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.