction. I also aimed to travel around the world, talking about (for instance) the Far East and South America, as well as the Anglophone. Nor did I want to neglect issues of difference and diversity.
What’s more, I aimed to explore the notion of the ‘life of crime’, in one sense by writing a sort of biography of this type of writing, in another by glancing at the rollercoaster lives of some of the most interesting crime writers. I hoped to convey a sense (paradoxical as it may seem for stories concerned with sudden death) of the sheer vivacity of this branch of fiction. And I was keen to pursue one of my hobby-horses, the connections that unite authors—however varied their style or subject—from different eras, different countries and different backgrounds. Where is the common ground to be found? That’s a question that I keep coming back to.
Over the years, I’ve kept asking myself if writing such an ambitious and wide-ranging book is brave or foolish. Perhaps it’s both. Inevitably, the biggest challenge is the sheer scale of the undertaking. Any attempt to write a single-volume survey of the genre that purports to be both comprehensive and definitive is doomed to fail, even if the book is the size of a breeze block. One must be extremely selective, and this means that I’ve not been able to discuss or even mention a good many authors and books. But if I say that the accomplished professional indexer who had the unenviable task of creating the indexes of names, books, and subjects spent one hundred hours on the project, you get some idea of just how much ‘stuff’ there is in the book. It runs to roughly a quarter of a million words.
Symons saw his study as charting the evolution of the detective story into the crime novel. Much as I admire Bloody Murder, I think that the development of the genre is rather more complex and irregular than that neat scheme suggests. It’s significant that, in the first edition and two subsequent revised editions, Symons simply bolted sections on to his main narrative, with slightly ungainly results (although the chapter discussing ‘curiosities’ and ‘singletons’ was full of gems, which prompted me and many others to spend years hunting down the titles he mentioned). However, I understood his dilemma perfectly, given the rich variety of the raw material as well as its extent. So the question was clear: how could I write a book that was enjoyable to read as well as informative?
My solution was to conceive the book as comprising two linked but distinct elements. The main narrative is in essence a story, broadly chronological in presentation, recounting the way crime writing has evolved over the years. That narrative encompasses many individual stories about selected authors; each chapter starts with a vignette of some kind concerning an individual ‘life of crime’.
Each chapter is accompanied by extensive endnotes. These are not mere footnote references, full of tedious detail to prove I’ve done my homework. Rather, I’ve tried to include plenty of additional background—in a highly discursive fashion. The digressions are innumerable because although I have great respect for scholarly studies, provided they are well written, I didn’t want to produce a dry academic tome or to compile an encyclopedia.
On the contrary I want The Life of Crime to engage as well as inform. I hope people will find it a fun read. For me, reading crime fiction—however serious its subject matter or treatment—is highly pleasurable. So it seems appropriate that a book about its history should be written in that spirit.
Will the book achieve this aim? Right now, just before the initial UK publication, I have no idea. But I do know that I had a lot of fun writing it.