Book Review: Vintage Crime edited by Martin Edwards
The Crime Writers Association is a venerable society founded in 1953 to support, promote, and celebrate the overarching crime genre. While based in the UK, it also has many members from other nations. It is perhaps best known nowadays for awarding the prestigious CWA Dagger awards, honoring the year’s best crime writing.
Since 1956, the CWA has published anthologies of its members’ writings, with Martin Edwards taking over editing duties in 1996. This year’s anthology is meant to be a retrospective collecting previously anthologized short stories representative of the history of the genre, from Michael Gilbert’s 1956 classic case of British detection Money Is Honey to Mick Herron’s 2008 story of a spy’s last mission in All She Wrote. With twenty-two tales altogether, this is a rich overview of the way crime stories have evolved over the decades, reflecting changes in the attitudes of both readers and writers with the times.
Though not placed at the beginning of the anthology, John Dickson Carr’s Footprint In The Sky (1940) is the oldest story here, and one of the few early pieces to feature a police detective instead of a civilian sleuth. Cops only figure as crime-solvers in six of these entries, nowhere more delightfully than in Paula Gosling’s retro police procedural The Perfect Alibi (1991) or poignantly than in Kate Ellis’ Dagger-nominated Top Deck (2005). Perhaps the most unusual “detective” here is the canine protagonist of Michael Z. Lewin’s The Hand That Feeds Me (1994) which was one of my favorite stories as well as a terrific example of the comparatively small animal sleuth subgenre.
Arguably the most popular crime subgenre today, the psychological thriller is first represented in these pages by Celia Fremlin’s The Woman Who Had Everything (1975). A curiously sexist entry from one of the pioneers of the domestic thriller, it tells the tale of a career-minded diplomat’s unhappy young wife, who will go to great lengths to get his attention:
Had she indeed mysterious powers inside her—an untested courage of which, in ordinary life, she knew nothing?
The courage, maybe, actually to commit suicide? Or even, just possibly, the courage to face the consequences of loving an ambitious, highly strung man stretched almost beyond his limits by responsibilities and pressures such as he had never known?
Contrast this with the dissatisfied housewife of Anthea Fraser’s The Turning Point (1993) who might not be the greatest life partner but is certainly a far more interesting protagonist. That both stories deal with women accidentally stumbling across espionage plots only serves to underscore how far society has come in its valuation of a married woman’s agency.
Another cringe-worthy product of its time is 1985’s Inspector Ghote and the Noted British Author by H.R.F. Keating. While this at least has the benefit of being the first story here set outside of the Anglo-Saxon fastnesses of Great Britain and America, it was also written by a white man who’d published eight novels about the native Indian police force before ever setting foot in the country. Compare this attitude with Marjorie Eccles’ The Egyptian Garden, published a scant 17 years later, with its far more respectful treatment of native peoples and mores, as well as its critical gaze on both colonialism and chauvinism:
[Mrs. Palmer had been] utterly dismayed at the tarmac road that now ran towards the once remote, silent and awesome Valley of the Kings, at the noisome phalanxes of waiting coaches with their engines kept running for the air-conditioning, the throngs of people from the cruise ships queuing up for tickets to visit the tombs of the Pharoahs, which were lit by electric light. Before the war, when her husband had taken her to view the antiquities, they had sailed across the Nile in a felucca from Luxor, and traversed the rocky descent and on to the Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Hatshepsut by donkey, accompanied only by a dragoman. The silence had been complete. Now, they might just as well be visiting a theme park, she said tartly.
“They’re a poor people. The tourist industry’s important to them, Ursula,” Moira reminded her gently.
Changing attitudes towards sexuality are also well-represented here, with far more homophobes being buried than gays. Villains abound as viewpoint characters from Simon Brett’s The Nuggy Bar (1982) onwards, though they don’t always get away with murder. There is only one outright historical mystery here, The Egyptian Garden’s 1940s references notwithstanding: the clever if entirely fictional Sins Of Scarlet by Robert Barnard (2006). For the most part, the stories here could have been set at nearly any time in the 20th century after World War I and before the advent of the technology that made the cellphone ubiquitous—there are, in fact, rather hilarious references to early mobile phones in Frances Fyfield’s Cold And Deep (1994). Technology does not otherwise play a crucial role in the proceedings, lending this collection a decidedly vintage air.
Mr. Edwards has done a good job of selecting short stories that truly cover the breadth and depth of CWA writing in and about the 20th century, showing how times have changed without papering over the flaws of previous decades. While these stories have all appeared in other collections, none of them have been anthologized to death, resulting in a book that should provide hours of entertainment and discovery for fans of mysteries and especially those with British roots and overtones.