Wednesday 17 June 2015

The Golden Age of Murder

Review of The Golden Age of Murder (by blogger and detective story writer Martin Edwards)

I really enjoyed reading this book – such a change from books on the Golden Age of detective fiction that repeat the lazy clichés and slurs: “the thatched cottage and village green stereotype associated with Golden Age novels by people who seldom read them.” They are also accused of being snobbish and racist: “Social status still counted for a great deal. Dorothy Sayers made her detective an aristocrat, which has prompted accusations of snobbishness. This criticism, like so many made of Golden Age writers, is simplistic and unfair.” However, “the attempts of members of all political persuasions to render the dialogue of working class people phonetically make a modern reader cringe”. (“I shuddered every time a rustic came on the scene,” said PG Wodehouse of Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon.) But though, for instance, Sayers includes plenty about the horrors of the First World War, Golden Age “novels are often sneered at as ‘cosy’, and the claim that their characters were made from cardboard has become a lazy critical cliché”.

Edwards has researched the members and doings of the Detection Club, based in London in the 20th century between the wars. “Sometimes memories proved maddeningly vague or erroneously definite,” he says. And only a few scraps of documentation remain – much was lost in the Blitz, or hidden for safety in a cache now forgotten. He branches off, following the fascinating and sometimes scandalous lives of the members.

They were initiated in an awe-inspiring ceremony involving a skull whose eyes lit up, and had to swear never to write unfairly about untraceable poisons or Chinese gangs. (The full list is here.) They also had to forgo: “Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God.” I had no idea it was such a friendly club: they met for dinner in Soho several times a year. (Though I could have done with less chortling about the amount of alcohol consumed.) So Christie was friends with Sayers and Chesterton and...? It explains the in-jokes about each others’ books and detectives. (Odd to think of Chesterton writing Father Brown stories in the 30s – with their copper-haired women in peacock blue drapery, they belong to the 1900s.) I also had no idea the Clubbers took the ceremonial so seriously: “‘Excited torchbearers are apt to spill hot wax all over one while arguing about procedure’ before the initiation ritual”, related Sayers.

They also discussed their craft, which many of them had taken up as a means of making money. They seized on forms and themes that were currently popular. They also promoted their own and each others’ books, staying in the public eye with articles, competitions and “stunt” books where each chapter is written by a different author (no conferring). They all read reports of recent murder cases, and tried to solve cold cases. Many hints at these turn up in their books.

The Detection Clubbers loved “placing murders in worlds they knew”: Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise evokes the gossipy atmosphere of the advertising agency that reminded her of an Oxford student common room. Like her heroine Harriet Vane, she later found a way back to Oxford and the academic life. (Though Vane wonders if you can really go home again.) One critic called Vane “‘the least real of your characters. At times she is a rather common tom-boy”! Harriet goes on a walking tour alone, carrying a backpack and wearing shorts – could this be her crime? Sayers’ motives for not sleeping with her lover John Cournos strike us now as absurd: using a condom would have the “taint of the rubber shop”. The relationship, with marriage offered as a “bad-conduct prize”, turns up disguised in Strong Poison. She later had a child outside marriage, managing to conceal the birth from her advertising colleagues.

A lot of space is given to Anthony Berkeley Cox, remembered now mainly for his “back-to-front” mysteries like Before the Fact, written as Francis Iles (he also reviewed books under this name). A troubled (code for “alcoholic”) man with a doomed passion for a married woman (her identity is teasingly concealed until later chapters), he had what we, flattering ourselves, would call “forward-looking” political ideas: “He argued in favour of equal pay for women, a minimum wage, fairer rents and worker participation on company boards. He also forecast the creation of a League of European Nations.” And “he identified areas of unfairness towards women that should be put right: the power of a husband to disinherit a faithful wife; restrictions governing the employment of women; and unequal pay for equal work...”

Surely Chesterton must have been conservative, like the Catholic Church? But no: “In 1922, Chesterton published Eugenics and Other Evils (the title speaks for itself) in the face of a tide of contrary opinion. As the reality of Nazism became clear, ‘progressive’ backers of eugenics melted away, and Chesterton was vindicated.”

It was the era of the Depression – how much has changed? Men were finding they were too old at 40 to find another job; another character realises that he can never become a barrister without private means. “The medicine of job losses, means testing and higher income tax was harsh.” Agatha Christie has characters reduced to selling stockings, or poetry, door-to-door; and Edwards denigrates the “glib assumptions of critics who claim that social comment is absent from Golden Age detective novels”. He concludes: “The widespread consensus that Christie and company never questioned the status quo is wildly mistaken.”

Christie’s disappearance is still a genuine mystery. She staged what could have been a murder: her car was found beside a lake, containing her fur coat, handbag and passport. Detectives and crowds of amateur helpers searched the area without success. Meanwhile, she was hiding out in Harrogate, and later claimed to have lost her memory. Newspapers helpfully printed photographs of her “disguised” with spectacles, hats and different hairstyles. Later, her avatar Ariadne Oliver (Third Girl) puts her hair in a bun and dons horn-rims to stalk a young man around Swinging London. Yes, really. (I'm sure I've solved the mystery – read about it here. Update: Lucy Worsley's recent biography convinces me I was wrong. Agatha was devastated by her husband's infidelity, tried to make away with herself, and travelled to Harrogate in a fugue state. She checked into an expensive hotel, bought new clothes and lived it up for a couple of weeks, not knowing who she was. Her memory returned gradually.)

An excellent film, Agatha, was based on her disappearance. But did “Agatha” have electro-convulsive therapy for depression? Electro-therapy is involved in the movie plot, but I won’t spoil it for you. Christie’s brother, Monty, used to “shoot at people passing the family home in Torquay – a hobby Christie gave to a character, decades later, in her play The Unexpected Guest.” She also paints a vivid portrait of him in The Sittaford Mystery, as a damaged ex-army man living in a cottage on Dartmoor with an Indian servant. 

I was delighted to learn that Margery Allingham “once said that [her detective Mr Campion] gave up detection when he was crowned King George VI”, although of course we know he had a distinguished wartime career in the SOE, and continued to solve puzzles after the war for the government and others.

I have just started reading some of HC Bailey’s short stories, featuring podgy forensic pathologist Reggie Fortune. “Shrouded in a fog of literary mannerisms, Fortune moans, murmurs and mumbles along, sighing regularly and harping on so much about his ‘simple mind’ that he risks becoming tedious.” Fortune, like J.P. Marquand’s Mr Moto, also casually murders perpetrators if he thinks they may escape justice: “Even during the Twenties, a strong sense of evil had pervaded H. C. Bailey’s writing...” 

As with any kind of literature, it helps to set the work in context. I would have loved an analysis of fashionable ideas (“The Rushworths are all over glands!”) and outfits (“She was wearing one of the new collegiate hats”) as displayed in Golden Age mysteries. And ways of living: spiritualism, boarding houses, girls in "bachelor flats"... Detective stories give so much more social comment and history than straight novels, which are probably aiming to be “timeless classics”. Perhaps another book?

I can’t help pointing out a few flaws: the historian is Philip Guedalla, not Guedella. “She would have the fashionable coiffeur of the day” – that’s “coiffure”. Christie dug at Arpachiyah, not “Arpichiyah”. Frederick Bywaters and Edith Thompson discussed feeding her husband ground (powdered) glass in his food, not “shards of broken glass” – ground glass was thought to be poisonous. But these slips are minor. Edwards has lifted the lid off the Detection Club, revealing personalities, alliances and many sidelights on the work. What's more, he thoroughly trashes the lazy view of the "cosy mystery". It’s a wonderful read.

More mysteries here.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your review of this thoroughly enjoyable book....

  2. Thanks for this enjoyable review. I can't wait to have this book in my hands.

  3. I am only about 80 pages into the book, and you have whetted my desire to continue on. What I have read so far has been enlightening and entertaining.