The Golden Age of Murder Paperback – 9 Feb 2017
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‘Few, if any, books about crime fiction have provided so much information and insight so enthusiastically and, for the reader, so enjoyably’ THE TIMES
‘Illuminating and entertaining – provides a new way of looking at old favourites. I admire the way that Martin Edwards weaves the sometimes violent, sometimes unlawful, and always gripping true stories of these writers with the equally wild tales they tell in their books.’ LEN DEIGHTON, author of SS-GB
‘Forensically sharp and exhaustively informed… Crime fiction is driven by death. In this superbly compendious and entertaining book, Edwards ensures that dozens of authorial corpses are gloriously reborn.’ MARK LAWSON, GUARDIAN
‘Edwards knows his business. He understands how to parcel out the clues and red herrings so as to feed the reader enough information to keep a variety of possibilities open, while making sure to prepare for a satisfying solution.’ SEATTLE POST
‘You can learn far more about the social mores of the age in which a mystery is written than you can from more pretentious literature. I mean, if you want to know what it was like to live in England in the 1920s, the so-called Golden Age, you can get a much better steer from mysteries than you can from prize-winning novels.’ P. D. JAMES
About the Author
Martin Edwards has published eighteen crime novels, including series set in Liverpool and the Lake District. He has won the CWA Short Story Dagger and CWA Margery Allingham Prize, and his latest book, The Golden Age of Murder, won the Edgar, Agatha, Macavity and H.R.F.Keating awards. Martin is consultant for the British Library's Classic Crime series, as well as Chair of the CWA and President of the Detection Club. He has edited 30 anthologies, published about 60 short stories, and written seven other non-fiction books.
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The book sets the origins of the club firmly in the period between the two World Wars and examines the cultural and historical background of the times. Many critics of Golden Age crime fiction, both contemporary and modern, refer to the way the books do not dwell on misery or violence. But this book makes clear that the reading public wanted escapism having had a surfeit of violence during World War I. The Golden Age authors knew what their public wanted and strove to provide it.
The authors were also writing under the constraints of the times in which they lived where explicit sex in novels was just not allowed and graphic violence was almost equally taboo. In fact the seeds of modern psychological crime novels were sown at this time and later authors have used similar plots in modern novels of suspense.
I found it interesting to read how authors were influenced by the real crimes both of their era and earlier periods and how they were often incredibly knowledgeable about true crime as well. I had heard of many of the authors discussed in the text and will be reading more of their work in the near future.
I thought it was interesting that many of the authors mentioned in this book seem to have had problems with income tax at one time or another. Having recently read two biographies of Georgette Heyer, who encountered similar problems, this seems to be a common theme with authors of the period.
If you want to know more about the Golden Age authors, or even if you just enjoy reading their books you will find this book of absorbing interest. Be warned, it could seriously damage your bank balance as you will come across many authors whose books you just must read! There is a bibliography and an index included in the book as well and an appendix showing the rules and constitution of the Detection Club.
Although the Club was largely social in nature, Edwards sets out to show how the interactions of its members helped to define the style and direction of detective fiction in these early years. He suggests that in fact the existence of the club may be part of the reason that the Golden Age style of detective fiction lasted longer in Britain than elsewhere. Membership was by election only, so that existing members decided which writers could get in, and, as a result, exerted considerable control over which types of book were highly regarded within the community. Over the years several of the original members had a go at defining the “rules” of detective fiction, usually half-jokingly, but clearly indicating their own opinion of what fell within the definition.
The book is clearly very well researched – not an easy task since apparently many of the records of the Club were lost during the years of WW2. It's written in what I've come to see as Edwards' usual style for non-fiction – conversational, feeling as if one were having a discussion with a knowledgeable friend – and is therefore easy and enjoyable to read. It covers a lot of the same ground that he covers in his introductions to the various British Library Crime Classics and in his most recent The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels. By their nature, those other books force a structure on the way he gives information. In contrast, this one struck me as much looser in structure, often going off at tangents – one chapter, for example, starts with Agatha Christie meeting her second husband, then goes on to talk about séances in various writers’ work, then ends up with a discussion on the Depression and the formation of the National Government! Personally, I enjoyed the structured style of The Story of Classic Crime more, but I think this is very much down to reader preference.
Where this book differs is by going much more deeply into the personal lives of the various authors who were members of the Club during the Golden Age – Sayers, Christie, Berkeley, the Coles, et al. I've said this before, but I'm not keen on knowing a lot about the authors whose books I enjoy since, if I end up not liking them on a personal basis, it can affect my enjoyment of their books. There were undoubtedly aspects of this that I found verged on the intrusive – tales of secret love affairs, unacknowledged illegitimate children, etc. But for the most part, Edwards is warm and affectionate towards his subjects, so there’s no feeling of a hatchet job being done on any of them. Edwards also shows how these hidden episodes of their lives may have influenced their writing, which I suppose is a justification for revealing things they tried hard to keep private while they were alive. (Do I sound somewhat disapprovingly judgemental there? I tried hard not to, but I think I failed…)
To a degree, the book follows a linear timeline although with a lot of digressions. Edwards talks informatively about how detective fiction was influenced by current events, such as the Depression of the '30s, or the rise of the various dictatorships in the pre-WW2 years. He also discusses and rather dismisses the idea that Golden Age crime fiction was culturally snobbish – I disagree – but suggests that it was often intellectually snobbish – I agree. I do find that just occasionally Edwards comes over as somewhat dogmatic in his opinions – he has a tendency to dismiss anyone who holds a different point of view. He also clearly has favourites amongst the authors – Sayers is mentioned more often than everyone else put together, I suspect! But that all adds to the personal, conversational feel of the book.
Overall, then, an enjoyable and informative read, maybe more geared towards people who enjoy personal biographies of their favourite authors, but with plenty of stuff about the history of the crime novel for the rest of us. And because there's quite a lot of crossover between this and The Story of Classic Crime, they could easily be read either as companion pieces, or the reader could select the style that would most suit – more biographical about the authors in this one, more concentration on the books in the other.