My book-buying moratorium has only five days to go. It’s my birthday this week and that has made the wait easier. My daughter gave me Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards, which I had been longing for. And what a splendid collection it is, well worth the wait. Of course there are a few old favourites: Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbunkle,’ Chesterton’s ‘The Flying Stars’, but there are also stories that have never been reprinted since they first appeared. I haven’t read them all yet, but so far there is not a single dud. Edgar Wallace’s ‘Stuffing,’ for example, is plotted with a deftness worthy of O. Henry.
I wasn’t surprised to receive Silent Nights – in fact, I’d have been surprised not to get it. But the book that my husband gave me, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, by Katherine Harkup, is an unexpected treat. Harkup is herself a chemist and, even just flicking through the book, I can see that she knows what she is talking about. Dame Agatha was of course keen on poison as a means of committing murder and also knew her onions (or daffodil bulbs) since she qualified as a dispenser during WWI. The book examines fourteen of the poisons that Christie used in her novels and some of the real-life cases that might have inspired her. It looks fascinating.
I’ll come on to how I did that in a minute. It’s two weeks now since I decided to have a three month moratorium on book-buying. It hasn’t been easy and yesterday I would have probably succumbed if it hadn’t been for the thought of having to own up to the lapse on this blog. I was in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly and I was tempted by Silent Night: Christmas Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards. I’ve got his other two Golden Age anthologies, Resorting to Murder and Capital Crimes and would have dearly loved to have this one too. As it is, I will put it on my Christmas list. And this means I will just have to wait. And that, I realise, is something I am not used to doing, at least not as far as books are concerned.
This has been a huge change in book-buying over the last few years. Last week I finished reading Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning on my e-reader and my immediate response was to download the next one that she’d written, The Fashion in Shrouds. Just as well I didn’t, as quite apart from my pledge, I discovered the book tucked away behind something else on my shelves. Yes, it’s embarrassing: I don’t even know what I’ve got. So I also intend to sort out my books before I buy any more.
So how did I buy a book by accident? Well, every now and then I book a ticket for a matinee at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and go over to Scarborough for the day on the train. I sponsored a seat there in memory of my mother, so it is something of a sentimental journey. I saw a revival of the Alan Ayckbourn play, Confusions, directed by the man himself. Naturally, I bought a programme. I was delighted to find that as well as the usual details of the cast and so on, it contained the entire text of the play – what a brilliant idea – and at only £3.50 was a wonderful bargain. I was able to enjoy the best bits of the play all over again on the way home. It was several days later that it occurred to me that this might count as buying a book. Oh well . . .
Last Saturday I was at the launch of The Starlings and Other Stories at Waterstones in Wrexham. Nine of the twelve authors were there along with David Wilson, the photographer whose work inspired our stories. I did wonder if we would outnumber the audience (it’s been known to happen with smaller groups of writers than this!), but there was a good turn-out and the audience was responsive.
It is rare that publication of a collection of short stories is marked in this way, but truly there is something special about this book. I don’t know of any other that combines images and texts in quite this way. These aren’t illustrations: as I’ve explained in an earlier blog, the photographs came first. And what photographs! As Chris Simms writes in the introduction ‘these weren’t the cosy compositions of tourist shop tea-towels. By his own admission David’s photographs – beautiful as they are – often carry “a sense of eerie foreboding.” Brooding woods emerge from pale mist. Lonely farmsteads are threatened by stormy skies. An abandoned building leaves you wondering what happened to those who once lived there.’ Perfect starting points for a crime-writer and it was fascinating to see what everyone had made of it.
It was lovely to meet the team at Graffeg who are responsible for a beautifully produced book along with the other writers, and – especially – David Wilson. The photograph shows from left to right in the front row, myself, Margaret Murphy, Kate Ellis, Helena Edwards; in the second row Toby Forward, Ann Cleeves, David Wilson, Martin Edwards, Cath Staincliffe, Chris Simms.
Or, to give it its full title, The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, by Martin Edwards. I bought it at Crimefest and starting reading it right away. I finished it in four days even though it is 435 pages long and the days at the convention were packed. It is an enthralling read. There are several strands to the book, skilfully woven together to produce a compelling narrative. The Detection Club, founded around 1930, forms the spine, along with the novels its members wrote, their relationships with each other, and the real life crimes that inspired them. Some would say that the judicial hanging of Edith Thompson after her conviction for being an accessory to the murder of her husband was itself a crime and we are not spared the details, rightly, I think. Certainly it troubled some members of the club and inspired some memorable fiction, such as E. M. Delafield’s Messalina of the Suburbs and F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peep-Show.
Agatha Christie comes across as a very sympathetic figure and Dorothy L Sawyers more so than I’d expected. This account of her love for the illegitimate son she felt she could not acknowledge and the failure of her marriage makes sad reading. The members of the Detection Club had their share of human weaknesses. Though none – so far as we know – were actual murderers, unhappy marriages and divorce were common. Authors little read these days – Henry Wade, R. Austin Freeman, M. and G.D.H. Coles and many others – are brought vividly to life. Perhaps the most intriguing figure is Anthony Berkeley who wrote under various names including Francis Iles. Martin claims that ‘the psychological puzzle of the relationship between Berkeley and E. M. Delafield is the great untold story of the Golden Age’ and he makes good on his claim.
Above all it is the voice of the narrator, witty, judicious, humane in his judgements, that makes this book such a pleasure to read. I loved every word, and I confidently predict that in addition to the excellent reviews it has so far garnered (including Mark Lawson’s in the Guardian), that we will be seeing it short-listed for various awards. Bravo!
At least for a while. Maybe I’ll take June off. Go cold turkey. Only thirty days in June, so it might not be too bad. Or maybe wait until August when I’ll be in France for some of the time, so (mostly) out of the reach of temptation. Or should I perhaps just STOP RIGHT NOW. But something must be done, because my study looks like a second-hand bookshop, there are books all over the house, and if I’m not careful I’m going to end up like those people who have so much stuff that they have to tunnel through it to get from room to room. And then there are all the unread books on my e-reader. It is so fatally easy to download with just one click – and often so cheap. I have reluctantly concluded that it is all getting out of hand.
What has brought this on is my trip to Crimefest at the week-end. I decided to limit myself to two new books – not least because I had to carry them home on the train. One was the eagerly awaited The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (soon to be reviewed here) and Jorn Lier Horst’s newly translated The Caveman, both signed by their authors. But it didn’t stop there. I came home with a whole bag of books, because I correctly guessed that Len Tyler’s Crooked Herring would win the Last Laugh Award for the best humorous crime novel. The prize was the shortlist of six. I already had Len’s book, so I gave that to a friend. But it still means that I came home with seven new books. No, make that eight, because I kept one that came free in the goody bag.
And in spite of all that, have I still bought another book today? Why, yes, I have. I met a writing chum, Quentin Bates, at Crimefest and that reminded me to download his new novella, Summerchill.
The rate at which I am acquiring books is far, far outstripping the rate at which I read them – and I am a byword among my friends for the number of books I get through. The gap is getting bigger and bigger. So maybe Quentin’s should be the last for a bit. Just a temporary measure, you understand. But I think I’d be the better for it – and so would my credit card statements.
One of the unexpected pleasures of becoming a crime writer has been the friendship of other crime writers. I first met Martin Edwards through the Crime Writers Association and we found we shared an interest in golden age crime fiction – though Martin knows far, far more than I do. We’ve had many absorbing conversations over the years. I’m especially pleased to welcome him to my blog today and to celebrate the publication of his new book, The Golden Age of Murder, which I know will be an enthralling read.
I asked him, What are the golden age crime novels that you first read and enjoyed?
The very first was The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie, swiftly followed by After the Funeral and then all the rest. I loved them, and in particular I loved being fooled by those ingenious final twists! Once I’d worked my way through all the Agathas I could find, I turned my attention to Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham. Anthony Berkeley and Henry Wade came later.
Is there any one writer that has been unfairly neglected and that you would
like to see back in print?
It’s rather sobering just how many writers who were once very popular have
been neglected over the past half century. I’ve very much enjoyed my role as
Series Consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics series, which has
resurrected some very interesting writers, including the splendidly named
Christopher St John Sprigg, who was also a poet and a committed Marxist
prior to his tragically early death at age 29 while fighting in the Spanish
Civil War. Of the writers who remain to be rediscovered, several names
spring to mind, but I’m going to highlight Richard Hull, one of the few
crime writers who was also a chartered accountant. He is best known for his
first book, The Murder of My Aunt, but I’ve got a very soft spot for
Name half a dozen golden age crime novels that you wish you had written
There are many more than six, but naturally I have to start with Agatha. And
Then There Were None and The ABC Murders are brilliant, in very different
ways. Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case is another classic I’d
love to have written. Under the name Francis Iles, the same chap wrote the
marvellously ironic Malice Aforethought. Henry Wade’s Lonely Magdalen is a
terrific police novel, not in the least ‘cosy.’ And even darker is Hugh
Walpole’s splendidly macabre posthumous chiller, The Killer and the Slain.
I must get hold of The Killer and the Slain. You and I have been reading golden age crime for years. Why do you think everyone else has suddenly caught on?
Like so many interesting puzzles, this one has, I think, a rather elaborate
answer. As I was growing up, Golden Age fiction seemed very unfashionable
(something that could be said of many of my enthusiasms, I must admit!) and
even when I started publishing my Harry Devlin novels, which have a very
modern urban backdrop but also have plots overtly influenced by the Golden
Age, reviewers who liked them didn’t tend to pick up on the Golden Age
connections. Even though The Devil in Disguise, for instance, is very much a
homage to Agatha. Fortunately, a few people, such as Barry Pike, Stephen
Leadbeater, Geoff Bradley and various contributors to Geoff’s superb
magazine CADS kept interest in the Golden Age alive. The Golden Age of Murder makes copious references, in end notes, to material from CADS for that reason. I’d also like to mention Doug Greene, whose Crippen & Landru press has been publishing, very attractively, a series of “Lost Classics” for years.
Things began to change within the past decade, largely thanks to the
internet, which makes so much information accessible to all, and in
particular to the blogosphere. I started blogging in 2007, and soon found
myself in contact with like-minded enthusiasts. I’d highlight Xavier
Lechard, whose blog At the Villa Rose, has always impressed me, but there
are plenty of others who have come on the scene year by year. New technology
also made a big difference as ebooks became popular, and printing minority
interest books on demand became viable. This has helped to make more of the
older books available at affordable prices, and a whole range of publishers,
small and large, have contributed to this process. Harper Collins has had
great success with its Detection Club reprints, and Bello’s list is
increasingly varied. Then the British Library’s Crime Classics really took
off – and this was a new twist in the tale, because suddenly mass market
paperbacks, not just ebooks, were selling in vast quantities. Over a quarter
of a million trade sales so far – a truly staggering figure.
Thank you, Martin. I should mention that Martin also writes a terrific blog about crime-fiction at the splendidly titled http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.co.uk.
Something that I didn’t expect when I started writing crime fiction was that other crime writers would be such good fun and so convivial. I’ve made some excellent friends and Martin Edwards is one of them. He knows a huge amount about Golden Age crime fiction – an interest we share – as well as being a terrific writer and it’s a pleasure to interview him for my blog. I began by asking to tell us something about his new novel, The Frozen Shroud.
This is a contemporary whodunit set in a remote part of the Lake District, a small community on the east side of Ullswater called Ravenbank. A hundred years ago, a horrific murder was committed there on Hallowe’en, and five years ago, a woman was killed, again on Hallowe’en, in a crime that had strange similarities to the earlier tragedy. Everyone thought the murdererwas dead – but now, again on Hallowe’en, a third woman becomes a murder victim. DCI Hannah Scarlett, of the Cold Case Review Team, is personally enmeshed in the latest tragedy, and the killing of someone close to her means she has more than one reason to solve the puzzle of the Frozen Shroud…
How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
I’ve been a partner in a law firm for thirty years, so time has always been
short, and I got into the habit of writing in the evening, sometimes into
the small hours (plus week-ends and holidays). A few weeks ago, I finally
took the step of becoming a part-time consultant, and I’m hoping that having
more time will give me more opportunities to write at more civilised times
of day. But whether the habit of writing in the evening will be easy to
break – or even whether it would be a good idea to break it – only time will
What comes first for you: theme, plot, characters, setting?
It can vary, especially with short stories. With my Lake District Mysteries,
though, I usually begin with an interesting motive for murder – an element
in someone’s psychological make-up which drives them to commit the ultimate
crime. So character is central – I know, from an early stage, who has killed
whom and why. The Lakes setting is a given in this series, of course, but I
do move the action around from one part of the area to another – Ambleside,
Coniston, Keswick and now (in the book I’m currently writing) Ravenglass.
There are themes in both the individual books and the series as a whole, but
these tend to be implicit.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
I’ve a long list of writing heroes, but an edited version would include
Joseph Heller, P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth
Gaskell. In the crime field, I’m a huge fan of Golden Age detective fiction,
most notably Christie, Sayers and Anthony Berkeley. Modern crime writers I
love include Ruth Rendell, the late Reginald Hill, Peter Lovesey and…well,
A favourite bookshop?
Several in the UK, of course, but if I have to pick one, it might just be
The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, a marvellous specialist crime
bookstore run by Barbara Peters and Rob Rosenwald, who also run the
excellent Poisoned Pen Press – which just happens to publish some of my
books in the US!
What are you writing now?
I’m working on two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. The novel is the
seventh Lake District Mystery (set in and around Ravenglass, as I mentioned
– a fascinating part of the world.) The other book is a history of Golden
Age detective fiction written between the wars; this one is a labour of love
that I’ve been working on for years.
You can find out more about Martin at his website, MartinEdwardsbooks.com, where you can also find his splendid blog: ‘DoYouWriteUnderYourOwnName.’
I’m surprised that I’d never heard of The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers (published 1945 and now available as e-book) until recently. What a novel! The author runs full tilt at the plot, pulling the reader along with him, and keeps going, the pace never slackening, until finally, finally, he skids to a halt at the end of the novel, leaving the reader breathless and astonished at the audacity of the conclusion. The first person narrator is Harry Riddle, a young surgeon, and the opening lines set the tone of the novel: ‘There is one thing that is most important, in all the dark mystery of tonight, and that is how that ugly little auburn-haired man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height . . . could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St. Erme.’ What is most worrying Riddle (aptly named!) is the puzzle of how ‘the murder car . . . could have passed by me while I was at the entrance to the Swamp Road just before twilight.’ The killer must have passed Riddle – all the eyewitness accounts confirm it – yet it didn’t. Or so Riddle thinks, for as the novel continues we suspect more and more than Riddle isn’t a reliable narrator. Could he even be the murderer?
The novel is like a piece of music in the way that it returns again and again to theme of the disappearing car, adding an extra element each time. The narrative moves back and forward in time, plot twists are thrown in with wild abandon, and yet somehow the writer keeps it all under control. In his excellent introduction, Martin Edwards comments on the ‘torrent of coincidences’ and that’s true, but it’s such bravura performance that one is swept unresistingly along, and I agree with his verdict that it is a stunning novel. It reminded me a little of Frederic Brown’s Night of the Jabberwock (also newly available as an ebook), but only a little. The Red Right Hand is one of a kind and I loved it.
Every now and then I grind to a halt. It doesn’t happen often. Maybe I’ve got a cold or maybe I am under the weather for some other reason. Or maybe I just look at the tottering pile that is my intray, I looked at my inbox stuffed with emails, I look at the overflowing laundry basket and I think ‘the hell with it.’ I try to have a suitable book in store for this contingency – or more than one book. So it was that I retired to bed earlier this week with Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding. Beeding was recommended to me by Martin Edwards, the go-to man for classic Golden Age crime fiction, and I’d been saving this book for when I needed a treat. The cat joined me and draped himself over my legs: he doesn’t understand reading, but he does understand snoozing and is always happy to have a companion.
Francis Beeding was really two writers so is a member of a select group of crime-writers that includes Emma Lathen and Ellery Queen. My copy of Death Walks in Eastrepps is published by Arcturus in their Crime Classics series and is an attractive edition. It was first published in 1931, but is surprisingly contemporary in its concerns – a serial killer, the power of the press to influence the course of a murder investigation, a crooked financier – I did guess the plot twist, but no matter. It was an interesting and unusual motive for murder. The blurb claims that ‘this thrilling page-turner was once pronounced one of the ten greatest detective stories of all time.’ That is pitching it a bit high, but it’s very readable and hadn’t dated. And it was a particular pleasure to read it from cover to cover in one sitting, something I don’t do often enough.