It’s always tempting to plunge right in when we begin a new book, especially if it’s a book we’ve been excited to read. But lots of books and collections have interesting Introduction sections that give the reader helpful background, interesting information or some sort of structure that can offer some useful perspective. Sometimes they really are worth taking the time to read. And that’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of any other genre. Keep in mind as you read on in this post that the Introductions I mention appear in my editions of the books. They may or may not appear in other editions.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet includes an Introduction piece from Ed McBain. In it, McBain discusses the very negative image police are given in many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. Using his own creations from the 87th Precinct, McBain gives a witty description of what might happen if Carella and his team actually caught up with Holmes and took him to task for that portrayal. It’s an interesting look at the way the police are portrayed in both Conan Doyle’s work and McBain’s own.
Some Introductions provide biographical and other information about the author. Those pieces also have the purpose of pointing out the author’s place in the genre’s history. That’s what we see, for instance, in Otto Penzler’s introduction to Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase. You may already know that she is credited with pioneering the ‘Had I but known’ approach to foreshadowing that has since been used in several suspense and crime novels. Penzler discusses this in his Introduction, and mentions some of Rinehart’s groundbreaking work. He also shares some biographical background, as well as information about film adaptations of her work.
Martin Edwards provides a similar sort of Introduction to Ernest Carpenter Elmore, AKA John Bude’s debut, The Cornish Coast Murder. Edwards discusses the novel itself, providing literary and historical contexts for it. He also uses the book as an example of the sort of work Bude did, explaining how it led to Bude’s popularity. The Introduction also includes some biographical information and places the novel within the context of Bude’s life. Finally, Edwards discusses the significance of both the novel and its author. That background information helps to put The Cornish Coast Murder into perspective for the reader.
Sometimes, authors themselves write Introductions to their work. An author may choose to do this to provide historical or other information that the reader may find necessary in order to really understand the story. Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean does this in her historical novel A Game of Sorrows. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland and Northern Ireland, Aberdeen teacher Alexander Seaton is persuaded to go to Ulster when his cousin convinces him that there is a threat to the family. The family matriarch believes that the family has been cursed by a poet (a not unusual belief for the times). But Seaton comes to believe that the threat is much more prosaic. To help the reader understand the events in the story, MacLean provides some historical background before the novel proper begins. She outlines the religious, political and social tenor of those times, showing how they combined to create the context for the novel.
Some novels are fictional treatments of real events. In those books, the author sometimes provides an Introduction and other background on the real-life cases. That’s what we see, for instance, in Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross. This novel is based on the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute Emma Gross. At the time of the murder, Peter Kürten was arrested for the crime and in fact confessed to it. Later, he recanted his confession, and there was never any direct evidence against him. Still, he was unquestionably guilty of other murders and was executed in 1931. Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. This story is Seaman’s take on the crime and its solution. He provides helpful factual information, in part to provide context and in part to separate the facts from his fictional characters and events.
One of the most popular uses of the Introduction is to add cohesion to a collection of short stories. If I may say so, I’ve done that sort of Introduction myself at the beginning of In a Word: Murder. Even when all of the stories in a collection revolve around a single theme, or have another unifying link, it’s still helpful to have an Introduction to show the reader what that link is. What’s more, Introductions to short story collections give the reader a sense of the stories that have been included, and sometimes explain their origins.
Sometimes, Forewards and Introductions simply serve to set the scene for a story collection. That’s the case with Lindy Cameron’s Foreward to Hard Case Crime’s Hard Labour, a collection of noir stories from some of Australia’s best-known crime writers. Among the authors included here are Peter Corris, Garry Disher, Angela Savage, Adrian McKinty and Helen Fitzgerald, just to give a sense of what I mean. Cameron sets the stage for this collection in her Foreward, giving a sort of preview of the tone of the stories.
Off the Record, another collection of short crime stories edited by Luca Veste, provides not one, but two Forewards. Matt Hilton and Anthony Neil Smith each offer a perspective on this charity anthology. Neither Foreward is particularly long, but each one gives a sense of what the stories are like.
Admittedly, Forewards and Introductions are a bit different. But both provide background, perspective and sometimes helpful historical context. Do you read Introductions? Do you find them interesting/useful? If you’re a writer, have you written an Introduction? What was the process like?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.