The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Julia Jones
Reviewed by Julia Jones
Summary: Essential for lovers of the classic detective story and enjoyable for anyone else.
Buy? yes Borrow? yes
Pages: 528 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Harper Collins
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780008105969

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Martin Edwards has had such a good idea for this book. He takes the foundation of the Detection Club in the late 1920s and follows through into the postwar period, ending his account sometime in the mid-1950s, perhaps with the death of Dorothy L Sayers in 1957. I may sound tentative here because there is no entirely precise end date. The Detection Club itself still lives on, hosting three dinners a year for elected members. Edwards is its current archivist – yet there are no archives, unless you count the hundreds of books produced by its members, which of course he does. And he also explores their lives.

What I particularly admire about this book is the way Edwards shows why the founders of the Detection Club might have needed the comradeship and understanding it supplied. Anthony Berkeley (who also wrote as Francis Iles) was the initial host, inviting fellow authors to dinners in his London home. From the beginning it seems that these were more than casual social get-togethers. Author (and founder-member) John Rhode recalled Berkeley suggesting that they should meet 'for the purpose of discussing matters connected with their craft'. That may sound somewhat technical but Edwards shows, without patronage, how, in some cases at least, the Club was able to assuage deep personal loneliness and psychological trouble.

Anthony Berkeley himself was clearly a troubled and difficult personality though obviously also exuding charm, charisma and talent – in the early days at least. As the book progresses Edwards follows Berkeley as his quarrelsomeness and misogyny developed and his literary achievement declined. Even in the early stages it seems likely that one of the advantages for Berkeley of developing the Detection Club beyond home-based dinner parties into a more formal organisation renting a Soho meeting room might have included getting away from his then-wife. Edwards points out that two other key founder members, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, were also suffering turmoil in their private lives.

The Golden Age of Murder follows these writers and others such as G K Chesterton (the Club's first President), GDH and Margaret Cole, Freeman Wills Croft, E.C. Bentley, Ronald Knox through the 1930s and into the Second World War. He blends biographical fact with clues in novels as well as the interactions around Club business to produce a unique and highly readable book which functions as an account of the genre as well as tracing the development of its practitioners. There's a liveliness to the writing and a talent for pen-portraiture which ensured that the Golden Age of Murder continued to entertain me even when the subjects were forgotten writers whose books I have never read.

Perhaps it's shaming to admit this? One of the awe-inspiring features of true Golden Age aficionados is the depth and detail of their knowledge. Nevertheless I believe that there is sufficient original research in this book to satisfy even the most expert – Edwards's portrait of the almost-forgotten writer R.C. Woodthorpe, for example. I found myself left with several lively and attractive novelists in my mind whose books I might certainly choose to seek out – Henry Ward, Milward Kennedy, Helen Simpson – ? It's fortunate that Edwards is currently engaged in editing a Classic Crime series for the British Library which will give some guarantee of quality among the astonishing quantity of detective novels published to respond to the interwar taste for puzzle, playfulness and darker thrills.

Members of the Detection Club managed some impressive feats of collaboration including the investigation of true as well as fictional crime. This is a book full of anecdote as well as erudition with colourful chapter titles such as 'A Bolshevik Soul in a Fabian Muzzle', 'Wistful Plans for Killing Off Wives' and 'Frank to the Point of Indecency'. Naturally I regret that it peters out after the Second World War when the 'Brethren' reassembled looking old and grey, because this means ignoring the achievements of a writer like Margery Allingham who developed her writing so spectacularly in the new conditions. However this leaves plenty for material for Edwards to work on in future volumes. As he quotes Agatha Christie writing in 1940 Wars may come and wars may go but MURDER goes on for ever!

Readers will be spoiled for choice following up a book like this. I'd like to have plunged my hand into the Bookbag and pulled out some of Martin Edwards own novels but instead I found Margery Allingham's Coroner's Pidgin, not one of her greatest novels but written immediately post-war and therefore interesting as it begins to show the transition from 1930s style to the bleaker period.

But if you want authors at the top of their game you could compare Edwards's recommendations with HRF Keating's selection.

Editor's Note: We can also recommend Julia's own book Fifty Years In The Fiction Factory: The Working Life Of Herbert Allingham which would serve as an excellent prequel to The Golden Age of Murder.

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