Love the Golden Age of crime fiction — that is, genteel mayhem from the 1920s and ’30s — but want to expand your horizons?
If so, have I got a series for you: the wildly successful British Library Crime Classics. The series — edited by Martin Edwards, a distinguished writer who contributes incisive introductions — has over 100 titles and counting. Many were long unavailable, and many are by authors unknown even to the savviest reader.
(Here, your columnist shamefully raises his hand. I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard of C.E. Vulliamy or his pseudonym, Anthony Rolls — to cite just one of many examples of my own deep ignorance.)
Two recent and representative entries:
“The Lost Gallows” by John Dickson Carr (British Library Crime Classics, $14.99). Originally published in 1931 and written by the acknowledged master of the locked-room puzzle. A snobbish investigatory judge, Henri Bencolin, bets a detective friend that he can solve an impossible crime within 48 hours. A wealthy Egyptian has been receiving threatening notes; then someone leaves a toy gallows in his London apartment. People close to him are also threatened, and then he disappears …
“The Progress of a Crime” by Julian Symons (British Library Crime Classics, $14.99). While many Crime Classics books focus on genteel murder or plot mechanics — that is, the pure puzzle — others go deeper, offering memorable characters and insights into the social and political concerns of their era. And some are chronologically outside the Golden Era’s boundaries.
Symons’ book does both. Originally published in 1960, it’s a gritty tale, based on a real-life case, of a Guy Fawkes Night brawl in a small English town that turns deadly and leads to a tense trial.
You can count on the British Library for the good stuff, and another reliable brand belongs to the venerated publisher/editor Otto Penzler. For decades, Penzler has been an energetic and prolific figure in the world of crime fiction.
One of his many projects resembles the British Library’s collection: American Mystery Classics, reprints of forgotten works by classic authors. But his best-known venture is the Mysterious Press, which since 1975 has housed an evolving all-star team of the genre’s top writers, among them P.D. James, Joyce Carol Oates and Donald E. Westlake. Two new examples:
“Against the Law” by David Gordon (Mysterious Press, $25.95). The third scary/funny adventure for Joe Brody, a man with a highly specialized skill set and two jobs: as a nightclub bouncer in Queens, New York, and a savior for organized crime syndicates. (“911 for people who don’t call the cops.”)
Joe spent time in Afghanistan and is seriously reluctant to return. But money — a lot of it — convinces him, so he heads out in search of a bandit king who’s been hijacking valuable mob shipments. The mission reunites him with Yelena Noylaskya, a friend and gifted thief, and Donna Zamora, an alluring FBI agent who keeps popping up in Joe’s life. Gordon’s plot is baggy and his action sometimes over-the-top, but his sharp characters and quick wit save the day.
“Basil’s War” by Stephen Hunter (Mysterious Press, $23.95). Hunter is known for his ordnance-heavy books about sniper Bob Lee Swagger, but this is a departure: a slightly campy — close to self-parody — and highly entertaining World War II espionage thriller.
British Army Capt. Basil St. Florian is a kind of proto-Bond, the sort of suave, resourceful and nerveless fellow who grudgingly leaves the bed of a movie star only because he’s ordered to, well, get up and help save the world.
His mission: parachute into occupied France and photograph pages from a rare 18th-century pamphlet in a Paris museum. (It’s being used as a Nazi code book, so just stealing the thing would tip the bad guys off.) A worthy adversary, in the form of a smart Nazi counterintelligence agent, is soon on his trail.