Monday, January 05, 2009

Paging Mr. Know-It-All

(Over the last five years, I have become friendly with British critic and author Barry Forshaw. Although I think of myself as a busy guy [and my family would certainly agree], Forshaw actually makes me feel like a slacker. He’s an amazing workhorse, editing the magazine Crime Time, writing for the UK’s top-quality newspapers, penning books, and the like. In fact he is probably the most informed crime- and horror-fiction reviewer I know. That he makes a living from his passion is a wonder to behold. I was flattered not long ago when he asked me to contribute to his latest project, a mammoth, two-volume register and analysis of British crime fiction, vintage and modern. With that set brand-new in UK bookstores, I asked Forshaw [pictured at right] to tell Rap Sheet readers a little about his weighty literary tome. His submission follows.--Ali Karim)

I will be torn to pieces. Or I will be cut--in the non-physical sense--at publishers’ parties and author launches. But I have only myself to blame. When I took on the task of editing (for Greenwood World Publishing) British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, I was queasily aware that I was making myself a hostage to fortune. The brief was to include every important British crime writer since the beginning of the genre (and before), along with as many forgotten names as I could muster. And, of course, as many current practitioners as I could persuade the publisher to include. Aye, there’s the rub. Current practitioners! When the horse-trading began in earnest as to what special categories should be included (the use of the comma in Dorothy L. Sayers’ work? British crime novels featuring umbrellas?), it quickly became clear that something would have to give in terms of inclusiveness. Half a million words seemed to get allocated all too easily. And those writers who didn’t make the final cut--and who may be reading these words--will no doubt be crossing me off their Christmas card lists with all the savagery they can muster.

* * *

I know it will do me no good to say that I had the missing authors in an early draft before Greenwood insisted on another 1,000 words about John Dickson Carr (or whoever). And that horse-trading with Greenwood was vigorous. But all such explanations will seem mealy mouthed to those who decide that my neglect of them makes me the Antichrist. And so, I suppose, I’ve simply got to bite the bullet and realize that I’ll be making a few enemies. But wait! What about the enemies I’ll be making out of those people who actually are included in the book? It was always the intent of this encyclopedia to be positive and celebratory; in other words, to inspire the reader to pick up the excellent crime novels by X, Y, and even Z. So ... no hatchet jobs. After laboring over my own copy, and compiling the work of my team of contributors (and a certain amount of blood-from-stone squeezing was involved there, but nothing worthwhile comes easily!), I had the requisite (and massive) amount of text. I, of course, copy-edited all the material. Then it was copy-edited by a team at Greenwood. And a final wash-and-rinse was performed by the indefatigable Mike Ashley (The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction), whose knowledge of the genre is nonpareil.

But--inevitably--there will be errors! And this is where I’ll be able to irritate the living authors who are included in the book as much as the no-shows. With half a million words, there was no way I could run each entry past the subject author for his or her approval in the time frame available--and I’d also be fighting off a host of suggestions along the lines of “perhaps the hyperbole could be cranked up a little? Couldn’t I be described as the new King/Queen of UK Crime Fiction?” Whatever way I looked at it, I was on a hiding to nowhere--and (quite rightly) I can’t count on an iota of sympathy.

So, to those who didn’t make the final cut: mea culpa. And to those who did make the final cut, but who have spotted that their first book was published in 1974, not 1973 as listed: mea culpa again. I could blame contributors (and top crime writers) Andrew Taylor, Russell James, Natasha Cooper, et al., but the buck has to stop with the editor. Naturally, all errors crept in at the editorial stage.

* * *

Back in the dawn of prehistory, when this encyclopedia was a gleam in publisher Greenwood’s eyes, this was not to be a solo job. My co-editor was to be none other than critic, writer, and man-about-town Peter Guttridge. But Peter (along with all his other skills) is perhaps more of a survivor than most, and fairly quickly decided that the enterprise was not for him (he said he’d be content to simply be an entry for his sardonic Nick Madrid novels, covered by somebody else). Peter’s chosen method of losing friends and alienating people is by reviewing them for The Observer; I had half a million words here to perform a similar task on a nigh-cosmic scale.

But if the above had you thinking “the gentleman doth protest too much,” I should say that my overriding sensation was pleasure, as some wonderfully incisive writing arrived, tranche by tranche. And, boy, was putting this book together fun! I have never worked so hard in my life, and have never enjoyed editing other writers’ copy so much. While I wrote a goodly chunk of the book myself, I utilized my years as editor of Crime Time (and the smidgen of good will I’d accrued) to divide the workload between some of the best writers and critics in the UK (and beyond), full of enthusiasm for the genre. As the two volumes began to take shape, and the vision I had of the book began to fall into place, it was as satisfying an experience as might be imagined--even with a future Damoclean Sword hovering (courtesy of soon-to-be indignant crime writers). And when I heard that the jacket illustration was to be done by Paul Slater, famous for his London Times pieces (and those delicious cod-pulp covers for Malcolm Price), the icing was well and truly on the cake.

* * *

British crime fiction can (and often does) bifurcate into two distinct, though not mutually exclusive, genres. First, we have the undemanding divertissement, wherein the puzzle (and its ingenious solving) is central: in this area, British writers have few equals, notably Agatha Christie & Co. But the other stream, that of the dark investigation of psychological states, is quite as strong a branch in the UK, and has been as far back as Arthur Conan Doyle (who touched on such queasy areas). From the 1940s to the present day, this examination of the nether regions of human psyche (and its inevitable derogation of our behavior) has been a British specialty, made all the more acute by the carefully preserved decorum of appearance (however turbulent the metal states beneath) that, until recently, was the sine qua non of middle-class British society. Such writers as Patrick Hamilton have stripped bare this minefield of the national consciousness with quite as much unsparing rigor as novelists working in more overtly “literary” fields. And while the sexual arena was hors de combat for an earlier generation of writers, modern crime specialists such as Laura Wilson have dragged sexual mores struggling into the daylight. If the results in most crime novels hardly suggest sexuality as an ameliorative, life-affirming force, that has more to do with the demand of drama than healing psychoanalytical imperatives.

Addressing the mainstream of crime fiction today (and leaving aside the great legacy of the past), it is clear that the field is in ruder health than it has ever been. Such is the range of trenchant and galvanic work in the field at the beginning of the 21st century, an argument could be made for the fact that we are living in a second Golden Age. There are female writers, such as the formidable duo of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. James took the mechanics of the genre as forged by her great predecessors and enriched all the key elements: plotting, setting, and (most of all) characterization. Her tenacious protagonist, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, is one of the most rounded and plausible series characters in crime fiction--even persuading the reader of the unlikely premise that a copper could also be a respected poet. Ruth Rendell, while plowing similar territory in her reliable Inspector Reginald Wexford novels, mined a far more disturbing psychological vein in her non-series, standalone crime novels, set in a world of dark criminality and betrayal quite the equal of the American Patricia Highsmith. (Rendell’s novels under the pseudonym “Barbara Vine” have the same queasy concerns, with an even more cold-eyed take on human foibles.)

* * *

The unquestioned supremacy of the James/Rendell duo is currently being challenged by such remarkable novelists as Minette Walters and Frances Fyfield, who have folded a new social incisiveness into the contemporary British crime novel. And there are the British males: the older generation of professionals such as Frederick Forsyth and Dick Francis, whose productivity has barely faltered over the years; and the younger writers who have re-invigorated the genre with resolutely non-parochial crime epics as full of exuberance and invention as they are of violence, such as Mark Billingham, Michael Marshall, and Christopher Brookmyre. And, of course, there is the male writer who comfortably outsells every one of his rivals, the formidable Ian Rankin, whose Edinburgh-set novels featuring his doughty copper John Rebus have propelled the author to the upper echelons both in reader numbers and critical acclaim. (The Rebus series has also been distinguished by Rankin’s refusal to simply repeat well-loved ideas, as his ex-alcoholic copper takes on new and cogent problems in society.)

The remit of this encyclopedia has been as wide as possible: every conceivable subgenre that is subsumed under the heading of crime fiction is here, from the novel of detection to the blockbuster thriller to the novel of espionage. The dark worlds of noir and true crime are treated, but the more ingratiating fields of romance and humor are also referenced. And while criminals are central to the text, the police are given their appropriate due. The reader will discover many familiar names, but it’s hoped that this encyclopedia will act as a guide to much unfamiliar terrain, as well.

* * *

The cadre of top crime-writing experts assembled for the task of composing British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia were chosen on the basis of their boundless enthusiasm for the genre, and largely speaking, the authors they cover (all entries have individual credits) have their virtues rather than their demerits maximized in the essays. But while there are no hatchet jobs here, many a dispassionate view is given. Generally speaking, though, contributors have been requested to extol the virtues of writers that they admire. Working with the brief that the reader will be seeking to extend his or her knowledge and pleasure in the genre, the assumption was made that positive recommendations would be preferred to hatchet jobs--however, anodyne praise has been discouraged, and those elements that have dated badly in certain writers’ works are duly noted. And as the contributors include such top British crime writers as Andrew Taylor, Natasha Cooper, Russell James, Carol Anne Davis, Phillip Gooden, Mark Timlin, Lauren Milne-Henderson, Martin Edwards, Carla Banks, Nicholas Royle, and Michael Jecks (along with a variety of key crime reviewers and editors), nonpareil critical writing is the order of the day.

1 comment:

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Yeah this guy's a walking archive of information.