Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A superb history of fictional detectives

T.J. Binyon's Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction , published in 1989, is an invaluable guide to the history of fictional detectives and just old enough to be an interesting historical document itself.

Binyon breaks down fictional detectives by type: the professional amateur (Sherlock Holmes, for example), the amateur amateur, and the police. Along the way, this short and astoundingly comprehensive book offers nuggets of social history (the remarks about the unease of early British fictional police officers probing crimes among their aristocratic social superiors stand out), and brief assessments of an astonishing number of authors. Binyon is unafraid to boost a lesser-known writer (Georgette Heyer) at the expense of better-known ones (Allingham or Marsh). His suggestions of writers I had not heard of could keep me reading for years.

The book is far stronger on British writers than on Americans. Binyon excludes Norbert Davis and Raoul Whitfield, for example, while including British writers of equal or lesser stature. But really, this is just a quibble. He could not include everyone in a book whose main body is just 134 highly readable pages long.

Binyon's summation is of special interest for visitors to this site. After noting the decline of the man-about-town amateur and accurately predicting the rise of detectives from professions other than law enforcement, he has this to say:

"Police, rather than the gifted amateur or the hired professional, are the natural investigators of crime ... Unlike the other types, too, there seems to be a good deal of scope for development in the police novel; the possibilities offered by, for example, the police forces of other countries, the police procedural, and the historical policeman are far from exhausted."

Binyon published his book relatively early in the careers of such writers as Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill, and before the rise of Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and any number of writers on my favorites list. All in all, he did as good a job of looking ahead as he did of looking back. Nice work.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Maxine said...

Is there a good up-to-date book, Peter? When I was on the Dorothy L list in the summer of 2005 (pre-blogging), I heard about one that was due to come out, but I lost track. The book you post about sounds great, except for the fact that it only goes up to 1989.

November 21, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Wanting to do some early Christmas shopping? Odd you should mention the Binyon book, Maxine. Only last night, I fixed a typo in this post that had sat unnoticed for two months.

I don't know of an up-to-date reference. At the time of my post, I checked to see if there were any more recent editions of this one and found none. I did note in my post that this book was just old enough to have historical interest of its own.

Any book with similar aims today would have to be longer than 134 pages, I think. But now I'll look for such a book.

November 21, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

This is an older book, but do oyu know Julian Symons' Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel -- A History?

November 22, 2006  

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