Saturday, 22 December 2007

The Detective in British Fiction

I have been commissioned to contribute a number of essays to The Harcourt Encyclopaedia of Crime Fiction, edited by Barry Forshaw (whose Rough Guide to the genre came out earlier this year, and who edits ‘Crime Time’.) Barry and the publishers have agreed that I can release the essays (which I am adapting slightly for the purpose) on my website, and my account of the detective in British fiction has just appeared there.

Of course, the toughest challenge in writing an essay on such a broad topic is: what do I leave out? For there is enough material to fill several books. The need to be selective, and to simplify the account of the historical development of the detective character, is a challenge familiar to me from writing books on various legal topics. With legal subjects, I’m always conscious that any mistake would have my professional readers up in arms. When writing about crime fiction, it is the need to make – inevitably subjective - judgments that is sometimes controversial. When one reads some of the criticism of such a gifted and authoritative commentator on the genre as the late Julian Symons, it’s a little daunting. It’s all a question of personal opinion, I guess. Incidentally, I’ll be talking further about Julian shortly.

Back to the website. My webmaster, young Jonathan Edwards, turns 17 over the Christmas break and I’m hoping to learn from him a bit more about how to run the site (not least bearing in mind that he will disappear off to university one of these fine days..) I have an aspiration (a word borrowed from politicians wary of breaking promises!) to update the site, and add fresh content, once a week in 2008, while continuing to update this blog more or less daily. Whether that proves over-ambitious when I get stuck into the next novel, we’ll see…

5 comments:

Xavier said...

Good, very good article, though I don't agree on everything (watch my blog for further comments) It's unfortunate however that you seemed to omit one of the earliest British P.I.'s, Arthur Morrison's Martin Hewitt. He is well-forgotten nowadays, some unfairly in my view, but he sure was a great departure from the conception of the "Great Detective" that was predominant at the time.

Martin Edwards said...

Xavier, like Julian Symons (more about him too soon!) I'm definitely open to 'reasoned contradiction'! As for Martin Hewitt, I agree. In fact, you'll be glad to hear that he's covered in another of my Harcourt essays, about the short story, a version of which will appear on the website before long. There's also mention of Dorrington, Morrison's other rather interesting character.

Maxine said...

I enjoyed reading your essay, and you seem to have impressively covered all the major bases. Michael Innes? Georgette Heyer? The Flaxborough Chronicles? William McIlvanney (Laidlaw) and A. Alverez's "Hunt" (sadly only one book), no doubt others. But as you write, one could go on for ever, and you seem to me to have captured a pretty good representative selection.

Maybe this is a topic for a future essay, but "Americans writing about English detectives" is another genre I find fascinating -- Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie, at any rate. (I think they are both American -- the Englishness of their detectives is a bit alien, at any rate.)

Xavier said...

Xavier, like Julian Symons (more about him too soon!) I'm definitely open to 'reasoned contradiction'!

OK, so here we go. :-)

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting points, Xavier. I agree in particular about Berkeley, whom I admire enormously. I wrote an article about him for the latest issue of 'Mystery Scene' and a version of it will appear on my website before long.