Bodies Part 2: The Humdrum Conundrum

I’ve already written about some aspects of the wonderful Bodies From the Library conference last week – concentrating on (a few of) the friends, old and new, that I met up with, and some pre-events.

I was also lucky enough to be invited to take part in a panel called ‘Is the Golden Age Humdrum?’: this was chaired by the marvellous Jake Kerridge, crime reviewer extaordinaire, and the other participant was the legendary bookseller Richard Reynolds of Heffers in Cambridge, a man with serious crimebook credentials. (Apart from anything else, he is ultimately responsible for my friendship with Christine Poulson, as he recommended one of her books in one of the excellent booklists he produces.)

When I was asked to do the panel, I immediately knew I must go back to first principles with the Humdrums. You might think ‘Read Freeman Wills Crofts? Find out how many names John Rhode had and how many books he wrote? Try to pin down exactly who is on Julian Symons’ list, and how it changed over the years?’ But important though those things are, the real key was to talk to my friend Curtis Evans, aka The Passing Tramp, who produced a book called Masters of the Humdrum in 2012, and is the true Master of the Humdrum himself.

Curt is a contemporary of mine, lives in America, and has devoted his life, so far as one can tell, to rescuing forgotten authors from oblivion. I don’t know how he finds time to read everything, and talk up all the books, and do the research, and do some book-dealing, and write introductions to endless re-issues, but he does.

He is also a good friend, and a friend of this blog, and he is always incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. He edited the book Murder in the Closet, to which I contributed, and which was Edgar-nominated, making for a memorable trip to New York where I met Curtis and also John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books IRL for the first time. ***

I consulted Curt and he was most helpful. By most people’s standards, I am fairly well-informed on the crowded field of crime writers of the first half of the 20th century, but at the Bodies day, not so much.

So: Julian Symons came up with the term Humdrum (slightly arguable, but more or less) in his influential Bloody Murder, first published 1972. It’s a fascinating book, and he was very knowledgeable, and wrote entertainingly and well. But he was extremely opinionated – that’s part of what made him fun – and strong opinions tend not to be that balanced. He had a theory about the difference between humdrums and the more literary or stylized book, and so he stacked the book to demonstrate that.

His idea was that most of the GA writers were an ‘eccentric detour’ in the history of the crime novel. This is rather startling, I think, to most of us. In a sense he is saying that you can ignore most of it – and he also claims that modern crime writing (obviously from the period he wrote the book – 70s, and reprinted and updated in the 80s) is in a direct line from sensationalist crime fiction of the Victorian and post-Victorian era. There’s a sense in which he thinks you can miss out that whole era that we - most of the people at Bodies for sure – would think was of pivotal importance. He said the Humdrums were ‘plotted with a slide rule, written without style or savour’ and are ‘dull and now unreadable’.

As Curt says: ‘Over the years, the traces of these writers may have become obscured, like rug-covered bloodstains on the parquet flooring in a country house mystery.’ This is the very rare case in which the female side won out... most unusual. Normally we find the women written out of history, whatever contribution they made. So much the opposite here, where Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh are the best-remembered names.

Julian Symons kept changing his list – basically he threw in writers he didn’t like (and in some cases possibly hadn’t read) and took them out if people objected enough. And in the end - we don’t have to take on board all his ideas.

A Humdrum list – and it is a given here that ‘Humdrum’ is a helpful label rather than an insult – would include:

Freeman Wills Crofts  
JJ Connington
Henry Wade
John Street with his 140 books = John Rhode + Miles Burton
ECR Lorac
Christopher Bush
GDH and M Cole
AG Macdonell
R Austin Freeman
ER Punshon
Ronald Knox
John Bude

ECR Lorac was, unusually for this list, a woman

But perhaps we each have our own list, we know instinctively what we consider to be Humdrum… And the Dean St Press  and British Library Publishing are trying to bring them all back for us. 

The one shoutout I would like to give to my own contribution to the panel is this. There was, and always has been, a lot of discussion of what exactly constitutes a Humdrum Golden Age book. I have come up with a rough and ready distinction: John Dickson Carr, for example, has very elaborate special tricks to explain his murders. You can imagine – and I have discussed this with others – actually trying out to see if the illusion would work. Imagine! A group of us with all the props and specialized personnel gathered (of course) at a tennis court: a person with a particular amputation, a snuffbox, a garden roller, a crossbow [and some much more spoiler-esque items]. It would make for a highly enjoyable afternoon.

And my contention is that nobody would ever bother, or be interested or excited, to do that for a Humdrum. Which doesn’t at all mean that they are bad or uninteresting books, they are very much worthwhile and rewarding. But just in a different way… which was the point of our discussion. Nobody there was dismissing them.

**** BTW, when I went to the Edgar awards banquet in NY I sat between Curt, and John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books.  They were the best ever company, but also faintly terrifying. I’m going to make up this example, but it will give you an idea what it was like. The awards would mention a book called, let’s say, Red Murder.

Curt would say ‘There was a book by that  name published in 1934. It was by James Woodentop.’
John would say ‘1935 surely?’
Curt would say ‘British edition was 34, US 35.’
John would say ‘the publisher was Wildcrime books’
Curt: ‘In the US. Tuppence books in the UK, picture of a giant bloodstain.
John: ‘The green and white Penguin can’t have been till 1945.’
Both: ‘Can’t get it now for under $100’
And so on.

No book is truly forgotten while those two are still around.

And…. Some very good news is that I hear  faint whispers that Curtis Evans might be tempted over to next year’s Bodies From the Library event, which would make for a magnificent talk. Now all we have to do is get John of Pretty Sinister Books over too.

I mentioned in my previous post that we were all waiting for Brad Friedman’s report on proceedings – which would surely be One Post to Rule Them All. And it’s here! And it is.


  1. Your panel and your contribution sound absolutely fascinating, Moira! What a rich discussion, and such great people leading it! You and Brad and Martin (and others) have been so generous with your postings that I get a real sense of what a great conference it was. One of these years, when finances permit it, I'll get there...

    1. We look forward to welcoming you Margot! It is well worth coming, I can assure you. And thanks for your kind words - I think we all enjoy it so much we want to share the joy!

  2. I'm surprised to see AG Macdonell listed as humdrum, when the books he's remembered for, outside very specialised circles, aren't crime books at all. His crime books are more in the PG Wodehouse school of comic writing (has anyone analysed Wodehouse as a crime writer? They may be petty crimes, but many of his plots involve criminal activity) and in the Oppenheim-line of adventure-thrillers that involved preposterous plots and characters - especially villains.
    I think Symons relied on his memory and his career as a book-reviewer for many of his remarks about actually or apparently humdrum writers. Certainly, Henry Wade's postwar books were more low-key than his prewar ones, but in - say - Constable, Guard Thyself or The Duke of York Steps - the trigger for the plot involves deliberate and serious wrong-doing by a very respectable figure and plots that could come from a Jacobean tragedy - in fact, that's what irritated me about it, that Wade deliberately downplayed the psychological complexities to write a good, conventional detective story when the motives, only revealed with the solution, were much more interesting..

    1. In Masters I argue for Street, Crofts and Connington as the quintessence of Humdrum--though I try to turn the word into a virtue, contrasting with Symons. As Moira says, the women won out, though the Humdrums, who were mostly, if not entirely, men, are getting attention again, as with the Crofts Inspector French television series. There's now room for everyone!

      Always nice to see the book getting a mention. Glad it was of use! It was fun getting to see some brother and sister bloggers at the Edgars, when the book got nominated.

    2. Roger: I do take your point about Macdonell, I threw him in because I had just been reading him, thanks to you. But it does show up the fact that Humdrum is what we decide it is. Definitely in the spirit of Symons to put in whoever we like!
      I have only read a couple of Henry Wades, and must try more.

    3. Curt: I did find your help invaluable, as I hope I have made clear, and I would never be arguing with you about any aspect of this. I think it is clear that there has been a huge resurgence of interest in the books, and I think you can take a lot of the credit.

      It was such fun at the Edgars - so hoping we might be able to recreate it at Bodies next year!

  3. I am seriously thinking of coming next year! Brad's enthralling and detail crammed post made me so envious. I can't promise that I'll be anything as entertaining or lively as Brad, but I take great photographs. I can do that while everyone smiles at the many smart phones on hand.

    1. Oh wouldn't it be great if you could come too! We can recreate our Edgars team. Perhaps we could venture to a theatre (spelled like that) in return for our trip to My Fair Lady last year? And definitely tea!

  4. Being seated between Curt and John while they're having conversations like the one you reported would be, for me, more than merely "faintly terrifying"! But it would also be awe-inducing and exhilarating!

    1. We're a charming pair, really, especially John of course. And I'm sure he was as equally thrilled as I to meet Moira. She was just as I expected, just like her blog.

    2. Christophe: they were so nice you couldn't worry about the terror induced! The best company ever.
      Curt: thanks for the kind words. You were just as I expected too...

  5. I can report that I've read none of the authors mentioned....badge of shame or badge of honour?

    1. Not wholly surprising! Perhaps we need a Noir Festival aimed at a different sector of crime bloggers...

  6. Since Julian Symons claims that Christie's Miss Marple books are inferior to the Poirot ones and he doesn't like Dorothy Sayers at all, I have no respect for his opinions!

    1. Quite right to hold firm to your own views! Steve, the Puzzle Doctor, did ask the question 'why would anyone pay any attention to Symons' views?'

  7. What amazing conferences and suppers you have been attending. I am ever more envious.

    1. I know! I am having the summer of a lifetime, everything came together this year and I am making the most of it.

  8. Another very interesting post about the conference, and this is a great topic. I have two copies of Bloody Murder (one under the title "Mortal Consequences"), I have not read either one. I should do that. I also have Curt's book about the Humdrum authors, and that one I really need to get to soon. I don't think I have read any of the authors on that list but I do have some books by a few of them. If only there were not so many books to read.

    I also would be in total awe to sit with Curt and John and soak in some of their knowledge about mysteries.

    1. Thanks Tracy, and I am sure you will enjoy both the Symons and Curt's book.
      And indeed it was very educational to sit between Curt and John.. and they were both so nice!


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