Wednesday, 12 March 2008


I’ve reviewed crime novels for upwards of twenty years now, starting out in the 1980s, before I’d published any fiction of my own. I began by volunteering myself to a now-vanished magazine called ‘The Criminologist’ as a crime fiction reviewer (before then I’d reviewed various legal tomes for law magazines.) At first I concentrated exclusively on new fiction, but in recent years I’ve paid quite a lot of attention to reviewing older books. Reviewing has led on to other things, such as invitations to contribute to a variety of reference books, mainly in the crime field, but sometimes outside it.

One of the attractions of reviewing from my point of view is that it helps to focus the mind on what the author is trying to achieve with the book. It doesn’t seem to me to be sensible to waste time criticising writers for what they are not trying to do. Christie never aimed to become a second Proust, for instance.

Another attraction is that it’s always pleasurable to guide others to a good book that they may otherwise never have encountered. With that in mind, when it comes to new books, I have a slight bias in favour of writers who tend to be overlooked, much as I relish the latest Reg Hill, Ruth Rendell and so on.

Sandra Ruttan posed a interesting question on her blog recently, as to whether it was appropriate to judge different types of crime novels by different standards – in effect, taking a ‘softer’ line with thrillers than, say, with novels of psychological suspense. I shared what I think was the majority view, that this kind of differentiation doesn’t really work – not least because it’s very difficult, possibly futile, to divide crime novels into various hard-and-fast compartments.

But I have started wondering whether it is, in some ways, easier to review older books than brand new ones – and, perhaps, easier to assess them clearly. With books that have been around a long time, one does at least have the luxury of seeing them more clearly in their social and historical context. It may also help to judge a work in the context of a writer’s overall career.

There are, though, various drawbacks to this line of thinking. And one of them, needless to say, is that I’d be very sad if people didn’t want to review my own books until I was dead and gone!


Shuku said...

I think that hindsight and the benefit of an entire body of work makes it easier to review old books because, as you say, there's both context in the socio-historical sense and the writer's overall output. Classics of every genre have been around enough to be established, after all!

As far as judging by different standards though, that's one of those tricky subjective questions. The seminal works of each genre/period provide some sort of a guideline, but in the end, it's really dependent on the attitudes and reading tastes of a particular generation that's reviewing the book.

My rather confused and disjointed opinion, anyway!

Martin Edwards said...

Neither confused nor disjointed, Shuku. Hindsight is certainly a useful thing! I like your blog, by the way with all those sketches in particular.

Shuku said...

Thanks Martin! I sketch and create jewellery far more than I write nowadays; I was an English literature/theatre graduate in days gone by. Sadly the only way to improve one's writing is to write! But I have definitely enjoyed reading your thoughts and observations on the process of books, writing, and the reviews, and I will be visiting quite a lot, I can tell already.

Speaking of books that bear reading again just to look at it with the benefit of some hindsight, I'm going through Peter Ackroyd's 'Hawksmoor' again. I find it fascinating and worth reading, but as to my actual -judgement- of it...well. I think I'll need another 2-3 reads to be sure. There's such a lot of subtlety and cross-currents going on in it, one read really isn't enough!


Martin Edwards said...

I very much agree about 'Hawksmoor'. I read it in a rush shortly after it came out and didn't really do it justice. I'd like to linger over it some day - but when, I'm not sure!