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.

The “Death In…” series by M.M. Kaye

M.M. Kaye is best known for her massive, sweeping epic romance of India during the twilight of the British Raj, The Far Pavilions. Along with that book, she wrote two additional pieces of rather massive historical romance – The Shadow of the Moon and Trade Winds. In addition to those three books, she wrote a brief, entertaining series of mysteries set in exotic locations.

While this is nominally marketed as a series, each of the books is 100% stand-alone, with different characters entirely. There is a slight overlap between Death In Zanzibar and Trade Winds, which is really only interesting for fans of M.M. Kaye.

I remember reading at least Death in Zanzibar and Death in Kenya as a teenager. I first read The Far Pavilions, which was one of my favorite books for many years, probably very soon after it was published in 1978, when I was 12. I would estimate that I took off of my mother’s bookshelf at around the age of 16, because I read a lot of historical romance of varying quality during those years, and had a definite affinity for epic historicals. After reading the three historical romances, I definitely picked up a few of Kaye’s mysteries. The covers would have been very different from Minotaur’s bright colored, almost Picasso-esque covers – something more like this:

Like Georgette Heyer, who also wrote at least a few mysteries, Kaye seems to be primarily a writer of romance, so all of her mysteries have a strong romantic sub-plot. In each, the main character is a young, unmarried, attractive woman who finds herself embroiled in a murder case in some capacity. These pairings tend to be quite regressive, and often involve the sort of interfering, (some might say controlling) overly-protective male love interest that is seen in other romance novels of the time period (Death in Kenya, the first of the mysteries, was published in 1953, while Death in the Andamans, the last of them, was published in 1960). This can be jarring to younger readers who’ve grown up with fiction (and reality) where the relationships are far more egalitarian.

Kaye had a fascinating life – she was born in Simla, in British India prior to Indian independence – her father was a British officer in the Indian Army. She married an officer in the British army as well, and spent her marriage in 27 different postings over 19 years, many of which she used as settings for her novels. She wrote a multi-part autobiography, which given how fascinating and insightful her fiction is, appears to be well worth checking out.

Since 2017, I’ve reread all of Kaye’s crime fiction and enjoyed them all with varying levels of enthusiasm. Over time, I’m sure that I will get reviews posted for all of them – they are well worth reading for people who enjoy romantic mysteries set in exotic, faraway places.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Title: Death on the Cherwell
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay
Pages: 223
Publication Year: 1935

Plot Summary: For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behavior among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cozy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe. The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play, and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death –and the clues that point to a fellow student. This classic mystery novel, with its evocative setting in an Oxford women’s college, is now republished for the first time since the 1930s, with an introduction by the award-winning crime writer Stephen Booth.

Death on the Cherwell was my second Mavis Doriel Hay mystery, after The Santa Klaus Murders. Hay published one additional mystery, which has also been re-published by the BLCC, Murder Underground. I actually bought Murder Underground a while ago, but haven’t read it yet. I liked both Death on the Cherwell and The Santa Klaus Murders well enough that I will probably make an effort to get to it sooner rather than later.

This is a catch up review – I failed to write one up immediately after finishing the book a few weeks ago. I read it for my Detection Club bingo project, and it is mentioned in Chapter 11, Education, Education, Education, which focuses on mysteries set in boarding school/university. This one was set in the fictional Persephone College at Oxford University, which was based on Hay’s own St. Hilda’s College of Oxford University.

I liked this one fairly well and I found the Nancy Drew-esque exploits of the troupe of undergrad women doing their own shadow investigation charming. It is a lightweight book and is a very quick read. The interactions between the Scotland Yard Detective and the four undergraduates are fun. The young women are resourceful, brave and sometimes clumsy, as would be expected – Veronica Mars they are not. The book does allude to some more serious themes, but doesn’t explore those themes with a lot of energy. Overall, it was a middling golden age murder – I’ve read better, but I’ve also read worse.

In terms of mysteries set in colleges/boarding schools, Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, also published in 1935 and set in Harriet Vane’s alma mater, Shrewsbury College, itself a fictionalized version of Somerville College, her alma mater, is far superior to this one – I’m inclined to reread the 3 Harriet Vane mysteries as part of this project, as I’ve only read them once.

I also must say that I am surprised that Edwards didn’t include Cat Among the Pigeons in this chapter, as that book occurs primarily within the confines of Meadowbank, a girl’s boarding school. Miss Bulstrode, the headmistress, is one of Christie’s finest creations, sensible, spirited and entrepreneurial. Even though it isn’t specifically mentioned for that chapter, I still recommend it! It’s a later Christie, but is still a good one.

The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

the hollow man

Title: The Hollow Man
Author: John Dickson Carr
Pages: 224
Publication Year: 1935

Plot Summary: Professor Charles Grimaud was explaining to some friends the natural causes behind an ancient superstition about men leaving their coffins when a stranger entered and challenged Grimaud’s skepticism. The stranger asserted that he had risen from his own coffin and that four walls meant nothing to him. He added, ‘My brother can do more… he wants your life and will call on you!’ The brother came during a snowstorm, walked through the locked front door, shot Grimaud and vanished. The tragedy brought Dr Gideon Fell into the bizarre mystery of a killer who left no footprints.

I was completely gobsmacked by this book. It had been on my Detection Club TBR for at least a year – I bought a used copy off amazon last October, and intended to read it for a Halloween bingo game but didn’t get around to it. After finishing The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Croft, I was putting it back on my bookshelf and saw this one sitting there, which caused me to pick it up.

I don’t know where I picked up the notion that Carr wrote noir, but I cracked this book open expecting dames and hardboiled, hard drinking private dicks and speakeasies. It’s hard to imagine how I could’ve been less accurate. The Hollow Man had gothic overtones, oblique references to vampires and supernatural happenings, direct references to the ghost story writer M.R. James, and an extremely snowy, almost Victorian, London atmosphere.

In other words, the background stuff was right up my alley.

Attach this to not one, but two, miraculous mysteries, and a main character who reminded me strongly of Nero Wolfe, although I can’t precisely put my finger on why, and a chapter that waxes eloquent on the locked room mystery and my, oh my, did I enjoy this book. The solution was very well done and – thankfully – did not involve an icicle in any capacity whatsoever.

Unfortunately, this book is not available on kindle and appears to be out of print. I picked up my copy on amazon for under ten bucks, but it looks like the edition that I read isn’t available for anything less than $90.00 at this time. I would definitely recommend checking it out, if you can find it.

“But, if you’re going to analyze impossible situations,” interrupted Pettis, “why discuss detective fiction?”

“Because,” said the doctor, frankly, “we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.”

Blog planning

I’ve been struggling with the decision of whether or not I will be continuing with my current blog at Bookish Pursuits after the new year. I started Bookish Pursuits under another name about five years ago as a place to review and to track my classics club project.

Sometimes, though, I feel like a clean slate is in order, and this is that time. I’ve decided that I will be shutting down that particular blog when the domain expires in March. This gives me plenty of time to move the posts that are relevant to this blog over here and to archive my classics club posts, which I will want to retain, in some capacity or another.

This blog will be dedicated to classic crime fiction and information related to classic crime fiction. I will be focusing on crime fiction published before 1975, although that is a bit loose, and I’ll consider anything that is at least 25 years old fair game.

I’ve also set up a second niche blog related to nineteenth and twentieth century fiction written by women, with, again, a focus on books written pre-1975, which you can find at All The Vintage Ladies. This blog will contain reviews/posts/discussions about my “all the vintage ladies” project, and will include everything from classics by women like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, to groundbreaking women like Madeleine L’Engle and Georgette Heyer. I have a lot of posts already written on Bookish Pursuits that I will be transferring to ATVL in the next few weeks/months.

I’m still trying to decide how to handle the intersection of women and crime fiction, including authors like Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, etc. I am not sure if I will cross-post them on both blogs, or just post them here and reference them over there.

Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie

Title: Lord Edgware Dies (Hercule Poirot #9)
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 352
Publication year: 1933

Plot summary: Poirot had been present when Jane bragged of her plan to ‘get rid of’ her estranged husband. Now the monstrous man was dead. And yet the great Belgian detective couldn’t help feeling that he was being taken for a ride.

After all, how could Jane have stabbed Lord Edgware to death in his library at exactly the same time she was seen dining with friends? And what could be her motive now that the aristocrat had finally granted her a divorce?

Every blog has a first post, and it seems fitting that this one start with a post about a book written by Agatha Christie, since I’ve spent years in the process of reading everything by her.

Back in 2015, I spent the better part of six months reading her entire Poirot canon. I realized several things through this process, the most important of which was that I still love the hell out of Agatha Christie. I’ve never been as partial to her Marple books, and not all of her Poirot mysteries can fairly be quantified as great, but for the most part, even the mediocre Christie is a fantastically entertaining read.

Let me briefly digress to talk about spoilers. I will not intentionally spoil the solution here, although it is possible that my discussion may inadvertently reveal plot points. I will also work hard to avoid gendering a role – which is why, when I say murderer/ess, it means nothing more than that I’m trying not to reveal if the murderer is male or female.

Lord Edgware Dies is not my favorite Poirot – not by a long shot. The solution isn’t particularly ingenious, although I do think that Agatha did a good job with an illustration of an utterly vapid and sociopathic mind. It’s always easier to zero in on the clues one the second, or even third, reading, once I know who the killer actually is. In this one, Christie sprinkles the clues throughout the book, and even gives us a listing, by Poirot, late in the book, of the five questions he needs to answer in order to put the solution together.

I selected this one for a reread because I was working on the subgenre of London murders, which is Chapter 8 of the Martin Edwards The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, a book which I will probably reference frequently. Lord Edware Dies is one of Christie’s London stories, and does a good job of evoking life in London in the 1930’s among the theater set. Most of my impressions of England during the interwar period come from literature, especially the mysteries written by Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Georgette Heyer, so I have no idea how accurate they are.

A word about the BBC adaptation: The David Suchet adaptations are, on the whole, quite good and this was no exception to that rule. The actor who played Donald Ross overdid the Scottish accent a bit, and I wasn’t crazy about the actress who was chosen to play Jane Wilkinson, but the adaptation is faithful to the book, and Suchet is wonderful. It’s one of the later Hastings books, where he has returned from Argentina after some difficulties with his wife, and it’s always nice to see Hugh Fraser playing the genial sidekick. This is one of his last outings, sadly.