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 & 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 & mysterious Chinamen in an effort to bamboozle the reader. In reality, the best books of this period have been read & loved by millions of readers. Their plots, far from being cosy, featured serial killers, sadistic murders, plots based on real crimes of the period & 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 & radio productions & watch the many TV adaptations. Martin Edwards tells the story of the Golden Age through the history of The Detection Club & the authors who founded it & were its members. It’s the story of a period of history & 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 & Anthony Berkeley Cox, who wrote under the names Anthony Berkeley & Francis Iles. The Club was an exclusive one. Members had to be proposed by a current member & approved by the committee. The initiation ritual, complete with members dressed in ceremonial robes & 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 & conversation several times a year in London & 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 & problems of their private lives. Writing is a solitary occupation & 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 & Anthony Berkeley Cox. Much has been written about Christie & 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 & 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 & tried various jobs before becoming a writer. He was a contradictory personality, eccentric, obsessive, difficult. His private life was unconventional & 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 & 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 & the gusto with which she entered into the spirit of all the rituals & 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 & 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 & obviously the product of many years reading & research. Martin’s blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? bears witness to this interest with regular posts on forgotten books & 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 & pay the rent on their Soho rooms. I enjoyed reading about the group dynamics of these projects, with Dorothy L Sayers bullying & cajoling members into writing their contributions & 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 & Helen Simpson drinking beer & 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 & the detail in the footnotes.
I mentioned the British Library Crime Classics above & I’ve been reading a recent anthology, Capital Crimes, edited by Edwards, which throws light on a discovery in the book that I found really thrilling. Martin Edwards has discovered a connection between Berkeley & one of my favourite authors, E M Delafield, that has been previously unsuspected. I won’t go into detail but the clues are there in Delafield’s work if you know where to look. Although best-known today for her delightful Diary of a Provincial Lady & its sequels, Delafield had an interest in true crime & wrote a novel, Messalina of the Suburbs, about the Edith Thompson case (which disturbed & fascinated several of the Detection Club members). The story by Delafield in Capital Crimes, They Don’t Wear Labels, is a revelation & just one example of the influence her friendship with Berkeley had on her own work.
The success of the British Library Crime Classics as well as the continuing popularity of adaptations of Golden Age novels attest to our love of this period of detective fiction. I’m just as fascinated by the authors as their books so The Golden Age of Murder has been a real treat for me. I think anyone who has read the novels of this period would find much to enjoy in Martin Edwards’ book & the recent reprints by several publishers, including Dean Street Press, Langtail Press, Rue Morgue & Felony & Mayhem (featuring Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case this week) mean that if you’ve read everything Sayers, Christie & Allingham ever wrote, you have many more authors to discover.