I’m a crime fan so I find this stuff interesting but it’s a measure of Forshaw’s writing style, a dose of wit, a sharp observation, a pointed turn of phrase, that as a reviewer it’s possible to sit down and read this guide cover to cover with real pleasure. Though, of course, it’s much more likely general readers will want to dip in and out, the book is ideally suited to that. This is an idiosyncratic collection, that’s not a criticism, it’s a positive point, the book has character. What I mean is that the biggest, the best, the names your expect are here but Forshaw’s “more esoteric” choices, his more obscure choices, give the anthology a distinct flavour. Some of my choices would be different, which means I’ve entered into a dialogue with the book and that’s healthy, it’s fun.

Barry Forshaw’s British Crime Writing: An Encyclopaedia runs to nearly 900 pages. By comparison, Crime Fiction: A Readers’ Guide is half the length but it’s still comprehensive. This guide is an essential for the dedicated crime fan, it’s stylishly set out and very readable. Perfect for finding your next read, this guide offers hints on film or TV series you could look out for too. For me, the guide is also a timeline, it helps to put books and writers into context within the genre. It gives me a chance to re-examine my opinions and prejudices in the light of Forshaw’s expert analysis, sometimes I see something anew.

Forshaw has chosen a model for classifying entries that makes good sense (of course, many of the books could easily fit into more than one classification). This gives us historical context as well as an idea of sub-genre (the golden age, hardboiled and pulp, dark psychology etc.) original works, developments, shifts in style, new titles. For the, as yet less well established, modern classifications, domestic noir in particular, there are fewer entries due to the lack of longevity and major titles.

I think there is scope for a much more in-depth survey of world crime writing. That’s not a criticism of this tome, just a challenge for somebody to take it on (Asia, South America, Africa). Craig Sisterson has already taken up the challenge of producing a guide to Australian and New Zealand crime writing called Southern Cross Crime, which is due out next year I think.

This anthology covers books and where relevant film, Forshaw is an expert in both, he’s also a keen music fan and his notes on scores are an added little treat.

In 1927, the year after Agatha Christie’s eleven day disappearance when her marriage hit the rocks, the world’s population reached 2 billion and that is also the number of sales attributed to the author since she began publishing novels a hundred years ago. A staggering total! (The waffle is mine, the stat comes from the guide/Guinness Book of Records).

“. . . I continue to find the crime novel the perfect vehicle for a discussion of contemporary issues in the most unflinching terms . . . the genre is able to deal with high moral purpose in quite as rigorous a fashion as Dostoevsky did in Crime and Punishment and Dickens did in Bleak House.”

Apologies to Ian Rankin for clipping his argument in the introduction to this book. This for me is the reason that crime writing matters, it is one of the most progressive and incisive ways of examining society’s ills and questioning our values. Several colleges and universities are now incorporating crime writing courses and published academic tomes on the genre are growing. All a sign that this is a cultural pastime set to grow and develop. Barry Forshaw has written several important works on the subject and this guide is destined to become one of those books that you want to have close to hand. Every major author from the originator Edgar Allan Poe to this year’s Harrogate crime novel winner, Steve Cavanagh, are present. Mostly the material here covers the books but the “big” authors get brief biographical notes too. Every sub-genre is covered; the golden age, hardboiled, private eyes, cops, psychopaths, organised crime (you get the picture). All delivered with a little flair.

Here are a few of brief quotes taken from entries:

“Those who feel they know Buchan’s tale too well from the numerous adaptations should really go back to the irresistible source novel.” (The Thirty Nine Steps)

Chandler saw Mickey Spillane:

‘. . . take the tough private eye downmarket and way over to the right politically, while upping the ante in the sex and violence stakes.’

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day Lewis):

“. . . still reads in the 21st century as one of the most distinctive crime novels ever written. . . The sheer pleasure afforded by this book is guaranteed.”

Green for Danger by Christiania Brand:

“. . . (rarely has wartime Britain been so well invoked) . . .”

And of the film:

“Undervalued for years, this is now seen as a very cherishable miniature in suspense.”

Forshaw notes that Agatha Christie is often seen as unrealistic and often judged for the TV and film versions of her work, which he points out is hardly fair?

The Asphalt Jungle by WR Burnett, the first fully depicted heist movie:

“When things inevitably go wrong, the self-detonation of the group is as fascinating as anything in crime fiction.”

On Jim Thompson:

“And, while the sexual politics of the genre may seem less than enlighten today, the treatment of violence and the erotic is as intoxicating as when these novels were written.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain:

“In its day, Cain’s novel was considered to be scandalous stuff; even today its heady eroticism and tensile strength make for a pungent read.”

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler:

“Impeccable whip-crack dialogue, a yard stick for the genre ever since Chandler refined it.”

Forshaw notes the importance of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which massively influenced Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and consequently began the spaghetti western era with A Fistful of Dollars.

Forshaw’s insights on Jim Thompson, James Lee Burke, Build My Gallows High (book v film) are all interesting. The section on PIs references the originals but has a large index of modern titles and authors. Similarly, the section on cops includes Ed McBain but also Lee Child, Martina Cole, Colin Dexter, AA Dhand Mari Hannah, Joseph Knox and Brian McGilloway.

Forshaw has an eye for titles that may seem a little out of the norm, or are niche, but are nonetheless important, for example, The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks and Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm.

The Trespasser by Tana French (“on superlative form”):

“. . . one of the most penetrating and highly regarded of psychological crime novelists.”

Good Samaritan by Will Carver:

“. . . draws together all the various strands with great skill.”

On Hannibal Lecter:

“The most iconic uber-criminal in modern fiction.”

Mick Herron:

“. . . You’ve never read anything quite like this.”

If you’re a fan of crime fiction, I can only say don’t be without this book.

Paul Burke

Crime Fiction: A Readers’ Guide by Barry Forshaw
Oldcastle Books 9780857303356 pbk Nov 2019