As a way to ensure I read some older crime books in addition to the contemporary ones I generally prefer, I set myself a personal challenge this year to participate in the Crimes of the Century meme at least 6 times. The premise is simple: a year is selected and over the month people post reviews of books they have read (and movies they have watched) published during the nominated year. I outdid myself on this one, participating in all 12 months and even reading an extra qualifying book during September.
Even though I didn’t enjoy all the books equally I did enjoy participating in the challenge overall. For me this one achieves just the right balance: it prompts me to read outside my comfort zone but doesn’t bog me down for too long in things I really have no interest in spending my leisure time doing. I particularly like it when I can track down older Australian crime novels though this is difficult and expensive.
Some random things I gleaned from this year’s reading:
- Not all old books are classics. Mickey Spillane’s I THE JURY is just a bloody awful piece of crap; burying every copy in existence under nuclear waste in a distant desert is the only sensible way to deal with it
- I think I might have liked Dorothy L. Sayers as a person but I’m never going to be a fan of her most famous creation, Lord Peter Wimsey. Turns out my working class, Irish/Australian roots have a stronger hold on me than I’d have imagined prior to encountering this upper-class, English pratt. He made me want to join a revolution.
- If you can park the not-so-casual bigotry (or stop yourself from cringing at the thoughts your own ancestors most likely expressed) Arthur Upfield’s series featuring half Aboriginal, half white police inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is actually quite insightful for its time. Upfield’s settings are wonderfully evocative too and these have a timeless quality.
- With a few exceptions (Holmes and Poirot spring to mind) I am not really a fan of the master detective who has mignons fawning all over him (a la THE RED THUMB MARK and the aforementioned Wimsey)
One of the reasons I tend to prefer more recently published novels is that it’s easier to find ones in which women are more than dead bodies, sex objects or mother figures. It has been my experience that a lot of older crime fiction wouldn’t pass the literary equivalent of the Bechdel Test let alone have truly well-rounded female characters responsible for their own destinies. I do try to look out for books in which women have some agency of their own for this challenge though and this year’s favourite find was Ethel Mary Channon’s THE CHIMNEY MURDER (thanks again to my blogging pal at Clothes in Books for alerting me to the existence of Greyladies Press, the niche publisher breathing new life into forgotten books by women writers). It is an utterly delightful tale about a woman who is not the little mouse she might first appear to be and will surely make my list of favourite reads for 2016.
The only downside of this challenge for me is that there are often books from the nominated year that I would like to read but they are just not available to me at a reasonable cost. The first book I looked for to read in December for example was going to cost me $63AUD for a used copy from overseas (shipping to Australia is prohibitively expensive). That’s too much pressure for any book to have to live up to. I don’t have a collection of my own older books and where I live there are not a plethora of decent second hand book stores. So I tend to rely on my library system (which has a fairly eclectic selection of older books) and those titles which have been re-issued in eBook or audio format which restricts me somewhat. But not enough to avoid participating in the challenge if it continues in 2017.
This year’s full list of ‘classics’ read for this challenge is
- 1907 – R. Austin Freeman’s THE RED THUMB MARK
- 1929 – E.M. Channon’s THE CHIMNEY MURDER
- 1930 – Dorothy L Sayers’ STRONG POISON & Georges Simenon’s PIETR THE LATVIAN
- 1933 – Dorothy L Sayers’ MURDER MUST ADVERTISE
- 1947 – Mickey Spillane’s I THE JURY
- 1944 – A.E. Martin’s COMMON PEOPLE: MURDER IN SIDESHOW ALLEY (Australian)
- 1945 – Arthur Upfield’s DEATH OF A SWAGMAN (Australian)
- 1950 – Michael Gilbert’s SMALLBONE DECEASED
- 1954 – Arthur Upfield’s DEATH OF A LAKE (Australian)
- 1957 – Margaret Millar’s AN AIR THAT KILLS
- 1960 – Margaret Millar’s A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE
- 1975 – Pat Flower’s VANISHING POINT (Australian)