Curt Evans, mystery scholar extraordinaire, is becoming well-known for his much-needed, unrepentant defense of a group of authors collectively known as “The Humdrums.” You could say that he’s written the book on the subject. Literally—I am of course talking about Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-61.
To put it quite simply, Evans’s book is a bravura performance. He takes a look at three major mystery authors from the Golden Age: John Rhode/Miles Burton, Freeman Wills Crofts, and J. J. Connginton. All three men have been condemned to out-of-print hell, and when brought up by academics at all, their books tend to be largely dismissed as “mere puzzles.” But Evans remains unconvinced, and through his analyses he proves that these books have far more merit to them than the hostile critics’ derisive label implies.
Evans combines this analysis with a biographical look at the authors, and so we learn about the lives of Rhode, Crofts, and Connington like never before. Often times, the life of the author will influence his work, as Evans demonstrates. J. J. Connington, for instance, wrote A Minor Operation after having cataract procedures, and those experiences find their way into the novel. Other points are more subtle; for instance, Evans tries to demonstrate that Freeman Wills Crofts’ writing was extremely influenced by his religious worldview. He argues his point quite successfully.
I’m a big fan of John Rhode and of J. J. Connington. I have never understood why these folks have been labelled as Humdrum—Rhode had a fine sense of humour that finds its way into his books, as well as a fondness for beer and plenty of technical ingenuity. Even in the less successful books I’ve read – see, for instance,Death on Sunday – there is much of interest going on apart from the puzzle. As for J. J. Connington, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of his masterpieces in the genre such as The Case With Nine Solutions or The Castleford Conundrum. I love his ingenuity, and the cynical worldview of his detective Sir Clinton Driffield is remarkably different from the usual stuff you get in Golden Age mysteries.
Now, at last, I get to appreciate these authors a bit more. Evans has tackled fascinating questions such as that of Connington’s worldview. This is a particularly fun section, because we see the author himself rising out of the sands of time, wondering to himself what on earth Evans is doing because he certainly never intended to put his worldview into his “’tec yarns”. No, really—it emerges during correspondence. Evans also looks at the author’s apocalyptic and disturbing novel Nordenholt’s Million, which eerily foreshadows the cruelties of the Nazi regime.
Sadly, the price for Evans’s book is on the high side for the paperback version, but it is worth every penny, and the Kindle version is a good value even though it’s relatively high-priced for an etext. I bought both the print edition and the Kindle edition, and I have nothing but praise for both. If you like your Kindle and want to save $10 on the cover price, it is a good option. The text is well-edited and proofread. The formatting is also excellent, which is important for this book because there are all sorts of images that you don’t want interrupting the flow of the text. In short, it’s a book that practically feels like it was made for the Kindle, which is a refreshing change from my last Kindle read.
Meanwhile, the print edition itself is also quite attractive. The font, proofreading, editing, etc. are all excellent and make for pleasant and easy reading. It is a bit taller than the average paperback, but it helps to keep the page count down and it doesn’t make much of a difference in reading. The book’s production values are quite simply excellent, and the content itself also helps to make you feel like you’ve spent wisely.
Overall, I recommend Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. This is a very important work in mystery criticism. Evans takes a good, close, and *serious* look at these so-called Humdrums as part of the historical era they belonged in. Too many critics write them off and pretend that only the “Big Four” of Crime Queens were of any interest during the Golden Age, but Evans here has proven that the Humdrums are far more interesting than has been given credit.
This book, however, comes with a warning: the author’s enthusiasm is downright infectious. You will find yourself reaching for your wallet – I myself already find that I am the owner of two new John Rhode novels (Death in Harley Street and The Bloody Tower), and two new Freeman Wills Crofts novels (The Loss of the Jane Vosper, Antidote to Venom)… and I somehow have the feeling it won’t end there.
Originally published at the author’s website, At the Scene of the Crime, which The American Culture heartily recommends for mystery aficionados. Reprinted with permission