Kate Jackson, queen of the crime fiction bloggers, is once again organizing a contest for the year’s best republished crime book. (You can see a post on last year’s event, with many links, here).
This is how she introduced the battle of the reprints:
‘The number of publishers reprinting vintage mysteries is on the increase, meaning us lucky devotees are getting access to more and more of the books and authors we want to try. With so many novels and short story collections on offer, it can be hard to pick out the very best, which is where the Reprint of the Year Awards come in.’
A group of seven bloggers is taking part, and there will be a public vote, and the chance for anyone to nominate a reprint that should be considered. These are the key dates:
Today 14th December – Each blogger will post on the first of his or her nominated books. This title has to be a reprint published this year and not a title released for the first time.
On 21th December we will reveal our second choices.
22nd/23rd December Around then, Kate will set up a poll for this award, listing the 14 titles chosen, as well as 3 readers’ choices. At this stage you will then be able to vote for your favoured titles.
30th December As the year draws to a close Kate will reveal the results of the poll, announcing the title which has won the accolade of Reprint of the Year!
Full details over at Kate’s blog, and that’s where you should go to add your own choice of title to the list.
And now, with due fanfare, this is my first choice for the award:
Murder of Lydia by Joan A Cowdroypublished 1933, reprinted by the DSP in 2019
It seems only fitting that I came across this one at Kate’s blog Cross-Examining Crime earlier this year. And I am very pleased to have chosen a book published by the Dean Street Press - who truly would win any award for the publishers of reprints. They have brought back some of the great lost works of the past, and we all have reason to be endlessly grateful to them. No crime fiction fan, or fan of 20th century ‘women’s fiction’, can look at their lists without a sharp intake of breath, and a knowledge that the budget is about to take a battering.
To the book. There is all kinds of unusual here, wrapped in a traditional-looking format. Cowdroy was a single woman who wrote many novels (I am grateful to my friend Curtis Evans for useful info he wrote in the introduction to this book) – some mysteries, and some more straight novels, verging into romances. The setting is an English seaside town, with villas and sea-bathing and a nearby castle and teashops. So we know what to expect, we think.
The first surprise is that she has a series sleuth, Li Moh, who Curt says is ‘presumably the first Asian detective created by a British mystery writer’. It cannot be denied that some of the portrayal of this character makes modern readers wince – you have to try to think of the time she was living in, when attitudes were very different from now. But most of the dismissive remarks about Mr Moh are made by people who are going to be caught out by underestimating him: he is a very clever and perceptive chap. His dialogue is stilted, but I think you would have to say that Cowdroy was trying to present a different kind of character.
The other aspect is harder to define – but I will try by saying that
the whole story is more robust and even vulgar (I mean this in a good sense) than the books of some of her contemporaries. I felt the same about Ethel Lina White – who had a refreshing lack of respect for some of the more precious tropes sometimes expected of (fictional) women of the time. Her heroines were no-nonsense and quite sexy, they were opinionated and often wrong, but they were not by any means shrinking violets. The women in the Cowdroy book are like that too: very complex and not always ‘nice’, and they get up to a lot of tricks: good bad and ugly. I really enjoyed that.
And I loved the whole atmosphere of Whitesands Bay, which had the feel of a real place, bustling and interesting: holiday-makers coming and going, while the residents are busily organizing their social lives, snubbing upstarts, and getting engaged to the wrong person. Now that’s the making of a novel, detective and otherwise, and is most certainly the bread and butter of the Dean Street Press (they should use that description in their blurbs).
Lydia is a young woman racing round the town causing trouble, and eventually she is found drowned. Who might have done it? Well, almost anyone, she was a piece of work and could be seen as no loss. But we have to investigate properly of course…
So the plot combines my favourite crime story tropes – relationships, arguments, clothes and the clues they contain – along with the serious business of 1930s detection: tidetables, and how long it takes to swim to the point, and footprints, and breaking the alibi, and whether that person could have driven from X to Y in less than the time he says. It was big, round, satisfying read, and I feel would be enjoyed by every crime fiction fan. And that is why it is my nominee for reprint of the year.
Top picture from the Australian Maritime Museum by the wonderful Sam Hood; two women who look as though they are looking at their mobile phones 80 years too early -photo from the Powerhouse Museum. Third picture, from Kristine’s photostream, is from August 1933.