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The Golden Age of Murder – Review

June 18, 2015

Golden AgeWho 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.


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