The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Detecting the Detection Club…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During the Golden Age of crime fiction in Britain – between the two world wars – some of the leading authors got together to form the Detection Club, an organisation that’s still going strong today. At the time of writing this book, Martin Edwards had been elected to membership and was the archivist of the club, although he has since become President, following in the prestigious footsteps of such luminaries as GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and, more recently, HRF Keating and Simon Brett.

Although the Club was largely social in nature, Edwards sets out to show how the interactions of its members helped to define the style and direction of detective fiction in these early years. He suggests that in fact the existence of the club may be part of the reason that the Golden Age style of detective fiction lasted longer in Britain than elsewhere. Membership was by election only, so that existing members decided which writers could get in, and, as a result, exerted considerable control over which types of book were highly regarded within the community. Over the years several of the original members had a go at defining the “rules” of detective fiction, usually half-jokingly, but clearly indicating their own opinion of what fell within the definition.

Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties.

The book is clearly very well researched – not an easy task since apparently many of the records of the Club were lost during the years of WW2. It’s written in what I’ve come to see as Edwards’ usual style for non-fiction – conversational, feeling as if one were having a discussion with a knowledgeable friend – and is therefore easy and enjoyable to read. It covers a lot of the same ground that he covers in his introductions to the various British Library Crime Classics and in his most recent The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels. By their nature, those other books force a structure on the way he gives information. In contrast, this one struck me as much looser in structure, often going off at tangents – one chapter, for example, starts with Agatha Christie meeting her second husband, then goes on to talk about séances in various writers’ work, then ends up with a discussion on the Depression and the formation of the National Government! Personally, I enjoyed the structured style of The Story of Classic Crime more, but I think this is very much down to reader preference.

Detection Club Dinner 1932

Where this book differs is by going much more deeply into the personal lives of the various authors who were members of the Club during the Golden Age – Sayers, Christie, Berkeley, the Coles, et al. I’ve said this before, but I’m not keen on knowing a lot about the authors whose books I enjoy since, if I end up not liking them on a personal basis, it can affect my enjoyment of their books. There were undoubtedly aspects of this that I found verged on the intrusive – tales of secret love affairs, unacknowledged illegitimate children, etc. But for the most part, Edwards is warm and affectionate towards his subjects, so there’s no feeling of a hatchet job being done on any of them. Edwards also shows how these hidden episodes of their lives may have influenced their writing, which I suppose is a justification for revealing things they tried hard to keep private while they were alive. (Do I sound somewhat disapprovingly judgemental there? I tried hard not to, but I think I failed…)

Two important Club members – Dorothy L Sayers and Eric the Skull.

To a degree, the book follows a linear timeline although with a lot of digressions. Edwards talks informatively about how detective fiction was influenced by current events, such as the Depression of the ’30s, or the rise of the various dictatorships in the pre-WW2 years. He also discusses and rather argues against the idea that Golden Age crime fiction was culturally snobbish – I disagree – but suggests that it was often intellectually snobbish – I agree. I do find that just occasionally Edwards comes over as somewhat dogmatic in his opinions – he has a tendency to be a little dismissive about anyone who holds a different point of view. He also clearly has favourites amongst the authors – Sayers is mentioned more often than everyone else put together, I suspect! But that all adds to the personal, conversational feel of the book. I’m sure if I knew anything like enough to write a similar book, Christie would appear just as often.

Martin Edwards (left) taking over from past President, Simon Brett, 2015

Overall, then, an enjoyable and informative read, maybe more geared towards people who enjoy personal biographies of their favourite authors, but with plenty of stuff about the history of the crime novel for the rest of us. And because there’s quite a lot of crossover between this and The Story of Classic Crime, they could easily be read either as companion pieces, or the reader could select the style that would most suit – more biographical about the authors in this one, more concentration on the books in the other.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

35 thoughts on “The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

  1. I know what you mean about how learning more about an author affects your regard for their books. That’s the main reason why I try not to delve too much into an author’s personal life either (unless this author is one of my absolute favorites and has inspired me).

    Are those rules for real??? “Not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?” My goodness!

    • It’s funny – the longer ago the author was, the less I mind, so I don’t mind reading biographies of Dickens and people of his era. But twentieth century ones always worry me. Haha – although he was joking, I suspect there was an element of seriousness in there too – I think they’re great rules that should be reintroduced into modern crime fiction… 😉

  2. This sounds good! I’m interested in what the author means by ‘culturally’ or ‘intellectually’ snobbish. Most of the members must have been British or living in Britain. Imagine the conversations at those dinners!

    • Those were probably my terms rather than his. All these layers of snobbishness are terribly British – cultural would be about class and birth, so aristocrats being vastly superior to working people for instance, because they know which fork to use when eating their pudding, etc. Intellectual snobbery tends to be about people who went to Oxford or Cambridge to study Latin and Greek and look down on those same poor workers for being too stupid to be able to quote philosophers… 😉

      • This is interesting! Snobbery of all kinds does still exist in Australia but It is so much more interesting in the context of the time period and the writers who were part of that group. I expect their readers came from every part of society though, and the money they paid to buy their books was welcome regardless of their background or education. Since this book was in a conversational style it would have been difficult for the author not to show his own biases.

        • I’m kinda fascinated by all the layers of class in our society. I think back in the day ordinary people did feel deference for the upper classes, so they probably weren’t bothered about the snobbery in the books. But now that we all think we’re equal (Up the Revolution!) it can really grate. Here’s a brief summary of the British class system… 😉

          • I find class fascinating too, but am even more interested in the differences between the haves and the have-nots, which these days is money. (Although money still doesn’t buy an education amongst the children of the ruling class).
            I can’t watch the video, keep getting sent to a wedding venue called Kualoa Ranch and don’t think that is what you meant.

  3. I’m very glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan. It is always difficult to know just how much information readers want about these authors. I know that my opinions of an author’s writing are impacted by the way I feel about that author, whether or not that’s the way it ought to be. And just how personal should that information be? Again, not an easy questions. Still, with Edwards at the helm here, you knew you weren’t going to be badly disappointed. Good to hear you liked this.

    • I feel differently depending on how recent the person was – I can happily read biographies of Dickens, etc., but somehow these people haven’t been dead long enough for me to feel comfortable about peeking into their secrets. I think it’s if I think they would still have living relatives who actually knew them. Plus I can put up with outdated attitudes better the longer ago it was. But I still enjoyed the book and didn’t end up hating any of the authors… 😉

  4. I’ve had this book for quite a while, but I’ve never read it. You encourage me here and scare me a bit too with the ‘author real lives’ angle. I will say that I’m also one who finds that if an author has objectionable things in their personal life, I find my feelings toward them and their books is altered. Maybe it’s better for me not to know too much.

    • I wouldn’t want to put you off – I’m really not enthusiastic about personal biographies of fairly recent people, so I’m probably making it sound more of an issue than it is. Edwards clearly feels affectionately towards all these authors, so there’s nothing in there that left me disliking any of them, except the odd one I already didn’t like much! And there’s plenty about the books and the history of crime fiction to ensure it’s an enjoyable read – hope you enjoy it when you get to it! 😀

    • Hahaha – I know! I suppose characters like Fu Manchu might have appeared exotic and mysterious back then, but they come over as so hideously stereotyped now! A good reminder that things have moved on a bit, despite all the current race issues… 😀

  5. I think I’ll stick with what I already know about The Detection Club – I think I’m even more averse to knowing about authors as people than you are.

    • I definitely preferred The Story of Classic Crime because it focused more on the books than the authors. I can read bios of the long-dead without it affecting my opinion of their books, but somehow I feel entirely differently about the recently deceased…

  6. I love the idea of this club, and so wish I could have been a part of it. What fun! I bet they had some great discussions amongst themselves…to be a fly on the wall!

    • Wouldn’t it have been great? Apparently they all made little secret references to each other in their books, so for example one of Agatha Christie’s suspects is called after one of the other authors and suchlike. 😀

  7. I never actually finished this (it was a library book and I didn’t get it read in time), but I really enjoyed what I read of it. With Sayers specifically, I can see what Edwards was trying to do. People accuse Sayers of Harriet Vane being basically a self-insert character and of having fallen in love with her own hero, generally based on the idea that she was a buttoned-up spinster who never had any fun – so I feel like he was trying to correct that assumption. But yes, I was reading it more for the books and could have done without so much personal biography.

    • Yes, I felt it was interesting the way he showed how their personal lives were reflected in their books, but I just prefer not to know too much about authors on the whole. I also *whispers* don’t really like Sayers’ books, so I could have done with a bit less of her. But I know I’m in a minority on that one! Maybe he’ll brainwash me into liking her eventually… 😉

      • I do think that the Wimsey books are of *incredibly* mixed quality and some of them (especially the early ones) are pretty awful, so I can see how you might not really like them.

        • It’s the Wimsey character I can’t take, and the general snobbishness of it all. I know it’s of its time, but I don’t feel they’ve aged as well as Christie, for example. But I know loads of people love them, so it’s obviously just a personal preference thing. I do have one to re-read for one of my challenges, so maybe I’ll surprise myself by falling in love with it this time round! 🙂

  8. I do want to read this, but I think The Story of Classic Crime suits me more, like you, I don’t really want to know about their private lives.

    No jiggery pokery! A rule for general life too, I feel 😀

    • Haha – but what would life be without a little jiggery-pokery? We’d just have to fall back on hanky-panky…

      Yes, I preferred the structure of The Story of Classic Crime, too – more focused. But at least they mostly mention the same books so my TBR got through this one relatively unscathed… 😉

  9. I’m the opposite: I like to know about the writer and his/her life, how it influences the writing etc. So far, I haven’t found that a writer’s personal failings have put me off their writing so long as the writing is good enough. So I would probably enjoy this rambling tome from what you’ve described. I just don’t read enough detective fiction… I’ve dipped a toe in recently and the water was pleasantly warm. I just don’t seem to find the time. But fortunately crime and detective novels sit firmly in the category of ‘winter reading’ for me. So I can safely forget about them for months now. That’s a weight off my mind! 😀

    • Haha – I’ll need to work on turning you into a crime addict! Tempt you with a few cosies in pretty covers and then once you’re hooked, get you onto the hard stuff. Soon you’ll be on six murders a day and craving for serial killers… 😉

      You’d probably enjoy this one more than his other book then. I don’t mind knowing about long-dead authors, but somehow I feel uncomfortable when the author is recent – and I find them harder to forgive if they held unpleasant views. But Edwards isn’t nasty about it – you can tell he feels affectionately towards most of them.

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.