Unexpected connections abound in crime fiction. They are an important, if often under-estimated, ingredient of the genre—because they illustrate its extraordinary range as well as its enduring appeal. Just because, for instance, some of us may love Golden Age detective fiction by the likes of Christie and Sayers, that really isn’t a reason for us not to derive equal pleasure from hardboiled mysteries by Hammett and Cain, or from Scandi-noir, or from writers as varied as Borges, Gillian Flynn, and Lee Child.
The ingredients that connect good crime novels (such as compelling stories and engaging characters) are more important than over-emphasized and often superficial differences. Dividing crime fiction into categories is a useful tool for publishers and booksellers, but it’s a mistake to take those categories too seriously. You can find terrific books (as well as a few terrible ones, let’s be honest) in all the different branches of crime fiction. If we confine ourselves to one or two sub-genres, we risk missing out on some marvellous works of fiction for no good reason.
Discovering some of these connections is a form of literary detective work that I’ve relished for years. While describing the evolution of the genre over the centuries, my newly published book, The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators, also explores along the way scores (hundreds?) of links that amused and enlightened me and which I hope will entertain fans of crime fiction, and even people who aren’t yet fans but who are open-minded and willing to be persuaded of its merits.
The Life of Crime runs to a quarter of a million words, but even so I had to be highly selective: the history of mystery around the world is a very large subject. So of course there was a lot of material that it was impossible to include. In this article I’d like to highlight one obscure book by a long-forgotten author which didn’t make the cut, but exemplifies several of those unexpected connections that fascinate me.
Count Azar, by the Russian writer Vladimir Krymov, was first published in 1938. I was drawn to it by the inscription in a copy that came my way. Krymov inscribed the book to the British detective novelist E.R. Punshon in the year of publication. The place of the inscription was Villa Vlaber, Krymov’s home in Chatou, near Paris. But what on earth connected Krymov and Punshon?
Krymov was described in the blurb to Count Azar as ‘a Russian of unusual type’, and if anything this was a massive under-statement. Some of his extraordinary life experiences seep into the novel. His surname sounds like a pen-name concocted for a crime writer—but it wasn’t. His full name was Vladmir Pimenovich Krymov and he was born in Dvinsk—now the Latvian city of Daugavpils—in 1878. His father was the Burgomaster of the city, but the family was by no means wealthy and it seems that from early on, Krymov—a formidably determined individual—was intent on bettering his financial position. He was educated at Moscow University and the Petrovsk Academy of Agronomy and Rural Engineering, where he became a lecturer. He switched from science to commerce, taking directorships in several companies and also working as a journalist. He became manager of the newspaper Novoye Vremya, for which he was both serial writer and foreign correspondent. The paper supported the establishment and was unpopular with some Russian intellectuals, as was Krymov. Before the war, his social circle included the legendary Sidney Reilly, ‘the Ace of Spies’, whose career was celebrated in a British television series in 1983. Reilly is sometimes cited as a model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, but it’s possible that he was at least as much an influence on Krymov’s Count Azar.
Krymov seems to have been quicker than almost anyone to realise that the February 1917 revolution in Russia was a watershed moment, spelling the beginning of the end for capitalism in his homeland. By this point, he’d built up a considerable fortune and he wasted no time in transferring his assets to Sweden. He and his wife decided to leave Russia, but had to travel east through Siberia; the journey ultimately became a world tour (and by the time Count Azar appeared, he’d been round the world six times) before they decided to try to put down roots in Germany.
He continued to write, and to prosper, but after Hitler came to power, the Gestapo conducted a night search of the Krymovs’ home and the couple moved on again. This time they settled in Villa Vlaber, a luxurious home in Chatou, an affluent suburb of Paris; one of the previous owners was the spy Mata Hari. Krymov seems to have been a mildly controversial figure, known by his friends (who tended to be like-minded anti-Communists) as a generous host but disdained by those who had little time for either his politics or his writing. After the war, he suffered the gradual loss of his sight, but he continued to live in Chatou until his death in 1968.
Krymov translated many English novels into Russian and also published more than a dozen books of his own, including a handful of novels. My impression is that, as a shrewd businessman, he saw detective fiction enjoying considerable popularity and climbed aboard the bandwagon with Count Azar. He was by no means the first Russian writer to venture into the genre, but in terms of seeing his work published in English translation, he enjoyed more success than a number of other Russian authors.
The book’s sub-title, ‘A Cracksman Novel’, places it firmly within the tradition associated with E.W. Hornung, the brother in law of Arthur Conan Doyle and creator of A.J. Raffles, the ‘amateur cracksman’. Raffles was a gentlemanly thief whose exploits enjoyed considerable success from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. He was the most famous, if not the first, of the genre’s early anti-heroes and the morally ambiguous tradition of the cracksman protagonist persisted: a later example is Ernest Bisham in Donald Henderson’s unusual story about a BBC radio announcer who moonlights as a burglar, A Voice Like Velvet, which appeared in 1944.
The publishers’ blurb makes a connection with another type of protagonist by comparing Count Azar to Bulldog Drummond, the patriotic adventurer created by H.C. McNeile, who made no secret of his own right-wing political sympathies. McNeile died in 1937, and although his friend Gerald Fairlie wrote numerous ‘continuation’ novels about Drummond, it’s possible that Krymov (and his hopeful publishers, The Bodley Head) saw Azar as a character who might supersede Drummond in the public’s affections.
Count Azar (known to those close to him as ‘Bob’, a nickname which seems rather less outlandish than his activities merit) bears some resemblance to his creator; perhaps there was an element of wish-fulfilment. He comes from a respectable family and has a scientific training coupled with a taste for detective fiction. He inherits a fortune and has a good war, but finds the February revolution alarming: ‘Azar ceased to feel at home in the new order of things. He, an extreme individualist, resented everything in the new system and hated the mob rule, as he called it.’ He leaves Russia and is accompanied by two women who are devoted to him, Zizi (whom he marries) and Masha (whose infatuation prompts her to poison Zizi with arsenic before Azar discovers what she is up to). Before long, Azar embarks on a career of crime, assisted by Zizi. The novel is episodic: the couple roam around the globe, with Krymov making extensive use of his experience of travelling. The international background has a touch of authenticity often lacking in light thrillers of the 1930s.
In describing Azar’s cunning schemes to make himself rich, Krymov makes extensive use of his scientific, technical, and commercial know-how. In a prefatory note, he claims: ‘The particulars of the poisons, of the various chemical reactions, the electrical appliances, and the banking and commercial operations in the story are all accurate, even though sometimes at the cost of the glamour of the mystery.’ In this respect, the book connects with another tradition of the genre; that of the scientific mystery. Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Austin Freeman, and the chemistry professor who wrote under the name J. J. Connington were all notable exponents of this type of crime fiction, deploying cutting-edge scientific and technological developments in their mysteries. In the United States, Arthur B. Reeve, creator of Craig Kennedy, attempted something similar with considerable commercial success. But Krymov is unique, so far as I know, in writing a ‘cracksman’ novel with a sound scientific and technical underpinning.
The novel is an entertaining read. Krymov isn’t Dostoevsky, but he writes with verve (and he seems to have done so in English; although some of his books were written in Russian and then translated, that isn’t the case here). There are extensive references in the text to detective fiction, and this helps to explain why the inscription is of particular interest. Krymov wrote that he was grateful to Punshon, ‘because your reviews were my guide’.
Ernest Robertson Punshon (1872-1956) was already a well-known novelist at the time he began to review detective fiction for the Manchester Guardian, as it was known then, in 1935. He’d been elected to membership of the Detection Club two years earlier and he shared the ambition of the Club’s leading lights, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L. Sayers, to enhance the literary standing of the genre. Punshon was a Liberal and some of his writing offers ahead-of-its-time critiques of the evils of Nazism. One imagines that he may have had reservations about Krymov’s fiercely anti-Communist and pro-capitalist views, but his writing about the genre evidently struck a chord with Krymov, who said in the preface to Count Azar: ‘while detective and adventure novels are exempt from many of the canons of Art, they must at least conform to the laws of Nature and Logic.’ Punshon was widely travelled and his thriller Where Every Prospect Pleases (published under the pen-name Robertson Halket) was set in Monte Carlo. It’s possible that Krymov, a generous host, invited him to the Villa Vlaber and presented the book there.
As a crime fiction fan, Azar demands from his mysteries ‘an enigmatic plot expressed in a clear and simple style. He could not bear any straining after literary effect…’ In the later stages of the story, Azar become embroiled in a battle of wits with a private investigator called Banco whose speciality is ‘to study a given crime and analyse it and the motives behind it, not as an ordinary detective, but as a psycho-analyst.’ He isn’t unduly concerned with ‘the measurement of footprints, the analysis of dust from the pockets or under the nails…’
Here, Krymov is following the lead of Punshon, Berkeley, Sayers—all three of were influential and discerning reviewers as well as detective novelists—and others in turning his attention to criminal motivation. During the 1930s, crime writers juggled the traditional ingredients of detective fiction with an attempt to explore criminal behaviour in a greater psychological depth. The results were often mixed, but the better examples of this kind of writing are those in which the author manages to entertain while trying to offer something more than an entirely conventional mystery. Judged by that standard, Count Azar works well. It’s undoubtedly a book of its time (and as a result, today the narrative offers us a small but intriguing slice of social history), but it’s a lively yarn and more readable than many of the thrillers that were published in that era.
There’s a startling and unexpected death shortly before the end of the story, but the publisher’s blurb implies that Krymov envisaged this book as the first in a series: ‘The reader may surmise…that he has not heard the last of Count Azar, which will not surprise or disappoint him. Count Azar, like Bulldog Drummond is of the long-lived breed.’
It wasn’t to be. After publishing this novel, Krymov seems to have given up on the crime genre. Whether this is because Count Azar didn’t enjoy the success he’d hoped for, I don’t know. Probably other things got in the way: the Second World War changed many things, including—as I argue in The Life of Crime—the focus of crime fiction. It’s hardly surprising that Krymov has been forgotten by crime fans, but I’m glad that his inscription to Punshon led me to investigate his own life of crime.