Friday, 5 June 2009

Forgotten Book - A Catalogue of Crime

Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books focuses this week on non-fiction. I’ve enjoyed collecting books about the genre for years, so I’m spoiled for choice, but I’ve opted for A Catalogue of Crime by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor. This monumental volume first appeared in 1971, and a revised and enlarged edition came out in 1989. not long after Taylor’s death. Barzun is now aged 102 – a remarkable man, by all accounts, and someone with whom I’d have loved to converse.

And A Catalogue of Crime is, beyond doubt, a remarkable book. It’s described as ‘A reader’s guide to the literature of mystery, detection and related genres’ and the second edition is nearly 1000 pages long. There are several sections, but the meat of the book is in the massive collection of brief summaries of thousands of crime novels, many but not all dating from the Golden Age. There is also a vast amount of information about short stories, both singly and in collections and books about the genre, as well as material about true crime and Holmesiana. The whole book is a gathering of the fruits of two lifetimes of avid reading, and this accounts for the rather random nature of the choices.

Barzun and Taylor are fans of the classic puzzle, and tend to be dismissive of ‘psychological suspense’. Many of their judgments are controversial, and some of them seem to me to be perverse. But never mind. Their opinions are intelligent and usually well-reasoned, and even when they are infuriating, they command attention. And there is a wealth of information here that is indispensable for trivia lovers. Of course there are mistakes in a book of this size and range. How on earth could they believe that Knutsford, town of my birth and model for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is located in Ireland? Such glitches shake one’s faith – but they certainly should not destroy it, for this is a marvellous book, and a labour of love that, for all its failings, deserves to be cherished by anyone who is fascinated by the history of the mystery.


vegetableduck said...

Has anyone ever set a murder mystery among the Cranford characters? It would seem a natural setting for a period "English cozy."

Regrettably, I've never been in communication with Barzun either, though I consider myself something of a neo-Barzunian (Nick's just used that term over at GAD, so maybe we're all neo-Barzunians now)!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember this book well and it directed so much of my early reading in the genre.

David Cranmer said...

This compendium sounds remarkable and very tempting to have this much information at one's fingertips.

Martin Edwards said...

I don't know of a book featuring the Cranford characters, Curt, but I have set a short story in Knutsford, featuring both Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.
David - it's a fascinating book, enjoyable even when one disagrees strongly with the opinions in it. I wish it were more readily available.

vegetableduck said...

Maybe Barzun's working on the third edition! ;)

He was still writing about the detective story in 2000-2001, well into his nineties.

vegetableduck said...

Oh, Martin, were Dickens and Gaskell your detectives?

How many short stories have you written now, by the way?

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, they did the sleuthing (well, it was mainly Dickens who investigated a mystery relating to Gaskell's past.)
I'm just past the 40 short story mark now, and I'm mulling over another at the moment.

vegetableduck said...

When do the collected short stories come out? I had no idea you'd written so many!

vegetableduck said...

It's odd to think of A Catalogue of Crime as a forgotten book, but then I suppose it is for a lot of people. It had a big influence on the debate in the seventies and eighties however, with a sort of Symons-Watson--Barzun-Taylor dialectic going on. But it's fair to say that Barzun has been characterized as an eccentric in this field when he first began writing about it over sixty years ago. He had a huge influence on me, but most others not so much, except as a reference for disagreement.

I don't even think Barzun is an absolute adherent to Barzunian principles, else he wouldn't rate a book like Gaudy Night so highly.

My biggest gripe is that so-called "pure puzzles" has been so aesthetically devalued. I think there should be room for all and I'm glad the COC highlighted works that were in danger of being completely forgotten. At least they hold on among genre enthusiasts now.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Curt. There is a book, Where Do You Find Your Ideas?, which collects the stories I had written up to about 2001.
CoC is in some ways a maddening and inconsistent book, but like you I find it fascinating all the same. I also think that the internet and email help fans to share info, as you do, and this is very valuable in that it helps to keep those obscure books alive.