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Michael Sims’ New Anthology Takes Crime Fiction Fans Back to the Gaslight Era

March 30, 2009
Michael Sims (photo by Laura Patterson)

Michael Sims (photo by Laura Patterson)

Most readers probably know Michael Sims best as the author of a series of critically acclaimed science books: Darwin’s Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts; Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, named New York Times Notable Book and a Library Journal Best Science Book; and  Apollo’s Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, chosen as one of the Best Science Books of 2007 by National Public Radio. He’s also just finished In the Womb: Animals, a companion piece to the National Geographic Channel’s documentary of the same name.

But beyond his own writing, Sims is also a talented editor. After two previous anthologies for Penguin Classics —  The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel and Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Thief — Sims now offers up a third collection, debuting in bookstores this week. The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime: Con Artists, Burglars, Rogues, and Scoundrels From the Time of Sherlock Holmes looks back to some of the great criminals of that bygone era — chief among them that most legendary of thieves, A.J. Raffles, but also Colonel Clay, Simon Carne. and Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford. In his introduction to the collection, Sims writes:

These pages are decidedly not populated with the usual suspects. The criminals herein arm themselves with wit rather than with guns. You will run into con games and burglaries, art forgery and diamond smuggling, but you will not stumble over a corpse in the library…. The threat of death requires no talent. As the term con artist implies, these tales are about skill and imagination; this is a gathering of rogues, not villains. You need not be afraid to invite them to dinner — but don’t let them wander about the house unattended.

In addition to selecting the dozen stories included in The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, Sims also wrote biographical and contextual essays to introduce each entry.  His work here has already earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal said that the anthology is “recommended for all mystery collections.”

On the eve of the book’s publication, Sims talks about what’s drawn him to these stories and what he hopes readers might take from them. 

Art Taylor: The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime is the third anthology you’ve edited for Penguin. In each case, have you started the project with some sense of authority on these authors and their work OR with an admiration and curiosity which drives you to become an authority on the subjects (if that’s not too fine a distinction). 

Michael Sims: I think that’s an excellent distinction to make. My interests have always included Victorian and Edwardian crime fiction fiction. Over the last few years I’ve read or re-read most of the great original works as well as critical surveys about them, as well as discussed them with scholars and other anthologists. I’m certainly drawn to the era; all three of those collections involve work mostly concentrated in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth. I seem to spend a lot of time there. Sometimes when I’m in certain parts of London or New York, I feel that, like the protagonist of Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again, I could just walk around a corner and into 1882. 

In your introduction, you talk about nostalgia being part of the potential attractiveness of these stories for today’s readers, and they’re certainly charming on a number of levels. Is it nostalgia or charm (or what else?) that gives you personally the most satisfaction in reading these stories?

First, the stories are almost always funny and cleverly structured to be surprising. I find them charming and I admit I’m also drawn to an era that is comfortably pre-nuclear and pre-TV (not that I consider TV quite as bad as nuclear weapons). Also, in a recent radio interview about this anthology, I caught myself describing these miscreants as, of all things, “freelancers.” I had to correct myself and say, “That is, um, you see, they’re crooks, of course, but they’re independent crooks – outside any system.” It was a ridiculous moment of self-realization to blurt out in an interview, but it reminded me of what, deep down, I secretly love about some of these characters: their complete independence. No one tells them what to do; they exist entirely outside all established systems; most are invisible and supremely free. Their very definition of themselves is about their intelligence and independence. 

Do I admire real con artists and burglars? Nope. They prey upon gullible doofuses such as myself. But these stories are basically fantasy. I also enjoy Harry Potter but have no more desire to meet Dementors myself than I do to meet real crooks, primarily because I’m a coward.

Well, speaking of the intersection between the imaginary and the real…. Several of these stories involve cons, of course — and not just at the personal level but potentially on a big-business scale as well. (I’m thinking of Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford and his fake carpet tack corporation.) How might readers today react differently to such stories than the original readers did — readers today in the midst of  headlines  talking about economic meltdown, hotly contested bonuses, greed,  corruption, etc.? Or do you think these stories succeed as escapism, no matter the context?

Well, I wouldn’t recommend using The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime as a moral primer. These people are definitely crooks, even when they have Robin Hood urges — as many do. As for our own particular era, greed has always been the American national sport, and sadly few people seemed to care much until it hit them in their own wallets. I’m more alarmed by how many people enjoy watching torture and gory murder than by the amusement others may find in century-old thief stories. 

Several of the authors and characters here may be familiar to readers: Raffles, for example, is justly famous, and Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford was definitely well-known and well-loved. And you’ve included a couple of authors better known outside of this genre: Sinclair Lewis and O. Henry, for example. Which of lesser known authors (or characters) gave you the greatest surprise as you were choosing which stories to include. 

O. Henry was the first author I really read a lot of and tried to learn about, back in the Cretaceous when I was a teenager, so I had long been familiar with his wonderful con man stories. But I was surprised to find that Sinclair Lewis could be quite so devious as he is in “The Willow Walk.” To me, the great genius among these stories is Colonel Clay, who, in the original series, swindled the same dastardly millionaire twelve times.

On the flip-side of that last question, were there authors who had been successful during the gaslight era but whom you just couldn’t bear to foist again on readers again today?

9780143105664h3Definitely. As editor, I was the bouncer; if I didn’t like certain authors or stories or characters, I didn’t let them in the door, even if they threw a tantrum. Editors and bouncers have to trust their own instincts. Elda Rotor, the editorial director at Penguin, and I agreed that the book ought to contain what I thought were the very best stories of their kind that I could find — no room for padding. So I did not invite Mrs. Raffles or Constantine Dix or Boston Blackie just because they had been active during the same period. Also, murderers need not apply; as the cover indicates, this is a book about thieves. Concerning the cover, by the way, I think that an elegantly gloved hand stealing the Penguin logo is simply brilliant. [NOTE: Check out Bookslut’s interview with Sims about that cover design.]

Finally, about that whole editorial process: Were there any authors you wished you could have included here that ultimately didn’t make the cut? Or who else might readers try to track down once they’ve finished with this collection?  

For that list you need to stay tuned for the sequel. I’m not through yet.

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3 comments

  1. Cool interview. I’m excited for Michael to join us again at Fall for the Book this year!


  2. […] Sims, interviewed here a couple of weeks back, is the guest blogger this week at Penguin.com in conjunction with his new […]


  3. […] Community College in Sterling,Virginia. Sponsored by the NVCC Loudoun Lyceum Fund. [Click here for an interview with Sims at Art and Literature and check out other friends of the festival at our new Festival Blogroll to the left of our […]



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