The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Although I read a lot of crime fiction my knowledge of the authors and their books written during the ‘Golden Age’ so far has been limited to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Michael Innes so when I saw that Martin Edwards had written The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story I thought it would be the ideal book to find out more. And I was absolutely right and the works of a whole host of authors has been opened up to me.

This is the story of the writers who formed the Detection Club between the two World Wars. Edwards sets the authors and their works in context – that period when Britain was recovering from the horrors of the First World War, living through an age of austerity as unemployment grew, the cost of living soared leading to the General Strike whilst the rich partied and saw the beginnings of the end of the British Empire. But the writers and the works although well grounded in their own time and culture have a lasting appeal and influence on current story telling and film and television.

The Club grew out of the dinners Anthony Berkeley and his wife Peggy hosted at their home in the late 1920s, attended by people including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Douglas and Margaret Cole, Ronald Knox, Henry Wade, H C Bailey and John Rhode. Eventually the Club was formed, with Rules and a Constitution and a Committee. The members benefited in various ways, meeting fellow detective novelists, discussing ideas, supporting each other and even working together on collaborative writing projects – such as The Floating Admiral, in which a dozen writers each wrote one chapter. The main aim of the Club was to encourage and maintain a high standard of work in writing detective novels.

I was fascinated by the number of real crimes that influenced the writers, both current at the time and crimes from the past. Their interest as they discussed these cases, such as Dr Crippen’s poisoning of his wife, in turn inspired them not only to write but also to play the detective themselves. Indeed, Edwards shows that the image of the Golden Age as ‘cosy’ murder mysteries is false:

Their novels are often sneered at as ‘cosy’, and the claim that their characters were made from cardboard has become a lazy critical cliché. The very idea that detective fiction between the wars represented a ‘Golden Age’ seems like a misty-eyed nostalgia of an aged romantic hankering after a past that never existed.

The best detective novels of the Thirties

were exhilarating, innovative and unforgettable. They explored miscarriages of justice, forensic pathology and serial killings long before these topics became fashionable (and before the term’serial killer’ was invented). …

The climax of one of Berkeley’s novels was so shocking that when Alfred Hitchcock came to film it, even the legendary master of suspense, the man who would direct Psycho, lost his nerve. He substituted a final scene that was a feeble cop-out in comparison to Berkeley’s dark and horrific vision. (page 9)

There is no way I can do justice to this book in a short post; it is simply a tour de force, comprehensive, crammed full of fascinating information about the period and the authors.

Martin Edwards’ love of Golden Age fiction shines throughout the book, (skilfully writing about books without giving away any spoilers) and has spurred me on to read more books from this period.

First Chapter ˆ¼ First Paragraph Intros

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter ˆ¼ First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

I’m currently reading The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, described on the back cover as

‘the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars, and the fascinating people who wrote it. A gripping real-life detective story, this book investigates how Agatha Christie and her colleagues in the mysterious Detection Club transformed crime fiction. Their work cast new light on unsolved murders, whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets, and their complex and sometimes bizarre private lives.

First Chapter:

Chapter I, The Ritual in the Dark

On a summer evening in 1937, a group of men and women gathered in the darkness to perform a macabre ceremony. They had invited a special guest to witness their ceremony. She was visiting London from New Zealand and a thrill of excitement ran through her as the appointed time drew near. She loved drama, and at home she worked in the theatre. Now she felt as tense as when the curtain was about to rise. To be a guest at this dinner was a special honour. What would happen next she could not imagine.

Many congratulations to Martin Edwards who is to be the next President of  the Detection Club when Simon Brett, the current President retires in November. I really cannot think of a better choice than Martin, a well-deserved honour indeed!