The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

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.


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

  1. Ooh, that sounds like a fun project! Is there a date limit or will you be continuing up to present members of the club? Also, do you have “Howdunnit”? That book has a list of all members up until its publication. The gadetection wiki also has a list, but it mistakenly includes Manning Coles instead of Margaret Cole for 1930. Not sure if there are other errors.
    What kind of works are you looking for? Presumably the books should at least be detection related, which rules out the novels for Chesterton as far as I know. Seems like it would be nice to find the titles that show why they got the invite.

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    1. Thanks! I am looking forward to getting underway with it. I haven’t set a time limit on it for now, though I am thinking of it in terms of sets. For instance, phase one will be to complete the initial membership. I’ll be pretty happy if I manage to get to the end of WW2 in the next couple of years – the good news is that from that point onward it should get much cheaper to do this!
      My preference is definitely for works of detection. Martin Edwards references some specific works that brought attention to those elected and there are some where there is no choice (A. A. Milne).
      Thanks for the mention of Howdunnit’s lists – I will track down a copy soon to avail myself of it!

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      1. Nice. I should reread The Golden Age Of Murder, I forgot he mentioned specific works. Howdunit is a great book even aside from the list in my opinion, though I am biased as I would love to write detective fiction.
        I find it interesting to think of all those writers that were picked who basically wrote no detective fiction after being elected. I wonder if they still showed up for the meetings :p

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      2. There are only a couple but, to give an example, The Hollow Man is cited as making Carr’s election ‘a formality’.
        I had the same thought about the way that so many of the members seemed to be inactive writers – particularly in that initial cohort – while others seem to have been spurred on to greater levels of creativity and invention.

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  2. Re Chesterton, I would recommend the first collection of Father Brown stories, “The Innocence of Father Brown.” Also, I recommend staying away from :The Man Who Was Thursday.”

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    1. Thanks Christophe for both pieces of advice! Can I ask, is your comment about Thursday a verdict on the book itself or specifically in terms of how representative of his career it is?

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      1. The book itself. From the little I know about Chesterton entire oeuvre and philosophy, it may be an attempt at combining some themes of his philosophy with a crime story, but I certainly did not enjoy the book.

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      2. I agree with Cristophe about TMWWT. Going in expecting a detective novel, or even a crime novel, would only increase the amount of pain it brings. I’m sure other opinions are available but personally I don’t recommend the book!

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      3. Thanks – this sort of feedback is exactly why I wanted to solicit opinions! While I don’t expect each writer to be to my taste, I do want to give them the best chance at impressing me. 🙂

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  3. I’d like to enter a contra about The Man Who Was Thursday – I really enjoyed it, although it certainly isn’t a detective story. Where Father Brown is concerned, the general opinion seems to be that the early stories are generally the best, so that means that you should probably start with The Innocence OFB. If you can find a copy, Martin Gardner’s annotated version adds some interesting background, although he makes one rather odd error as a result of a misinterpretation of The Sign Of The Broken Sword. I’d also suggest The Man Who Knew Too Much (no connection with the Hitchcock film of the same name).

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    1. Thanks for offering up a different perspective on TMWWT and for the other suggestions. The Innocence of Father Brown does appear to be the emerging consensus here.

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  4. In regards to A A Milne there is his traditional mystery – The Red House Mystery, but he also wrote a parody of the fugitive on the run trope called Four Days Wonder. It has been reprinted and I really enjoyed it. Thought I would mention it in case you wanted a different Milne to try.

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    1. Thanks Kate. I should probably tackle TRHM soon to justify that Folio Society edition I bought a few years back but it’s good to know that there is another genre work I was not aware of!

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