Originally published in 2015.
Detective stories of the Twenties and Thirties have long been stereotyped as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Golden Age of Murder tells for the first time the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars. A gripping real-life detective story, it investigates how Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie and their 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.
Crime novelist and current Detection Club President Martin Edwards rewrites the history of crime fiction with unique authority, transforming our understanding of detective stories, and the brilliant but tormented men and women who wrote them.
This is the perfect moment for a cold case review of the Detection Club: to unmask the Golden Age writers and their work, against the backdrop of the extraordinary times in which they lived.
One of the challenges in writing about a book that has been as celebrated as Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is figuring out how to approach it. It strikes me that if you are reading this blog (which you are), you are likely already interested in what is dubbed detective fiction’s Golden Age. It also seems to me quite likely that you may have read this already.
Nor can I say that my opinion of the book will likely stand out from the other opinions that have been offered about it. The work is a very enjoyable and well-researched history of the formation of the Detection Club and the part that its members played in developing the British detective novel in the period between the two world wars.
Odds are then that this may make for a pretty unimaginative review but I feel there is still some value in sharing some thoughts, though I will endeavor to keep them brief. After all, there may be some (like myself) who are late in coming to this work.
Edwards begins his work before the creation of the Detective Club, devoting his first few chapters to exploring the early writing careers of Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and Agatha Christie. These three are some of the most familiar writers of this period but it is necessary to understand the personalities of the figures most instrumental in the group’s creation. Their personalities loom large in the organization’s early years and feature frequently throughout the rest of the book.
After discussing how the Detection Club came to be founded and describing some of its rituals and rules, Edwards expands his focus to feature the many other figures who were its members. Given the number of members it is natural that some are afforded more space than others. Some, such as A. A. Milne and Baroness Orczy, are only mentioned briefly, while others’ careers get more substantial coverage. It seemed clear to me that this reflects their contribution to the development of the detective fiction and I didn’t feel that there were any obvious omissions.
Edwards often groups figures together around a common theme. For example, the fourteenth chapter deals with the impact of World War I on the members, providing biographical notes for Henry Wade, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy and Christopher Bush. It was this material that often proved the most interesting to me as several of the names and the works discussed were unfamiliar to me.
More on that in a moment…
Another source of joy for me were the notes at the end of each chapter. Edwards will quote a sentence he has written and provide additional background. In some cases that means referencing the works he consulted in his research, in others it might mean providing additional reflections on a point beyond the scope of this work. I found these to be very informative and I appreciate that these are used well to provide additional detail that could otherwise slow the work down or distract from the theme of the chapter.
Overall I was impressed by the range of themes Edwards is able to explore in the book and I particularly appreciated the way he would tie developments in the genre to the bigger socio-political events happening at that time. We get to read about how members of the Detection Club responded to the Spanish Civil War, the abdication crisis and the financial turmoil of the 1930s. Some of those stories I had heard before but there was much that was new and fascinating to me. There is also plenty of discussion of the real-life crime cases that fascinated the members and the works that they inspired.
Other than wishing that sometimes there were a few more details about some of those more elusive figures, my only other complaint is a rather minor one. While Edwards usually avoids detailing plots in full, there are a few references to works that I think give a little too much of the books’ solutions or endings away either by direct comment or in comparison. While this is rare and those elements are often referenced to illustrate broader points about the development of the genre or on a theme, do take care and be prepared to skim.
Overall though I had a really good time with The Golden Age of Murder and I felt I came away from it with a stronger understanding of the Detection Club and an interest in its members many of whom I am completely unfamiliar with. That is something I would love to correct and so, as my Twitter followers may be aware, I have decided to embark on an ambitious challenge for myself to read and review at least one work by each of its members.
My intention is that I will be tackling the members roughly in the order of the year of their admission to the club. Often multiple members were admitted in a calendar year and when that’s the case I’ll tackle them in whatever order suits me best. I will try to pick a book I haven’t read that was published prior to their admission though on occasion I will settle for whatever I can afford or easily acquire.
And that brings me to the bit where I want to enlist your help. While I have pretty good ideas of what I might read for Berkeley or Carr, there are plenty of figures whose work I am less familiar with. From time to time I may be asking for recommendations either here or on Twitter and I will appreciate your input. Which starts now.
My intention is to begin this series by reading a work by the Detection Club’s first President, G. K. Chesterton. The reason I am starting with him rather than Sayers or Berkeley is that while I have read a few of his short stories, I am not particularly familiar with his work. So, what G. K. Chesterton novel or short story collection would you recommend? I’d love to hear what you think!
The Verdict: A fascinating exploration of the Detection Club and the role its members played in developing detective fiction in its Golden Age. Highly recommended.