The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Edited by Martin Priestman

Metaphysics of murder

Patricia Craig
Friday 26 December 2003 01:00

What Oxford calls a Companion, Cambridge calls a Guide, and vice versa. Unlike the massive and informative Cambridge Guide to Children's Literature in English (for example), the Companion to Crime Fiction consists of 14 essays on aspects of the genre, from Paul Clifford to Paul Auster, and from Chesterton to Chester Himes.

The authors have a good deal to say about the Newgate novel, about the American private eye, about "black" crime fiction. The problem is that often they say it in someone else's words. Running through the whole collection like a dull refrain is a spate of recycled observations: "as Robert Barnard has shown"; "as Symons notes"; "as Howard Wincant has it".

They keep coming back to certain key moments, such as Chandler's "Down these mean streets a man must go..." You even get them quoting one another, as when Stephen Knight refers to Martin Priestman's appraisal of Agatha Christie: "He shows that her focus on women characters included victims, murderers and sympathetic characters." It would have been pretty odd if Christie had excluded any of these categories.

The other side of stating the obvious is obfuscating the self-evident, and a fair amount goes on in the book, too. As an academic undertaking, the Cambridge Companion comes complete with statutory flourishes: "foreground" and "critique" used as verbs, and "ontology" and "hermeneutics" bruited about. These mannerisms strike a deadly note.

However, some of the essays are effectively written - Ian A Bell's, for example, on 18th-century crime writing - and the scope at least ensures that some sense of the genre will be transmitted to readers. Yet you will find very little about its addictive quality, its playfulness or ingenuity. This not very companionable Companion seems at times in danger - like crime fiction itself in its voguish, "postmodern" form - of disappearing up its own ontology.

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