I have a theory that I revisit once in a while, but don’t often share with others because I suspect it’s largely nonsense. It goes something like this: Each of the main types of genre fiction, e.g. crime, romance, science fiction, etc. in some ways represent a distillation of one element of the writer’s art. So, for example, romance concentrates on character motivation, the drives of the separate characters and how they might conflict or be aligned. Fantasy—when it’s done well—might be said to look at the description of society and social setting. Crime fiction, following this theory, is all about the mechanics of story and plot exposition. After all, crime stories are often (although certainly not always) quite literally about the process of exposing the plot.
So whatever genre a writer might be working—or wanting to work—in, it’s worth taking a little time to explore some of the others and see what might be learned from them. For a lot of writers, the chances are that they’ll start such an exploration with crime fiction. Crime, after all, is often seen as “The genre it’s okay to like”, lacking the stigma of fantasy, sci-fi or romance. So, having decided to explore crime fiction, a writer would want to read some modern authors and the classics. The question of where to begin with an exploration of classic crime fiction has been neatly answered by a new series of Crime Classics from Atlantic Books.
These days, it’s easy to be cynical about the publication of a new series of classic writing. Not a week goes by without Penguin repackaging two dozen of their titles in matching covers, and the rise of print on demand has seen dozens of new publishers pillaging the archives of Project Gutenberg. For a new series to be worthwhile, for both the publisher and the book buyer, it needs to be well curated; careful selection of the titles, along with interesting and consistent presentation. The identity of the series needs to work much like recommendations from a friend, having a strong enough identity that readers who enjoy some of the titles feel that they’re likely to enjoy the others. This is something that Atlantic have done well with the Crime Classics.
Rather than hire different writers to introduce each anonymously chosen title in the series, Atlantic have wisely chosen to have the series curated by Robert Giddings, literary critic and professor of communication at Bournemouth. (You don’t usually see the word “curated” used in conjunction with anthologies or series of books in the UK, but in Italian it’s used all the time, and makes a lot of sense.) Giddings’ “case notes” at the end of each title are informative, and help to give a sense of unity to the series as a whole.
The first five Crime Classics, published in December, were:
- Bleak House – Charles Dickens
- Bulldog Drummond – H. C. McNeile
- Raffles – Ernest William Hornung
- The Collegians – Gerald Griffin
- The Man Who Was Thursday – G. K Chesterton
And the new year brought the latest title:
- Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon
It’s an enticing start: The Collegians, an eighteenth century Irish crime story, offers something obscure, while the inclusion of Bleak House was an interesting choice. The series wouldn’t have felt quite right without The Man Who Was Thursday, while Bulldog Drummond and Raffles are both must-reads for anybody with a passing interest in the genre… and thank god for Atlantic, because I haven’t read either of them.
The Case Notes that Giddings provides are generally concise and informative, considering the context of the book within both the genre and the period. The fact that they’ve been printed at the end, where they belong, is indicative of the attention to detail that’s gone into the series as a whole.
New titles will be published at a rate of one a month, with Edgar Allan Poe, Erskine Childers, and Sheridan Le Fanu all appearing over the next few months. It looks like Crime Classics will be a series worth following, for new readers and writers alike, and it’s one that The Fiction Desk will certainly be revisiting from time to time.