by Curt J. Evans

BARRY FORSHAW – The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. Rough Guides, softcover, July 2007.


   The Penguin Group’s Rough Guides to literature is a smartly-presented series of pocket-sized guidebooks chock full of easily digested information on various literary genres. Barry Forshaw, who edits the Crime Time website, produced The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction [RGTCF], the series’ take on the mystery genre.

   While this particular guide definitely has its virtues and can be recommended, the helpful reviewer (especially at a website like Mystery*File) must include a considerable caveat: the coverage of the Golden Age leaves quite a bit to be desired. Dare I say, it’s a bit rough?

   The back of the RGTCF notes that “this insider’s book recommends over 200 classic crime novels and mystery authors.” By my count, 248 crime novels are independently listed, along with 21 authors who are specially highlighted. The first book listed was published in 1899, the last in 2007. Thus the 248 books are drawn from a time span of nearly 110 years. Here is how the nearly eleven full decades are represented:

      1899-1909     3 books
      1910-1919     3 books
      1920-1929     4 books
      1930-1939     12 books
      1940-1949     14 books
      1950-1959     11 books
      1960-1969     10 books
      1970-1979     9 books
      1980-1989     16 books
      1990-1999     25 books
      2000-2007     141 books

   Notice anything slightly out of balance here? Perhaps that 57% of the books listed come from the last decade? Or that two-thirds (67%) of the books were published after 1989? Or that 4% of the books come from the first thirty years, 1899-1929?

    Barry Forshaw writes in his preface that his Rough Guide “aims to be a truly comprehensive survey, covering every major writer….It covers everything from the genre’s origins and the Golden Age to the current bestselling authors, although a larger emphasis is placed on contemporary writers.” This is a bit of an understatement, perhaps.

   I would have no objection to this selective coverage, but for the fact that the book is offered as a “truly comprehensive survey” of this 109 year period. Let’s look at how the earlier decades, particularly those of the Golden Age, are covered, shall we?

   First it should be noted that the listed books are divided into fifteen sections. It’s a mite confusing, since some are chronological, more or less, and some go by subject:

       1. Origins
       2. Golden Age
       3. Hardboiled and Pulp
       4. Private Eyes
       5. Cops
       6. Professionals
       7. Amateurs
       8. Psychological
       9. Serial Killers
       10. Criminal Protagonists
       11. Gangsters
       12. Class/Race/Politics
       13. Espionage
       14. Historicals
       15. “Foreign”

   You can see immediately how there is potential for overlap—and there often is (Hardboiled/Private Eyes). Then there are places where there isn’t any such overlap, though one would have expected it — Golden Age and Amateurs, for example.

   The Golden Age was the Age of the Amateur, surely, yet the Amateurs chapter lists twenty books, only one from before 1957 (G. K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown) and, indeed, only three (including Innocence) from before 1992.

   Similarly, one might have thought that in the Historicals chapter there might have been room for Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End (set in ancient Egypt), John Dickson Carr’s The Devil in Velvet (set in Jacobean England), Josephine Tey’s investigative The Daughter of Time (concerning Richard III and the murder of the princes in the Tower) or one of the collections of Lilian de la Torre’s Dr. Samuel Johnson short stories; yet, no, of the 22 listed books, only three come from before 1990, and these are all between 1978 and 1985 (Ellis Peter’s A Morbid Taste for Bones, Peter Lovesey’s The False Inspector Dew and Julian Rathbone’s Lying in State).

   It comes to appear that the later chapters mostly exist to provide more opportunities for listing more current authors. Indeed, one could rightly wonder, after reading this book, why the decades of the 1920s and 1930s are considered a “Golden Age” at all. The real Golden Age would seem to have dawned with the new millennium in 2000.

   Only thirteen books are listed for the Golden Age:

       Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke
       Nicholas Blake, The Beast Must Die
       Christianna Brand, Green for Danger
       John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins
       Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
       Edmund Crispin, Love Lies Bleeding
       Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Turning Tide
       Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
       Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male
       Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought
       Ngaio Marsh, Surfeit of Lampreys
       Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
       Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair

   Again there is confusion. Is the Golden Age a period or a style? If a style, what are Hangover Square and Rogue Male doing there (couldn’t the one go in psychology, say, and the other espionage)? If a period, why do three of the books come from after the end of World War Two? Does Forshaw view the Golden Age as having lasted into the early 1950s — if so, why? It would have been nice to have some more depth here.

   But, more important, Forshaw’s collection of Golden Age book listings seems ever so paltry. It will be recalled that fully 200 of the 248 listed books in RGTCF come from after the 1950s. Where are British writers like R. Austin Freeman (he’s not in Origins either), Freeman Wills Crofts, H. C. Bailey, Michael Innes, Cyril Hare and Gladys Mitchell?

    And, damn it, where in hell are the bloody Americans?! It’s rather eccentric to find (if we discount John Dickson Carr) only one American, Erle Stanley Gardner — and this not for a Perry Mason but rather a 1941 Gramps Wiggins tale. In this book you will not find listings for Melville Davisson Post, Earl Derr Biggers, S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Mary Roberts Rinehart or Mignon Eberhart.

   One might almost conclude that the United States did not exist in the 1920s and 1930s, but for the presence of a slew of hardboiled novels by the usual suspects (Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain, W. R. Burnett, etc.).

   In a moment I found quite regrettable indeed, Forshaw writes: “The superficial ease of churning out potboilers attracted many hacks, such as the prolific but now little read Ellery Queen.” I am utterly baffled by this statement. How anyone who has read “Ellery Queen” in his best period, from the thirties to the fifties, can deem him a “hack” is beyond me (events after 1960, when the Ellery Queen name was loaned out, admittedly are more problematic).

   If Forshaw thinks writing books like The Greek Coffin Mystery and Cat of Many Tails was easy, he should turn his hand to mystery writing immediately, because he must surely be a creative genius of the first order.

   It’s emblematic of the low standing to which Ellery Queen has fallen that “he” could be treated in such a way. Not only were the cousins behind Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee) great genre writers, they were most generous men who did much to promote mystery writing and genre scholarship. To me it seems rather a shame for a writer following in their footsteps to dismiss them in such a cavalier manner.

   There are other omissions of which one could complain. No mention is made of Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer — hugely important figures in the history of the English thriller (they were even “bestsellers,” just like John Grisham, who is included here). They could easily have been fitted into the Criminal Protagonist or Gangster chapters.

   Philip MacDonald is omitted, even though his brilliant Murder Gone Mad most certainly belongs among the Serial Killer tales.

   Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin are omitted in the Psychology chapter (and everywhere else, for that matter). To be sure, they are not as well-known today as Patricia Highsmith (listed for Strangers on a Train and with a separate info-box for her Ripley series), but they did fine work that influenced other writers in the 1950s though the 1970s and merited inclusion in a collection of nearly 250 books.

   Julian Symons, the important and influential mid- to late-20th century crime novelist and mystery critic, is omitted as well; as are Symons’ excellent contemporaries, Michael Gilbert and Andrew Garve.

   In the Origins chapter, Forshaw gives brief nods to Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but ignores Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Henry Wood and Anna Katharine Green. These three women are in my view inferior to the three men, but they certainly should have been mentioned at least. (They have been subjects of quite a lot of academic scholarship of late.)

   Many (though not all) of the omissions I suspect can be explained by the fact that the omitted authors were out of print when Forshaw was writing his Rough Guide. And that’s perfectly fine, really, but I think this point should have been conceded up front for the benefit of the less experienced readers who presumably are the Rough Guide’s target demographic, for such innocent neophytes may be considerably misled, with potentially baneful results, in that they will not learn of many good writers or not see good writers at their best.

   Ruth Rendell, for example, gets three listings, all for three novels published after 2000. I have read two of them, The Babes in the Wood and The Rottweiler, and in my view they are in no way anywhere comparable to the author’s best work from, say, 1975 to 1995. Where in the world, for example, is A Dark-Adapted Eye or A Demon in My View or A Fatal Inversion?

   Similarly, P. D. James gets a listing for The Murder Room and H. R. F. Keating for Breaking and Entering, both post-1999 novels and simply not their best work. (In a separate entry for P. D. James, Forshaw lists “the top five Dalgleish books” — confusingly this list omits the one James book with a full entry, The Murder Room, while including Innocent Blood, a suspense novel in which Dalgleish never appears.)

   I have probably sounded quite rough on this Rough Guide, but it does have its rough patches. Nevertheless, the book has merit, especially for people mainly interested in recent crime fiction (especially that published between 2000 and 2007), for whom I think it can be recommended without qualification. There the coverage truly does appear to be “truly comprehensive.”

   I also should mention that I particularly enjoyed the Espionage chapter and that I thought Forshaw’s treatment of Hardboiled books superior to that which he gave the Golden Age detective novel. Perhaps the Golden Age needs a Rough Guide all its own!