The massive success of the British Library’s Crime Classics imprint is great news to fans of classic crime fiction. For years, even decades, we were told by the People Who Know that Golden Age mysteries with the exception of the ubiquitous Crime Queens were desperately outdated, of no interest to modern readers and the province of collectors and small presses; and now books by John Bude and Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, not really household names even in their lifetimes, reach bestseller status almost a century after they first appeared in print! And judging by the next books in line and Martin Edwards’s appointment as series consultant, the best is yet to come.
Such a phenomenon may come as a surprise to some: those of course who don’t like vintage crime fiction but also some fans and supporters. As said above, Golden Age mysteries are not exactly critics’s and historians’s darlings – they and the whole traditional mystery genre have been proclaimed dead on many occasions. Their perceived artificiality, gentleness and emphasis on plot over character is allegedly not in line with modern readers’s craving for realistic, gritty character-driven stuff. So why do they now sell? The answer is simple: a good publisher and a good marketing campaign.
It has long been my opinion that the neglect of classic crime fiction is not due to the indifference of readers but to the pusillanimity and biases of publishers. The continuing success of cozies or TV shows like Midsomer Murders proves that the public is not hostile to traditional mysteries; it may even on balance like them better than their grittier « cousins ». The problem is, pace Paul Weller, the public doesn’t always get what the public wants; publishers who are either afraid to take risks or in the thralls of influential but not necessarily representative editors or profess to know better than the interested party, may and often do stand in the way. Thanks in large part to its state-funded status, the British Library was able to take risks which a « normal » publisher couldn’t or wouldn’t take and market its books in a way that a small press can’t afford to – and suddenly John Bude was back in stores and people who might want to read him were told about it. Maybe that’s not all that it takes to make a bestseller, but it certainly helps.
It’s too soon to say whether the British Library’s initiative will remain isolated or will prompt imitations or answers (I certainly hope French publishers take notice but knowing them I’m not holding my breath) But it’s now clear for everybody that Golden Age mysteries are bankable. And that’s a huge step in the right direction.