The Golden Age of Murder: Martin Edwards
Within the pages of this book the reader will enter a world that most will never read or learn about. What would you do if you were in the same room as Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers? An elite group of British Mystery writers that created in 1930 the Detection Club. Ronald Knox, Arthur Morrison, Margaret Cole and Anthony Berkeley to name a few were instrumental and played an important role in creating this club. G.K. Chesteron was the first president. Dorothy L. Sayers set the done, decided on the regular dinner meetings which were used to help authors work together on the technical features of their specific pieces. A strict code of ethics and an oath of allegiance were created in order to allow readers to try and figure out you might say in simple words: Who did it? Thirty-nine men and women that was unique and extraordinary. The first club’s president was G.K. Chesteron and is currently being looked at for canonization by the Pope. The writers in this club were young, smart and who pretended at first to write according to set or prescribed rules. Learning about how these masters wrote was interesting and what kept me reading on until the very last page. Detective stories allow readers the pleasure as the author states at a time when “they feared the future.” Looking at Wall Street, the depression the fall of the stock market and the economy, the Roaring Twenties, these stories offered writers a venue to express their ideas and create outstanding whodunit novels. An oath was administered before a candidate was inducted: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God? They have rules and in his introduction to an anthology of detective stories Ronald Knox expands. Although these were never meant to be more than guidelines the members adhered to them seriously.
Many of the members as you will learn had secrets that they wanted to remain hidden as did Dorothy L. Sayers. The author reveals what happened after her first novel was published and someone she referred to as the Beast who was married put her in a difficult situation. Without revealing his real name and learning more about him this person asked his wife to help him out of the situation he got himself into with Sayers. Arranging for Sayers to remain in their guesthouse and having the child she did not want anyone to know about, placing him with someone to care for him, solved her problem. Till the end of her life few knew about him and the child never knew she was his mother. Within the chapter titled Bitter Sin we also learn about the equal rights movement and its impact on women and writing. The chapter primarily focuses on Sayers her alliance with the Bensons working with them on different pieces and publishing Unnatural Death. Her character of Wimsey is quite popular and assisted by Miss Climpson and her uncover agency for single women. Earning money by writing short stories she drew on her own know-how for material. We also learn that Sayers was outstanding in marketing and the author shares the many ideas she used and shared with others when advertising her books.
A young woman is hanged and it left Anthony Berkeley appalled by her fate. The outcome showed that the British legal system was more fallible “than the general public fondly believed.” He loved hiding behind masks and one of his literary disguises, so successful that it caused a wild speculation in national press as well as in two novels by other writers. During this time period between World Wars British detective novels setting the standard for these types of novels really high. Many of these novels as the author relates were meant to be entertainment or even games where the reader and the author try to match wits or outwit each other. Readers were able to as even now to escape their natural worlds and find solace in trying to comprehend and deal with the social and political problems that seemed huge to the characters within these novels. Characters created by authors like Christie, Sayers and Berkeley and even Sherlock Holmes mysteries were not only entertaining and had great plots but the characters often resembled the authors and some even mirrored other writers.
The original members of the detection club included the following writers: G.K. Chesterton (first president), Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Miles Burton/John Rhode, Freeman Wills Croft, and Father Ronald Knox.
The book centers around Sayers and Christie. Christie as the author relates lived in her imagination and love writing stories and poems. Believe it or not she loved listening in on other people’s conversations and often wrote based on what she overheard. Meeting Lieutenant Archie Christie and falling in love with him would hopefully bring fulfillment to her life. Creating Hercule Poirot, my favorite detective, vain but brilliant was just the start of many more novels to come.
Christie, Sayers and Berkeley might have been conservative in outlook but they caused a “peculiar amnesia to afflict the Golden Age.” Douglas and Margaret Cole were the leading lights of the Left “ among Golden age novelists.” Douglas was considered the pillar of the Labour Reseach department, His wife joined after teaching classics at a girl’s school. In 1926 Christie lost a husband and Sayers found one and Berkeley was thinking about a change of wife. Christie was unique and often disappeared for long periods of time.
The mysteries of this club were not easy to unravel. Agatha Christie’s cryptic messages of words when she “inscribed Murder in Mesopotamia, with love from one who may have done crimes unsuspected not detected.” What did she mean. Was she confessing to something or was she paying back Katherine Wooley the wife of archaeologist Leonard Wooley for treating her poorly or as the author says poisonously after marry Max Mallowan. She followed and copied the writing of Berkeley by taking revenge through for the novel’s background. She wrote about real incidents and real people and model her characters after other writers and people that she knew. Some of the characters were people in her life such as Nurse Amy Leatheran might remind us of Christie herself, Max might be the friendly Daivd Emmot.
Within the writing of detective stories the author sates that writers need to temper their detective or sleuthing instincts with realism when “reading between the lines of the novel.” When we think back to Christie’s disappearance did she create what happened herself? Was it to publicize her books? Students by her were common. She might have appeared fearless on the surface but underneath wracked by guilt and shame and often judged herself much harsher than others did. The Detection Club, created a forum for these writers to create what they knew best and work together. Berkeley was one of the first critics to sing the praises of another of my favorite writers P.D. James. No writing is perfect and the writing of the detective fiction of this time period of Golden Age was flawed. People wrote the stories and it does not take Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes to find examples in books of sexism, racism, prejudice and faults. Even works by the Coles had writing and plot lines that many might find offensive. The members of this club had vices, which were readily shown and displayed in their writing, and sometimes their work fell short as a result. From popular commercial fiction, wanting to write to please the public and their demands the trend was more difficult. Sayers, Christie and Berkeley were different and the best books from the writers of this club did more than just give them hours of pleasure.
As you read the many chapters, delve into the lives both public and private of each of the writers you the reader will learn much about the craft and art of writing the Detective or mystery novel from those many of us consider True Masters. Whether you read Christie, Sayers, Coles, Len Deighton, John Le Carre, and Sherlock Holmes. Lee Child, Edward Powyrs Mathers, or want to know more about the child that Sayers did not acknowledge, why she was such a force, Christie’s failed marriage and the rise of her career one thing will never change: in the words of Christie herself: “Wars may come and wars may go, but MURDER goes on forever.”
Fran Lewis: Just Reviews