From Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot to CSI’s Catherine Willows, crime writing has changed a lot in the past 75 years. A New Omnibus of Crime shows how crime fiction has developed from a genteel genre populated by old ladies solving crimes over tea to a scientific discipline full of cold-blooded killers.
A New Omnibus of Crime was compiled by Tony Hillerman and Rosemary Herbert as a followup to Dorothy Sayers’s 1929 Omnibus of Crime. Just as the original Omnibus sought to represent the developments in the genre, the New Omnibus contains stories that exemplify trends in crime writing that have arisen since its predecessor was published.
Hillerman writes in the preface that the world has seen “global warfare, the rise and fall of nations, the advent of space flight, motorized roller skates, crack cocaine, political correctness, and all sorts of other innovations” since Sayers’ Omnibus. These changes prompted Hillerman and Herbert to compile this collection in order to anthologize the genre’s evolution.
Along with Hillerman (who has two stories included), writers like Sue Grafton, Jeffery Deaver, Sara Paretsky and P.D. James comprise the star-studded cast of contributors. As Herbert explains in her introduction, the works included in this collection were chosen for their innovation, influence, and range. Each story is preceded by an introduction briefly detailing the significance of the work in question – and there have been many significant changes in the genre since 1928.
One such change has been the rise of complex characterization. Sayers denied the author’s ability to delve into the criminal psyche; after all, in a whodunit, the murderer’s identity is only exposed at the end. However, as the editors of this volume demonstrate, this “rule” has since been gleefully broken. Sayers herself is represented by “The Man Who Knew How.” Other stories in this volume such as Patricia Highsmith’s “Woodrow Wilson’s Necktie,” Ruth Rendell’s “Loopy,” and Donald E. Westlake’s “Breathe Deep” similarly explore criminal psychology.
Many other developments have occurred since Sayers’s Omnibus, and Herbert and Hillerman cover them all. For example, detective writing no longer provides comfort to the reader through resolution; instead, many stories such as Margaret Millar’s “The Couple Next Door” and Elmore Leonard’s “When Women Come Out to Dance” feature ambiguous endings that intentionally leave readers guessing.
To find out the rest of the ways crime writing has evolved, come see Rosemary Herbert, book review editor at the Boston Herald and author of the soon-to-be-released mystery novel Front Page Teaser, discuss A New Omnibus of Crime at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., on Thursday, August 26th at 6:30 p.m. Join us for a free reception at 6:00 and then settle in to learn about what’s new in one of the world’s most-read genres. RSVP online or call 816-701-3407.
- Jennifer Brussow