The Life of Crime

Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators

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I think I picked up this book at the Portsmouth Public Library because I was impressed with an essay by the author (Martin Edwards) in the WSJ last year. Sadly, I was misled.

It's a tome: 622 pages of main text, which includes a few pages of footnotes at the end of each of the book's 55 chapters. And I'll tell you up front: the theme song of the book might be "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Crime Writers". Because the recurring motif in the mini-biographies of the authors discussed here is dysfunction: physical and mental infirmities (including both the authors and their families), violence, infidelity, substance abuse, perversion, left-wing politics, … Well, the list goes on. Edwards seems to have an eye for that sort of thing.

It's rough going in spots, and the coverage is idiosyncratic, with (I think) over-emphasis on the Brits. There's an entire chapter on BBC radio mysteries. But Elmore Leonard doesn't show up at all. No Robert Crais. Robert B. Parker gets a few lines, in one of those end-of-chapter footnotes.

In comparison, Danish writer Anders Bodelsen gets a few lines in the main text. Ever heard of him? (However, that mention inspired me to rewatch a movie based one of his books.)

There are a lot of interesting (if not particularly edifying) stories here. Want to know why Mary Roberts Rinehart was shot at for hiring a butler in Bar Harbor? Why Mencken called S. S. van Dine's behavior a "masterpiece of imbecility"? Why Howard Hawks thought Leigh Brackett was a guy? Who "joined an 'intellectual motorcycle gang' that took inspiration from Dostoevsky and Rimbaud"?

On page 553, Edwards gets around to observing that a "significant number of crime writers have faced mental health challenges". At this point many readers will say: Gee, ya think?

But the lurid stories are separated by long stretches of tedious "then-they-wrote" recounting of works that are often obscure. Spoiler-free as near as I could tell, but I may have skimmed.

Last Modified 2024-01-11 2:56 PM EDT