A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It is relatively seldom that I pay money for a new hardback, unless it’s a gift for someone – but with Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, I decided that the gift could be from me, to me. It’s almost 500 pages all about detective novels from the 1920s and ’30s – what could be more blissful?
More precisely, it about the members of the Detection Club: detective fiction writers who agreed to a set of standards, and had to be nominated and accepted by existing members of the club. Activities were generally formal dinners and occasional co-written novels, but the honour of belonging was perhaps the most important aspect. You’ll know a couple of the major names, who are also major figures in Edwards’ book: Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie. Edwards paints believable portraits of complex women, both haunted by decisions in their lives. Sayers’ was her illegitimate child, whom she longed for years to adopt; Christie’s was the period where, famously, she went missing in the wake of her first husband’s infidelity.
Edwards devotes early chapters to detailing these events – and those concerning the unknown-to-me Anthony Berkeley, who may or may not have had an affair with E.M. Delafield, of all people. It feels like a curious place to start the book. Though these chapters provide essential pointers for contextualising the motivations of these authors (as Edwards understands them) throughout the rest of the book, I do think it would have been made more sense to start with the creation of the Detection Club and take things from there: that’s definitely where the interest lies for me.
Edwards did have a nightmare task ahead of him, in terms of finding a coherent structure for a study so vast. Plenty of authors are mentioned who weren’t club members – indeed, it feels as though Edwards has read every detective novel written through these decades. And, it has to be said, the structure never really turns into anything rigid. I couldn’t work out quite why certain books were grouped in chapter, or exactly what the chronology was – but it simply didn’t matter. It was like diving into a higgledy-piggledy pile of tattered old hardbacks in the corner of a secondhand bookshop, and getting to delve through them.
Having set himself an impossible task, Edwards makes it even harder for himself by deciding not to give spoilers. I am heartily grateful to him; too many books about Agatha Christie (for instance) give away everything. This falters a bit when he compares the endings or techniques of various novels – if you know one, you’ll learn the others, as I discovered when he identified two novels which had used the plot of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But mostly it is handled brilliantly – and it makes me want to read a million new-to-me detective novels and novelists.
Almost nobody in the world could have written this book. The research is a lifetime in the making. Edwards wears his expertise lightly, but whether he is identifying novels which interact with Scotland Yard, those which incorporate faith, those which include serial killers, or whichever categories are in question, he clearly knows pretty much everything there is to know. I like it best when he is also evaluative, dividing the best detective writers from those on a lower plane (in the same way that Detection Club members did themselves). For instance, it is reassuring to find that Nancy Spain wasn’t considered among the top detective novelists, after I struggled to admire Cinderella Goes to the Morgue as much as I’d hoped; even better, Edwards shares me thoughts about the flimsiness of the detection plot in Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night.
On the other hand, more importantly, he recommends so many novelists I’ve never heard of. Often he highly praised ground-breaking or innovative novels that, Amazon tells me, are forbiddingly expensive – but one can always keep an eye out, and I certainly feel a hundredfold more informed about the period than I was before. A handy index of titles will be my constant companion, I feel sure. It certainly demonstrates that the decades were far more than the reserve of Christie, Sayers, and Marsh – which I suppose I knew, but with the haziest of outlines. (I also love how long A.A. Milne was apparently a member of the Detection Club, on the strength of one novel written almost a decade before the Club came into existence.)
If a rigid structure for this wide-ranging genre proves impossible, so too is it difficult to summarise what The Golden Age of Murder achieves. The rise, fall, and in-fighting of the Detection Club makes for fascinating reading, while the overview of Golden Age detective novels is something special. Bringing them together makes for such an invaluable resource that my overriding response to the book is gratitude that somebody as knowledgeable, capable, and personable as Edwards was the man to write it. You’ll end up with the longest tbr list imaginable, but I still strongly recommend this to anybody with an interest in the interwar period, detection novels, or the curious dynamics that arise between people who set themselves up as bastions of a genre. A real delight.
Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London, HarperCollins, 2015), 978-0008105969, hardcover
Simon blogs at StuckinaBook.com.