Before he earned fame and fortune writing under the name John Le Carre, David Cornwell earned pocket money from part-time artistic work – such as illustrating Maxwell Knight’s Talking Birds. Cornwell, like Knight’s friend and trusted subordinate John Bingham, was then working for the secret services. The three men had something else in common: they all published crime fiction.
Just as Ian Fleming is supposed to have based “M” in the James Bond books on Knight, so Cornwell drew on Bingham when he created George Smiley. Smiley first appeared in Call for the Dead, published in 1961 with an encomium from Bingham on the cover, and returned in a detective story unconnected with espionage, A Murder of Quality before featuring in Le Carre’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Le Carre’s fame as a writer soon eclipsed that of Knight and Bingham, and nowadays it’s often forgotten that both men achieved some success as crime writers long before Le Carre appeared on the scene.
Knight’s first novel, Crime Cargo, appeared in 1934, during the hey-day of “the Golden Age of Murder” between the two world wars. A year later, he followed it up with Gunman’s Holiday, which was dedicated to the then renowned thriller writer Dennis Wheatley and his wife. This was an era when a diverse range of people (including Oxbridge dons and clergymen, as well as several spies) dabbled in crime writing, but Knight soon deserted the genre.
Bingham’s crime writing career was much longer and more successful. His first novel, My Name is Michael Sibley, was published in 1952, and set a standard for post-war British mystery fiction, with its realistic depiction of a relentless police interrogation. Bingham’s distinctive storylines avoided the traps of formula; by the standards of the genre, he was an unorthodox, risk-taking novelist who earned much critical acclaim during the Fifties. Perhaps the most compelling of his novels, Night’s Black Agent (1961), takes its title from Macbeth – but it’s also a private joke, because Maxwell Knight’s team was known as “Knight’s Black Agents”.
John Bingham continued writing until the early Eighties, although his later novels paled in comparison to his innovative early work. Like Le Carre, he was elected to membership of the Detection Club, the world’s oldest social network of crime writers, of which I’m the current President (my predecessors include G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie).
I’m a historian of the genre as well as a crime novelist, and when I learned that Maxwell Knight’s filing cabinet contained an unpublished Bingham novel, Fugitive from Perfection, I was intrigued. As consultant to the British Library’s bestselling series of Crime Classics, I’ve ushered back into print a whole host of unjustly neglected mysteries from the past, and I’d love to see Bingham’s reputation as a crime novelist restored. And maybe one day Maxwell Knight’s early ventures into the field will also find a fresh life.
In the meantime, I combine my researches into crime fiction of the past with my own efforts, and my latest novel, Gallows Court, is a thriller set in 1930, in which a young journalist investigates a mysterious sequence of deaths, the enigmatic woman who seems to connect them, and dark dealings at the heart of the establishment. Would Maxwell Knight approve? Who knows, but I hope so!
Gallows Court, published by Head of Zeus: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Martin-Edwards/e/B001H9TSHE/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1
“A dark, stylish crime thriller set in 1930s London…a subversive twist on the genre…Ingenious and pacey..keeps you guessing right to the end.”
Antonia Senior, The Times
“Martin Edwards is a fine writer…this novel brings that low, dishonest decade to life with mesmerising skill.”
Jake Kerridge, Sunday Express
“With its edgily modern take on the era, masterful and playful nods to the genre’s tropes, sumptuous period detail and a terrifying heroine, this is no country-house cosy.”
Sunday Times Crime Club Newsletter
“Packed with evocative period detail, twists and turns and a fascinatingly enigmatic anti-heroine.” – Financial Times
“Superb…this is the book Edwards was born to write.”
“A fast-paced and assured thriller set in 1930s London; it’ll keep you reading, breathless, until the very last page.”
“A great sense of the era observed through a cut-throat-sharp eye, every page dripping with brilliant period authenticity.”
“A ripping tale of retribution and rough justice, set against a finely realised 1930s London”. Mick Herron
Martin Edwards has won crime writing’s Edgar, Agatha, Macavity, Poirot, H.R.F. Keating, and Dagger awards, and was awarded the CWA Dagger in the Library in 2018 for his body of work.