The astonishing popularity of the British Library’s Crime Classics series – closing in on one million paperback sales – has surprised many people. Including me, to be honest, even though I’m the series consultant. Readers who take a liking to a particular book or author are very keen to sample similar titles. So the British Library commissioned me to write The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books – from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train. One hundred titles are discussed in depth, with about seven hundred books referenced in all. Enough to keep the keenest reader out of mischief for some time!
But The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books aims to be much more than a reading list. The clue is in the title – I have set out to tell a story. This idea of using the techniques of the novelist to explore the hidden corners of detective fiction was at the heart of my genre study The Golden Age of Murder. Reader reaction to that book convinced me that lots of people are fascinated not only by classic detective stories, but also by the stories behind the books.
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books explores the way classic mysteries changed over the course of fifty years. Along the way, I look at tropes such as “the locked room mystery”, “the country house mystery”, “dying message clues”, and much else besides. I’ve not confined myself simply to rounding up the usual suspects. This isn’t meant to be a list of “the hundred best books” or even my hundred favourites. I’ve chosen some titles for reasons that may seem unexpected or even counter-intuitive. My hope is to challenge some of the easy assumptions about this most under-estimated branch of fiction.
So, as with any good mystery, I like to think that there’s much more to this book than meets the eye – though I also hope the cover, in the same period style as the Crime Classics themselves, will exert a similarly irresistible appeal!