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The Golden Age of Murder

Posted on Jun 2, 2015 in Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder | 4 Comments

PrintOr, 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!

It’s got to stop!

9781910124048At 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.

Martin Edwards and The Golden Age of Murder

PrintOne 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
Excellent Intentions.

Name half a dozen golden age crime novels that you wish you had written
yourself.

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.