The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Title: The Golden Age of Murder
Author: Martin Edwards
Pages: 529
Date of Publication: May 7, 2015

Summary: A real-life detective story, investigating how Agatha Christie and colleagues in a mysterious literary club transformed crime fiction, writing books casting new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets. Now an Edgar Award Nominee!

This is the first book about the Detection Club, the world’s most famous and most mysterious social network of crime writers. Drawing on years of in-depth research, it reveals the astonishing story of how members such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers reinvented detective fiction.

Detective stories from the so-called “Golden Age” between the wars are often dismissed as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth: some explore forensic pathology and shocking serial murders, others delve into police brutality and miscarriages of justice; occasionally the innocent are hanged, or murderers get away scot-free. Their authors faced up to the Slump and the rise of Hitler during years of economic misery and political upheaval, and wrote books agonising over guilt and innocence, good and evil, and explored whether killing a fellow human being was ever justified. Though the stories included no graphic sex scenes, sexual passions of all kinds seethed just beneath the surface.

Attracting feminists, gay and lesbian writers, Socialists and Marxist sympathisers, the Detection Club authors were young, ambitious and at the cutting edge of popular culture – some had sex lives as bizarre as their mystery plots. Fascinated by real life crimes, they cracked unsolved cases and threw down challenges to Scotland Yard, using their fiction to take revenge on people who hurt them, to conduct covert relationships, and even as an outlet for homicidal fantasy. Their books anticipated not only CSI, Jack Reacher and Gone Girl, but also Lord of the Flies. The Club occupies a unique place in Britain’s cultural history, and its influence on storytelling in fiction, film and television throughout the world continues to this day.

The Golden Age of Murder rewrites the story of crime fiction with unique authority, transforming our understanding of detective stories and the brilliant but tormented men and women who wrote them.

I read this for the free square in Detection Club bingo.

This makes a great companion to Martin Edwards other “encyclopedia” style book about classic crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 books. Between the two of them, they are roughly 900 pages of information about classic crime writers and their books.

tGAoM takes a deep dive in to the three primary members of The Detection Club – Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley Cox. We also get information about many of the additional members, both early and late, including Christopher Bush, E.L. Punshon, Christianna Brand, E.C. Lorac, Nicholas Blake and John Dickson Carr, among many, many others.

The approach is somewhat scattershot – definitely not chronological – and Edwards takes anecdotes and weaves them into concepts and then name checks and book checks his way through the section. This doesn’t always work perfectly, but overall, he does an unbelievably skilled job of keeping the book moving forward at a good clip. I never got either bored or bogged down.

Martin Edwards has been almost single-handedly responsible for igniting my interest in classic crime fiction. Both tGAoM and TSoCCi100B, along with his wonderful anthologies published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, have appeared at precisely the right moment that publishers like the British Library, Mysterious Press, and Harper Collins have begun reissuing books that are long out of print – many of them for less than the cost of a cup of coffee. This serendipitous fact, coupled with the Poirot project from a few years ago which rekindled my love of Agatha Christie (even her bad books are better than much of the tripe that is published today. Except for Passenger to Frankfurt. That book is an abomination), means that I’ve been obsessively seeking out and finding new authors to read, many of whom I had never heard of until I read Edwards two non-fiction additions to classic crime canon.

I’m not sure that this book will have wide appeal. I think it is more likely that it will have strong appeal to a narrow audience. As part of that narrow audience, I found it so much fun – like sitting down with a friend for a good gossip about some people whom we admire but who are altogether human, flawed, interesting, strange and occasionally brilliant.