Some time ago, I wrote a post about how the writing of Megan Abbott and David Peace could be seen as ‘Ellrovian’. Both writers have expressed their admiration for the work of James Ellroy, but, as I was to discover while researching the piece, for every element of their writing which is recognisably Ellrovian there are other things which could be identified as a distinct break from Ellroy’s style; Abbott’s femme fatales seem to be a form of noir feminism, and Peace’s deeply embedded socialist views are profoundly different from Ellroy’s Tory Mysticism.
I’d like to expand this study of the Ellrovian influence on crime fiction by looking at two other contemporary writers whose work I admire – Craig McDonald and Stuart Neville. Firstly though, a disclaimer. I’m not trying to lumber these writers with the term Ellrovian. They’re both very good writers and you could look at their work in a hundred different ways. In this piece I’m just trying to pick out a few specific things. So if you like these writers, but you hate James Ellroy, look away now!
Craig McDonald has interviewed James Ellroy on multiple occasions and is very knowledgeable about his work. On the surface, McDonald’s novels featuring the grizzled, laconic novelist Hector Lassiter couldn’t be more different from Ellroy’s work. Despite an early fondness for confessional narratives, Ellroy has never had a character who is a novelist in his books. Although Ellroy’s work is neo-noir, McDonald is much more interested in art movements than genre. Even Ellroy’s fascination with German Romanticism seems coldly intellectual compared to Lassiter, who ‘writes what he lives and lives what he writes.’ But if you look at the second novel published in the Lassiter series, Toros & Torsos (2008), you can see a thematic debt to Ellroy. McDonald states the novel was ‘inspired by haunting concepts put forth by authors Steve Hodel, Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss.’ This goes back to Ellroy’s seventh novel The Black Dahlia (1987), which put him on the map as a crime writer. The unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short (aka the Black Dahlia) has been a lifelong obsession for Ellroy, evidenced in the fact that she reappeared as a character in his latest novel Perfidia (2014). Steve Hodel is the ex-LAPD detective and true crime writer whose theory that his father George Hill Hodel murdered Elizabeth Short captivated Ellroy (at least for a while). Hodel’s Black Dahlia Avenger (2003) is a fascinating read which draws a detailed picture of both LAPD corruption and the surrealist movement in the 1930s and 40s. His theory that the murder was connected to his father’s admiration for the work of surrealist artists oddly parallels Ellroy’s fictional solution in The Black Dahlia. And that’s one of the many incidental pleasures of Hodel’s book, no matter what you think of the theory that his father was the Dahlia killer (for my part I think he’s right; McDonald and Ellroy discuss some of the flaws of his research in an interview titled ‘James Ellroy: To Live and Die in LA’) you cannot help being drawn in by the seemingly endless ironies, coincidences and famous names that are connected to the case one way or the other. For a comprehensive picture of the ‘web of connections’ between George Hodel, surrealism, Hollywood and the Dahlia murder do read Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss’ Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (2006).
So, McDonald has taken this rather complex backstory as a malleable influence for Toros & Torsos. The novel begins in the Florida Keys in 1935. Lassiter is living a carefree, idyllic existence as a writer and enjoying a rivalry/friendship with fellow writer Ernest Hemingway who lives nearby. Lassiter can see both sides of Hemingway – the man and the myth. ‘Papa’ is both fiercely intelligent and temperamental, often irresistible yet frequently boorish. The reader is never quite sure whether they are seeing the real Hemingway or the mask he presents to the world. I couldn’t help but think of James Ellroy, Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, when I grappled with Hemingway’s character. Aside from the intriguing relationship between Lassiter and Hemingway, McDonald paints a vivid picture of the Keys. You can almost taste the conch chowder and feel sticky sweat form on your back in the tropical heat. Both setting and character are thrown into a flux by the Labor Day Hurricane. The devastation wrought by the hurricane leads to some memorably haunting images. Hemingway and Lassiter wade through the reefs passing the corpses of homeless veterans (who accounted for more than half of those killed in the natural disaster). Amidst this carnage, a grisly murder suggests that a killer may have been inspired by surrealist artwork. McDonald takes this gripping premise and then makes several ambitious leaps in setting. Just as I was being won over by the lush ambiance of the Keys, the setting jumps to Spain, which was then in the throes of Civil War. After that, it cuts to late 1940s Hollywood as Lassiter babysits Orson Welles during the shooting of The Lady from Shanghai. Then finally we’re in revolutionary Cuba in the late 1950s. To summarise the relevance of these setting within a few sentences is next to impossible but, in a sense, the plotting is not the most important element of this narrative. As Corey Wilde says at The Drowning Machine blog:
Well. Sometimes you can finish a book, have a lot of great things to say about it and at the same time feel completely inadequate to the task of articulating it all. That’s me. That’s this book. I’ve spent three days trying to write a coherent review that encompasses the scope, depth, style, and intrigue of this book. I can’t do it, I haven’t the skill or talent. Hell, I’m not even sure I’ve really got my head around the whole story yet. The scope of the book covers more than just a lot of time: Natural disaster, art, politics, espionage, friendship, betrayal, murder, vice, psychology.
I feel the same way as Wilde. I found the novel gripping, moving and thrilling, and yet I was still trying to get my head round several plot points for days afterwards. I’m not trying to say its incoherent, on the contrary, everything works. I wasn’t sure if the four different settings would hold together, but each is as carefully drawn as the other. And whether you are reading about the devastation of a hurricane or of wartime Spain, both settings feel intrinsically romantic. Here the novel became reminiscent of Ellroy’s LA, where the seduction of a locale lies in its darkness. As a writer, McDonald is very interested in the act of creating art. For Lassiter and Hemingway, words can come alive with entrancing, but also sinister possibility. The ‘exquisite corpse’ and ‘one true sentence’ games are consistently referred to until it becomes apparent that abstract concepts are being brought to life with terrifying results. Ellroy, by contrast, is more interested in the bureaucratic nature of words, as seen in the proliferation of articles, memorandum, transcripts and all manner of official documents that give his later novels the appearance of a massive, impenetrable archive. The novel almost counter-intuitively takes the flaws of an art form and turns it into something tangible and engrossing. You get a great sense of what it must have been like to be at the birth of surrealism, its zenith and subsequent decline. It’s hard to grasp now how often the proponents of aesthetic movements seem to think they have changed the world and all culture will have to imitate them for evermore. The arrogance is almost dripping off the page. Surrealism comes across as the punk rock of its day, a flame that burns brightly for a few seconds and is suddenly extinguished. If McDonald is satirising how critical appreciation for an art form can be misguided, then it is appropriate that much of the humour of the novel comes at the expense of a fictional critic – Quentin Windly. Lassiter and Hemingway love mentally, and sometimes physically, torturing Windly so much that I began to wonder if McDonald took these scenes a bit too far, especially as every reader is essentially a critic. His presence is not entirely superfluous, as he is a suspect in the murders, but his reappearance towards the end is so completely signposted that I didn’t think this justified his role as comic diversion. At the risk of sounding like the loathsome Windly himself, I thought this was the one false note of the book, or am I just having a sense of humour bypass? All in all though, whether you like the Ellroy connections or not I would highly recommend Toros and Torsos as a gripping and compulsive mystery, and one of the best novels I have come across to explore how an art movement is defined by its time and setting. But if the surrealists were to be believed, art defines its time and setting.
Stuart Neville and James Ellroy have one fairly unambiguous connection – they both share the same agent. Agents get a lot of stick: ‘He just takes ten per cent of your life’ as Chandler put it, but when you look at what literary agent Nat Sobel has done for the career of Neville and Ellroy, I start to ask myself if he’s still accepting clients. Stuart Neville was an aspiring but unknown writer when he had a short story accepted for ThugLit. On the basis of this short story, Sobel emailed Neville to ask him about a novel he was writing. That novel was The Twelve (2009), and it made Neville a star of the crime genre, helped in no small part by the fact that Sobel was representing him. This was the genesis of Neville’s career as a novelist, and one might say Sobel has an equally strong claim to kickstarting Ellroy’s career. In the early 1980s, Ellroy had published two novels but suddenly faced a series of rejections for his manuscript ‘L.A. Death Trip’. It was a meeting with Otto Penzler, and subsequently Nat Sobel, that put his writing caeer back on track (for a full breakdown of these events read my article ‘The Two Men Who Saved James Ellroy’s Career’).
In their writing, you can see many other connections between Neville and Ellroy. Neville sets his novels, with the exception of Ratlines (2013), in the complex world of post-Troubles Northern Ireland. If McDonald’s work reminds me allusively of Ellroy’s LA Quartet, then Neville’s is more akin to the Underworld USA trilogy. His portrayal of the six counties is of a land less violent since the Good Friday agreement but no less murky and corrupt. In Collusion (2010), for example, terrorists have reinvented themselves as politicians, but the less savvy have simply become gangsters. Loyalists, Republicans, and the Intelligence services all jostle for the most lucrative political positions, sometimes forming loose alliances but more often than not in competition with each other. This reminds me of the complex web of relationships Ellroy weaves between the FBI, CIA, organised crime and Cuban exiles in American Tabloid (1995). Neville is a native of the province, and while his portrayal of Northern Ireland is oddly affectionate and alluring, he understands that it is the one part of the United Kingdom that sometimes feels curiously foreign to people from the other home nations. Although, as Northern Ireland slowly becomes as secular as the rest of the UK it’s hard to believe now that the Troubles were, in part, a religious conflict. In one of his novels, I can’t remember if its The Twelve or Stolen Souls (2012), one former IRA member moans that Belfast and Dublin are becoming so multicultural that in a few years there will be no recognisably Irish Ireland for them to unite (I didn’t realise IRA members read the Daily Express).
Of course, there are distinct differences between Neville’s writing and Ellroy’s work. The Twelve revolves around the efforts of ex-IRA paramilitary Gerry Fegan to rid himself of the ghosts of the twelve people he killed, who haunt him everywhere he goes. Neville never lets the story stray too far from the psychological and into the paranormal, but with its ghostly theme, the novel reminded me more of the work of James Lee Burke than Ellroy. So, like Craig McDonald, Stuart Neville embraces many influences as a crime writer and to spot the Ellrovian themes and connections is just one of the many pleasures of reading his novels. Perhaps the irrefutable proof that McDonald and Neville are true Ellrovians is that they are both admirers (as am I) of Ellroy’s controversial and critically divisive The Cold Six Thousand (2001). Neville mentions liking the novel in this interview, and McDonald discusses the novel with Ellroy in the aforementioned ‘To Live and Die in LA’ interview. Also, on twitter Craig McDonald breaks the news that Ellroy’s next novel will be titled This Storm.
I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan, and I’m still with giddy with excitement after visiting such a remarkable and wondrous place. But as this is a crime fiction blog, I will not ramble on like an enthused tourist, but instead cut straight to my book review. I had to admit to our Japanese hosts that although I’ve read crime fiction from many different countries I was still woefully behind when it came to Japanese practitioners of the genre. They recommended Keigo Higashino’s Malice, and as I’d heard great things about Higashino’s smash hit The Devotion of Suspect X, I was happy read it in a single sitting on the long flight home.
When a critically acclaimed author, Kunihiko Hidaka, is found dead in his office Detective Kyochiro Kaga realises he has a locked room mystery on his hands. This is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit. The killer soon confesses but that confession is tainted by lies and distortions. Kaga has to distinguish between fact and fiction in the life and death of the author Hidaka. Was fellow author and discoverer of Hidaka’s corpse really a friend or rival to the victim? How much did Hidaka’s beautiful widow really know about her husband? There is even a detail Kaga grapples with, which I thought was a red herring but connects eventually, about Hidaka incurring the wrath of his neighbour after poisoning her cat. With Malice, the title refers not so much to the crime but the rivalry between the two writers. The novel is structured as a series of character perspectives of events immediately prior to and after the death of Hidaka, although as the novel progresses, the reminiscences stretch back years. With each perspective, falsehoods, hidden details and repressed feelings emerge from what has been explained before. Some memory is relayed verbally. At other points it is given as written text. The implicated writer Nonoguchi seems relieved that he can recount his involvement through the written word:
Detective Kaga has given me special permission to complete the following account before I leave the room I currently occupy. Why I asked to be allowed to do so is, I’m sure, incomprehensible to him. I doubt he’d understand even if I told him that it was a writer’s basic instinct to want to finish a piece he’d started, even if it was begun under false pretences.
Yet I believe that my experiences over the past hour or so are worthy of recording. This, too, I credit to writer’s instinct – though what I write is the story of my ruination.
Higashino is a writer fascinated by the act of writing and a writer’s psyche. But this is not an indulgent exercise in navel-gazing, as there is a both a clever and gripping layering of meta-fictional storytelling in the text. The interlinking of the two writers work (who wrote what and why?) is complemented by themes such as the stories the writers are telling and living off the page. The importance, if any, of writing that goes unread and unpublished, and the nature of authorship over manuscripts that have been rewritten, revised, reedited, copied and for that matter plagiarized. All of these issues are seamlessly interwoven into the many satisfying twists and turns of the narrative. Higashino has clearly had a lot of fun with this mystery puzzle-cum-thesis on the writer’s craft, and by the time you get to the last page, rather like the punchlines that used to end Elmore Leonard’s novels, you’ll realise the joke’s on you.
If there’s a flaw, I’d have to say it is the interaction between the characters being occasionally stilted and awkward. I wouldn’t necessarily say this was Higashino’s fault; despite having two translators, I suspect something has been lost in the text in the transition from Japanese to English. The characters often come across as very clever people giving speeches to one another, or as Jane Jakemen put it the novel reads like ‘a study of intellectuals doing their very nasty damnedest.’ Although this is sometimes grating, it never overwhelms the enjoyment of the story. Higashino has crafted a fascinating, meticulously plotted mystery novel, and I’m looking forward to discovering his other work and the work of more Japanese crime writers.
I have written an essay in a new anthology of critical work on crime fiction (published this month). Serial Crime Fiction: Dying for More is edited by Jean Anderson, Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti and features essays on authors including Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Sara Paretsky, David Peace, James Ellroy, Maurice Leblanc, Lisa Marklund, Andrea Camilleri and Jorge Luis Borges. My piece is titled ‘The Structure of the Whole: James Ellroy’s LA Quartet Series’.
It was a pleasure to work on this book, and I’m sure it will have great appeal to the student, scholar or fan of crime fiction. You can find out more about the book on Palgrave’s website. Here’s the full table of contents:
PART I: THE SUM OF ITS PARTS: WHAT MAKES A SERIES?
2. Stephen Burroughs, Serial Offender; Jon Blandford
3. The Myth of the Gentleman Burglar: Models of Serialization and Temporality in Early Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction; Federico Pagello
4. ‘More than the Sum of its Parts: Borges, Bioy Casares and the Phenomenon of the Séptimo Círculo Collection’; Carolina Miranda
5. Serializing Sullivan: Vian/Sullivan, the Série noire, and the effet de collection; Clara Sitbon, Marie-Laure Vuaille-Barcan and Alistair Rolls
6. Armed and Dangerous: Le Poulpe and the Formalization of French Noir; Pim Higginson
7. Acts of Violence: The World War II Veteran Private-Eye Movie as an Ideological Crime Series; Nick Heffernan
8. The Structure of the Whole: James Ellroy’s LA Quartet Series; Steven Powell
PART II: AS TIME GOES BY: PROGRESSING THE SERIES
9. The Maturity of Lord Peter Wimsey and Authorial Innovation Within a Series; Brittain Bright
10. Series Fiction and the Challenge of Ideology: the Feminism of Sara Paretsky; Sabine Vanacker
11. From Conflicted Mother to Lone Avenger: Transformations of the Woman Journalist Detective in Liza Marklund’s Crime Series; Kerstin Bergman
12. It’s All One Book. It’s All One World: George Pelecanos’s Washington DC; Eduardo Obradó
13. Serializing Evil: David Peace and the Formulæ of Crime Fiction; Nicoletta Vallorani
14. The Flavour of the Street: The Factory Series by Derek Raymond; Anna Pasolini
15. Andrea Camilleri’s Imaginary Vigàta, Between Formula and Innovation; Barbara Pezzotti
PART III: TRANPOSITION, IMITATION, INNOVATION
16. Sherlock Holmes in Hollywood: Film Series, Genre and Masculinities; Maysaa Jaber
17. Murder, Mayhem and Clever Branding: the Stunning Success of J.B. Fletcher; Rachel Franks and Donna Lee Brien
18. From flâneur to traceur?: Léo Malet and Cara Black Construct the PI’s Paris; Jean Anderson
19. The City Lives in Me: Connectivity and Embeddedness in Australia’s Peter Temple and Shane Maloney; Carolyn Beasley
20. ‘She’s pretty hardboiled, huh?’ Rewriting the Classic Detective in Veronica Mars; Taryn Norman
21. ‘Exspecta Inexspectata’: The Rise of the Supernatural in Hybrid; Detective Series for Young Readers; Lucy Andrew
The Venetian Vase celebrated its sixth birthday recently. In those six years, I’d say about 40 to 50% of the posts have been about James Ellroy. Of course I enjoy blogging about other forms of crime or genre fiction, from the James Bond films to Scandinavian crime fiction and even niche subjects like Eurosceptic and anti-Establishment fiction. However, I have been researching Ellroy’s life and work for years. He’s the subject of my PhD, and I have edited one book and written another on the author, so I was able in that time to keep this blog updated with elements of my ongoing research on Ellroy. Therefore, I’ve decided to create a new archival page on this blog featuring all of my substantial posts on Ellroy. You’ll find the new James Ellroy page at the top of this website next to the Books, About and Contact pages or simply follow this link.
My new book James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their Crime Files Series. I’ll be blogging a lot about the book nearer its October 21 release date. Meanwhile, you can find information on the book and pre-order a copy from Palgrave’s website or Amazon.
The ‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’ conference was held at the University of Liverpool, 2 July 2015. My wife and I organised the conference, and it was a wonderful experience to meet academics, students and Ellroy enthusiasts from Brazil, Germany, Australia, Spain and of course the United Kingdom. Thank you to everyone who came and shared their research on the Demon Dog. We were also honoured to welcome two wonderful guest speakers: Martin Edwards and Woody Haut. You can read Woody’s talk here.
Martin Edwards discussed his new book The Golden Age of Murder:
A speaker gives a talk on power relations in the Underworld USA trilogy:
A delegate brought along a Portugese translation of The Black Dahlia which featured strikingly sinister artwork:
And here’s some of the artwork which features at the beginning of every chapter:
Thanks again to everyone who attended and made the conference a wonderful event.
The 1960 Los Angeles setting of Woody Haut’s Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime is a pivotal year in American history: Power shifted from the Republicans to the Democrats as the Presidency was passed from Eisenhower to Kennedy. Social conservatism was swept away by sexual liberation and the Civil Rights movement, and the Blues sound pioneered by artists such as Muddy Waters, Skip James and Son House was adapted into the commercially successfully rock and pop style of, among others, British Invasion bands.
One man well placed to observe this history in the making is Abe Howard. A brilliant, unscrupulous freelance news reporter, Howard has built a reputation on his knack for getting the best images at crime scenes. Known by his colleagues, including the legendary Weegee, as ‘Abe on the spot’, Abe took photos of the bloodied corpses at the St Valentine’s Day massacre and opened the eyes of John Dillinger’s lifeless body outside the Biograph cinema in order to get the most striking image possible. But if Abe’s work has brought him close to the thrill of violence, it has also worn him down and made him a middle-aged cynic: ‘Fourteen years he’d been in Los Angeles, and he had nothing to show for it other than a bunch of negatives and some nightmarish images.’ The brutal murder of a young black jazz musician, Jimmy Estes, sparks a chain of events that will test Abe’s ability to endure this noir world. The photos he takes at the crime scene lead Abe to incur the wrath of LA Mob kingpin Mickey Cohen. Abe also tempts fate when he starts an affair with a woman potentially connected to the case, a blonde, alluring enough, in Raymond Chandler’s words, ‘to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window’. But will his infidelity come at the loss of his wife and kids?
Haut is a renowned critic of crime fiction and film noir, and the reader will be aware of another, more metafictional pivotal moment in the 1960 setting as noir transitioned from what some critics deem to be classic or ‘legitimate’ noir period from 1941 to the late 1950s to the more self-conscious, colourful neo-noirs of 1960 onwards. Haut chose this setting ‘Not as nostalgia for a world gone by, but as the story of the city at a particular time and place, when, as someone once said, the old world was dying and the new had yet to be born.’ Haut deftly steers the narrative through the birth of this new world by essentially merging crime fiction styles. Abe’s lover Kim bears a striking, almost sinister resemblance to Lana Turner, and the LA lore sub-plot behind Turner, her daughter Cheryl Crane and the killing of Johnny Stompanato was reminiscent of a classic noir age when gangsters thought of themselves as movie stars and a thin line separated Hollywood and organised crime. In contrast, the late introduction of two bickering hit men reminded me of a contemporary practitioner of the genre.
We tend see what we want to see in some stories, and there were many plot details and stylistic flourishes I thought could be influenced by or references to James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. The clipped, hardboiled prose at times felt particularly Ellrovian. This is not a limitation on the novel, however, far from it. Haut’s noir prose and dialogue bring the narrative to life so that the more you read, the more the thought of external influences are swept away by what Emory Holmes II describes as Haut’s ‘horizontal poetry’:
A fresh-faced actress snorting cocaine with her underage girlfriend in the back of a limousine. Snap. An ageing, but tearful, starlet in flagrante delicto with a sixteen year old boy. Snap. An up-and-coming young actor fucking that very same boy in the actor’s souped-up, cherry-red ‘53, accompanied on the car radio by the latest Chuck Berry song. “Oh shit, here comes trouble,” Mitchum would say when he saw Abe.
Indeed, Abe’s photographs are in themselves a form of poetry, telling a story both factually and aesthetically through the visual image. Some of the most pleasurable moments in the novel come through the banter and petty rivalry that exists between a group of 78 RPM Blues record collectors. For these quirky outsiders, the Blues sound is the highest form of poetry and the gramophone is to them what the camera is to Abe, but they too find that the murder of Jimmy Estes means they can no longer pursue their interests with objective distance. As Abe is plunged deeper and deeper into the repercussions of the Estes murder, the story comes to a gripping climax. Haut has crafted a seminal crime novel in Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime, referencing both the history of noir and taking it into new territory. Highly recommended.
Who would be your ideal guest at dinner party? It’s a question often posed (although never I assume at dinner parties), to discern something of the speaker’s interests. I’ve never quite known how to answer that question, but after reading Martin Edwards The Golden Age of Murder, I’ve decided that rather than invite a famous person to dinner in an ideal world, I would invite myself to one of the Detection Club dinners in the 1930s or 1940s. Over crème brûlée and cognac I could eavesdrop on John Dickson Carr discuss his masterwork The Hollow Man (1935) before he segued into a rant about the socialist policies of the Attlee Government or G.K. Chesterton debate the wording of the Club’s initiation oath in between discussions of ecclesiastical matters. Like the plot of many a classic mystery, Edwards has used a deceptively simple setting and starting point, a dining society, to examine ‘The mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story’. It’s cast of characters include Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Croft and Edmund Crispin to name but a few of the writers who produced their best work in the period John Strachey dubbed ‘The Golden Age of Detection Fiction’.
Martin Edwards is the bestselling author of the Harry Devlin novels and Lake District Mysteries and also happens to be the Detection Club’s archivist, a position which made him the ideal candidate to write The Golden Age of Murder. Edwards brings his skill as a novelist to approach the history of the Golden Age as a mystery that needs to be solved. What made these writers tick? Why did some authors walk away from the genre while others dedicated their lives to mysteries? And what about the cases they discussed over the boozy Detection Club lunches at the Dorchester and pondered over long into the night in their studies? One of Edwards aims with this history is to elevate the Golden Age above the lazy criticism which has dismissed the genre as cozy, predictable and without literary merit. On the last point, Edwards gives details of many literary figures, P.G. Wodehouse, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Cecil Day Lewis, who either admired or produced works of detective fiction. As an Americanist, I was reminded of Raymond Chandler’s famous quote on Dashiell Hammett, which gives this blog its name:
Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. […] Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.
Chandler’s words have a generous dose of ironic humour, but his basic idea carries great weight in critical circles – that hardboiled realism replaced the flippant style of the Golden Age. Edwards seeks to debunk this myth in part by looking at the true crime cases which inspired Golden Age writers. It is easy to see how past generations were in turn fascinated and repulsed by murder just as much as they are today even though twenty-four hour media means we are often saturated by graphic images. Doctor Crippen’s poisoning of his wife Cora, and the events leading to the execution of Herbert Rowse Armstrong (the only solicitor to be hanged in the UK), inspired Anthony Berkeley to write Malice Aforethought (1931). The novel was an early example of the ‘inverted detective story’, and it also gave Berkeley a platform to express his sympathy for Crippen, the wronged adulterer trapped in a marriage to a woman who ‘deserved murdering’. It was in both the criminal cases and the characters of Crippen and Armstrong which inspired stories radical in their exploration of forensic science and psychological profiles. There are many cases referenced in The Golden Age of Murder — one that had me hooked in particular was the murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell, the original ‘real-life locked room mystery’, which inspired S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case (1926).
The constant talk of murder is alleviated, or perhaps should I say enhanced, by Edwards dry wit. He compares Dorothy L Sayers obstinacy towards rewrites, ‘No, no! I will not alter a word…’, to Margaret Thatcher’s famous triple no, and his description of R. Austin Freeman’s character of Romney Pringle is priceless: ‘Pringle is a villain who masquerades as a ‘literary agent’ – a concept which might strike a chord with some writers.’
Are there any flaws? I can’t think of any obvious ones, but Edwards does mention the natural limitations of historical research in the acknowledgements of the book:
I met, spoke to or corresponded with members of the families of several early members of the Detection Club. Understandably, memories of events dating back more than half a century were often hazy, but their reminiscences gave me a fuller understanding of the past. Once or twice, I felt there was a danger of intruding on private unhappiness; the legitimate public interest in such things has its limits, and I have striven to reflect that in writing this book.
But in drawing attention to how we will never have a complete knowledge of the era, Edwards achievement seems all the more remarkable. He sheds new light on Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance and Dorothy L. Sayers lifelong guilt over her illegitimate child. There are other revelations which I won’t mention here as I don’t want to give the game away, but Mark Lawson’s incisive review of the book for the Guardian accurately conveys how Edwards employs the detective story as a form of historical technique:
He [Edwards] succeeds by adopting the tease-and-reveal structure of a mystery story. The opening chapter notes that two leading golden age authors, unable to leave their marriages, conducted a love affair hinted at in coded notes and clues in their books. But the identity of the couple is withheld for 400 pages until a coda which attaches a new significance to their plots involving the horrible deaths of spouses.
Even the endnotes are crammed with so many fascinating tidbits that if you blink you’ll miss things. I didn’t know, for instance, that as a young man Len Deighton once served Agatha Christie champagne when he was working as a BOAC flight attendant. He reminded her of the incident years later when he was admitted to the Detection Club. Furthermore, I was constantly scribbling down titles of works Edwards claims are unjustly forgotten but could now, with this book and renewed interest in the genre, see new life. Titles I made note of for future reading included Israel Rank (1907), A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934) and a parody of hardboiled crime fiction ‘The Policeman Only Taps Once’. All in all, The Golden Age of Murder is an important and absorbing history which reminds us, like the episodes of Poirot and Sherlock which draw in massive audiences, that the enduring popularity of Golden Age detective fiction transcends the critical snobbery which has accompanied it.