Evocative vintage cover art for Mary Kelly’s The Christmas Egg
Traditional Christmas-themed crime novels with titles like Crimson Snow or Mystery In White are enjoying a remarkable resurgence. So here’s a seasonal riddle that might baffle Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey: why is the classic detective story enjoying such an amazing renaissance? After all, literary snobs once considered the old whodunit to be as dead as a body in the library.
The so-called “Golden Age” of the twisty puzzle was between World War I and World War II, although books were written in that style much later. However, most of its authors sank into obscurity, Agatha Christie being the honorable exception.
Not so long ago, scandi-noir and domestic suspense were all the rage. They haven’t disappeared, but today the crime writing scene is more diverse than ever.
The British Library has struck gold with its Crime Classics series, for which I am an adviser. We feature long-forgotten books, some of them out of print for 70 years or more. With over a million copies sold, the series, and its evocative vintage cover art, has inspired countless imitators. Story collections like Silent Nights, A Surprise For Christmas, and The Christmas Card Crime show a wide variety of Christmas mayhem.
Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery In White was a number one bestseller, while Anne Meredith’s grim winter’s tale Portrait of a Murderer far outsold the original first printing in just a few weeks. Fans of traditional detective novels now have a rich entertainment offering.
Writers like Richard Osman soar to the top of the charts by giving the ancient mystery a 21st century makeover. Anthony Horowitz and Janice Hallett’s bestsellers pay homage to the Golden Age and offer contemporary thrills. For me, there are three key elements in a whodunit: people, place, and plot. It is true that some Golden Age writers paid more attention to mystification than to characterization, but they were often brilliant at structuring a story.
A finely crafted mystery puzzle is as satisfying as any skillfully composed work of art.
Blackstone Fell by Martin Edwards is now available
My own novels, especially the gothic-tinged mysteries starring the enigmatic Rachel Savernake, rejoice in the traditions of classical detection. Rachel is fascinated by bizarre murder mysteries and her wit is as sharp as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
His latest case, Blackstone Fell, set in a remote Pennine village, involves a mystery from the past and a bizarre sequence of deaths in a sanitarium. There is also a “Cluefinder”, a device popularized in the 1930s. At the end of the book, the clues to the riddle are listed, with the pages where they appeared, so you can test your own detective skills!
Is nostalgia the reason why the tectonic plates of the literary landscape have shifted? Possibly. A good read is always invigorating, but classic crime isn’t just about a comforting read. The sheer variety of the British Library’s Crime Classics collection is astounding. And the stories in books like Mary Kelly’s The Christmas Egg are anything but cozy.
These books have become social documents of true historical interest.
Their authors may not have set out to write about the times in which they lived, but they unconsciously did just that. As we devour a wondrous ancient mystery, we can dive into a long-lost world and understand it better.
- Martin Edwards’ Blackstone Fell (Head Of Zeus, £20) is out now. For free UK&P visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832
Four classics from the British Library
The White Priory Murders: A Carter Dickson Christmas Mystery
Dickson’s recently reissued Golden Age tour de force showcases the tricks of the trade of writing whodunit. A Hollywood actress is found murdered in a lakeside pavilion. Only the footprints of the person who found her disturb the snow that fell during the night, and she stopped shortly after she was last seen alive.
So how did the killer get in and out of the pavilion without a trace? It’s another case for the curmudgeonly but brilliant Sir Henry Merrivale. In a “locked room mystery” of this type, the murder seems miraculous. Inventing riddles of this type is a pleasure for both the authors and their readers.
The Consensual Killing of Mary Kelly
This book won the Golden Dagger for Best Detective Novel in 1961. The runner-up was John le Carré, which gives an idea of the quality of Kelly’s writing.
The story is told by a private investigator, but the streets Hedley Nicholson walks are in the Black Country of Staffordshire. Hired by a ceramics company to investigate a case of industrial espionage, he discovers a corpse in an “ark,” a brick-lined vault designed to contain liquid clay.
The structure of the story is as unorthodox as its setting. Nicholson returned on the soulful Due To A Death before Kelly dumped him and later stopped writing. Although he lived until 2017, his last novel appeared 40 years earlier.
Crook O’Lune of ECR Lorac
Carol Rivett, writing as ECR Lorac, was a prolific author whose books fell largely under the radar after her death in 1958. Yet today she is one of the most popular Crime Classics authors.
A special thrill for me involved personal detective work: discovering his never-before-seen typescript, Two-Way Murder, first published by the British Library last year. His greatest strength was his vivid evocation of the place and Crook O’Lune takes its title from a tourist spot in North Lancashire.
His Det Insp Macdonald plans to retire and buy a farm in the area. However, Lorac never backs down from the harsh realities of country life.
Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand
A cracker from the Golden Age, this is a “fair play” story, with all the clues given to the reader. The book opens with a cast of eight characters, and we are told that two of them will die and one is the murderer. The case is investigated by two competing detectives.
This exuberant battle of wits culminates in a sequence of different possible solutions, presented with dizzying dexterity. An actress is murdered in plain sight during a beauty pageant, but the crime seems impossible because no one could have committed it. This is another bold example of the “locked room mystery.”
- All available in the British Library’s Crime Classics series
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