Reviewed by Lyn Baines
The Golden Age of crime fiction spanned the period between the World Wars. There are many stereotypes about the books written during this period, most of them inaccurate and quite lazy. The books were just puzzles, with cutout characters reminiscent of the board game Cluedo. Their authors didn’t play fair with the reader, including untraceable poisons and mysterious Chinamen in an effort to bamboozle the reader. In reality, the best books of this period have been read and loved by millions of readers. Their plots, far from being cosy, featured serial killers, sadistic murders, plots based on real crimes of the period and the beginnings of the forensic thriller. The names of the greatest authors of the period – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh – are still well-known today. Their books are still read, we listen to audio books and radio productions and watch the many TV adaptations. Martin Edwards tells the story of the Golden Age through the history of The Detection Club and the authors who founded it and were its members. It’s the story of a period of history and a group of writers that have always fascinated me.
The Detection Club was founded in 1930 by a group of writers that included Christie, Sayers and Anthony Berkeley Cox, who wrote under the names Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles. The Club was an exclusive one. Members had to be proposed by a current member and approved by the committee. The initiation ritual, complete with members dressed in ceremonial robes and the swearing of an oath to uphold fair play in the plotting of the detective novel taken while holding a skull known as Eric, was all part of the game. The Club met for dinner and conversation several times a year in London and the meetings provided an opportunity for gossip about publishers, agents, sales, the topics that probably feature in the conversation of any group of writers. For some of the members, the Club provided an escape from the disappointments and problems of their private lives. Writing is a solitary occupation and the opportunity to talk shop with colleagues must have been another attraction.
The Golden Age of Murder focuses principally on three writers – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley Cox. Much has been written about Christie and Sayers but I was especially interested to read more about Berkeley. He was an innovative novelist whose brilliant plotting was a feature of his work. Two of his books written under the pseudonym Francis Iles radically changed the conventions of detective fiction. In Malice Aforethought, the reader is in the confidence of the murderer from the beginning and the opening of Before the Fact tells us that Lina Aysgarth was married to a murderer before taking us back to the beginning of their relationship with this knowledge in our minds. Under the name Anthony Berkeley, he wrote a series of novels featuring Roger Sheringham, an amateur detective who usually gets everything wrong before finally coming up with the correct solution. Berkeley felt adrift after his war service and tried various jobs before becoming a writer. He was a contradictory personality, eccentric, obsessive, difficult. His private life was unconventional and this is something he had in common with other members of the Detection Club.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the private lives of the members. A theory I’ve heard several times about the Golden Age writers is that their interest and facility in writing detective stories came from the need to hide secrets in their private lives. Just last week, I listened to the latest episode of BBC Radio’s Great Lives where Val McDermid discussed P D James, who gave a lecture on this theory. Christie famously disappeared for twelve days in 1926, distressed over the end of her first marriage. Even after her happy second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan, Christie, an intensely shy woman, shunned publicity. Sayers had an illegitimate son, whose existence she kept secret from all her closest friends. Her difficult marriage, to an alcoholic who had suffered from his war experiences, was another reason for her love of the Detection Club’s dinners and the gusto with which she entered into the spirit of all the rituals and rules.
Edwards also mentions many other writers, some of them famous in their day but unknown now. Interestingly, as consultant to the very successful British Library Crime Classics series, Edwards has been instrumental in bringing some of these authors back into print. Christopher St John Sprigg, J Jefferson Farjeon and Freeman Wills Croft are just three authors mentioned in this book who have been brought back into print through this series. Another cliche of the Golden Age is that it was dominated by women writers, the Queens of Crime. Martin Edwards features many male authors of the period, some of them undeservedly obscure now. His knowledge of the period is exhaustive and obviously the product of many years reading and research. Martin’s blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? bears witness to this interest with regular posts on forgotten books and interesting snippets of information from his ongoing research into this fascinating period of literary history.
It’s impossible for me to encompass this book in a brief review. I haven’t even mentioned the interest in true crime that led to the anthology, The Anatomy of Murder (recently reprinted), or the collaborative novels published by members of the Club (Ask a Policeman, The Floating Admiral) to replenish their funds and pay the rent on their Soho rooms. I enjoyed reading about the group dynamics of these projects, with Dorothy L Sayers bullying and cajoling members into writing their contributions and submitting their copy. The current members of the Detection Club (including Edwards who is the Archivist of the Club) are working on a group novel of their own called The Sinking Admiral in homage to the earlier book. There are also some fascinating photographs in the book, including one of my favourites of Dorothy L Sayers and Helen Simpson drinking beer, and one of Gladys Mitchell in her other job as a PE teacher, instructing her pupils. The research that has gone into the book is phenomenal as can be seen by the rare illustrations and the detail in the footnotes.
Lyn Baines blogs at I Prefer Reading, where a version of this review first appeared.
Read Harriet’s Q&A with Martin in our Bookbuzz section via this link.
Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (Harper Collins, London, May 2015) ISBN: 9780008105969, hardback, 528 pages.