“The Golden Age Of Murder” by Martin Edwards (2015)

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“On a summer evening in 1937, a group of men and women gathered in darkness to perform a macabre ritual.”

Crime fiction has held a key spot in book sales for decades, now. Changing tastes may have seen a switch from detective stories in English country manors to blood-soaked thrillers on the mean streets of New York, but at their heart sits the puzzle that people still clamour for. It was in the 1920s and 1930s, however, that detective fiction took off in a big way, with figures like Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley and Ngaio Marsh enjoying incredible fame and success with their detectives. But they were far from the only ones, and their novels were not as cosy and conventional as many people now believe they were. The greatest detective writers of the age needed an outlet, and together they formed the Detection Club, an exclusive London society for all the luminaries of the genre. This is their story.

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am an enormous fan of murder mysteries, particularly those of the Golden Age, and this book was therefore an inevitability for me. It explores the history of the club and discusses the world of detective fiction when it was at its peak between the two world wars. Combining literary criticism, true crime, biography and trivia, Martin Edwards – the current President of the Detection Club – takes us into the society’s inner workings to meet and mingle with the superstars of the age and learn about their lives, all of which seemed just as fascinating and mysterious as their novels.

Top of the class, of course, sit Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and, naturally, Agatha Christie. Each of them remains well known today, but they were all fascinating people with murder on their minds. Each of them also took a secret with them to the grave, and in the case of Christie and her disappearance, the puzzle yet to be resolved. But while much of the biography focuses on these three superstars, we also get to spend time with others of the group including G. K. Chesterston, partners in writing and matrimony G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Baroness Orczy, E. C. R. Lorac, Val Gielgud and even, perhaps surprisingly, A. A. Milne, who wrote one detective novel that was deemed brilliant enough to allow him membership. We also get to experience second-hand the initiation ceremony of the group which involved a skull with glowing red eyes and a solemn oath that promise not to make use of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God”.

The book uncovers not only the mysteries of this group, but also does away with all stereotypes and assumptions made about the genre from people who clearly have never read any. Many of the books are these days labelled “cosy crime”, a term I’ve definitely used too, but when you look properly, there is absolutely nothing cosy about these. Across thousands of novels, the authors discussed everything from religion and the death penalty, to extramarital sex, fetishes, suicide, Nazism, justice, and feminism. They get typified as being uptight, conservative members of society and while some of them definitely were, their numbers included many people on the political left. Some were university educated, others had had no official schooling at all. Some were wealthy, others struggling. Some shy and retiring, some gregarious and gossipy (I’m looking at you Christianna Brand). Among them, all they had in common was a love of writing detective fiction.

It’s a heartwarming book in many ways, as Edwards delves into the relationships between the members of the Detection Club, he uncovers evidence that they all had a strong bond with one another, referencing one another in their books, jumping to each others’ defence when they got a bad review, and even collaborating to write books together to raise funds for the club. They enjoyed discussing murder together, sharing ideas, and trying to solve true crime cases that the police had failed to find answers to.

This book is really quite something and, as Edwards himself says, it’s impossible to cover everything about these people and their projects, but it’s nonetheless a pretty comprehensive introduction. With something interesting on every page, rare photographs, and some genuinely funny stories and phrases too (a particular favourite is, “…Agatha Christie, a quiet, pleasant woman who was easy to read unless you wanted to know what was going on in her mind.”) it’s a real treasure for anyone interested in crime, either factual or fictional.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“The Floating Admiral” by The Detection Club (1931)

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“Three glimpses through the rolling smoke of opium, three stories that still hover about a squalid opium joint in Hong Kong, might very well at this distance of time be dismissed as pipe dreams.”

Have you ever played Consequences? It’s that quaint party game where people write a sentence of a story, pass it on, and the next person has to continue the story and so on through as many players are there are. It’s quite good fun, and usually ends up with some ludicrous stories at the end. Now imagine doing that with a whole book. What if you could get the best writers of the age to work together and pen a single story? Well, satisfyingly, it’s already been done.

The Detection Club is a group of detective fiction writers. Formed in 1930 and still running today, almost every notable crime writer has found their way into the illustrious circle. It seems that they decided to pool their resources and so started writing together. However, the way they did it was much in the manner of Consequences. Each writer penned a different chapter, having to follow on from what the previous writer had said in theirs. Some of the contributors are well known – G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie – while others such as Henry Wade and Edgar Jepson have fallen to the wayside with time and do not have such a great reputation now. Surprisingly, given their differing styles and the very nature of the challenge, the whole thing works. Here’s what’s going on…

Local fisherman Neddy Ware sets out in the early hours of the morning to the River Whyn, determined as usual that that’s the best time to land some fish. However, he gets more than he bargains for, when a rowing boat floats past him. He realises that it’s the Vicar’s boat and then, a moment later, there’s a body sprawled in the bottom of it; the murdered figure of Admiral Penistone. Ware tethers the boat immediately reports it to the police. Soon Inspector Rudge is on the case, but things are definiely not as smooth-sailing as the aforementioned boat.

For a start, every suspect has suddenly been called away to London on urgent business before they can be detained, leaving Rudge to learn the local gossip regarding the Admiral through busybody servants and nosy porters. The Vicar seems to know more than he’s letting on, but hides behind the excuse of “secrets of the confessional”. It seems impossible that the Admiral should be there at all, and everyone’s evidence contradicts, but as the suspects return one by one, Rudge begins to piece together what’s happened.

According to the prologue by Sayers, each writer had to write their chapter with a solution in mind, but also making use of all the clues, hints and facts mentioned in the previous chapters. Anthony Berkley, who has the unenviable task of writing the final chapter calls it “Clearing up the Mess”, which seems about right. And yet, somehow, the whole thing works very well. I’ve only read full books by three of the contributors, so I cannot fully assess their styles, but of the ones I know, you can almost tell. The characters and information come naturally, but it doesn’t stop the writers from adding in information that has merely been unmentioned up until they get a chance to speak. For example, one chapter suddenly mentions that two minor characters are actually related, and while there’s been no evidence of this so far, there’s also nothing saying it’s not possible.

It’s actually a really fascinating conceit, and deftly shows how talented these writers all were independently of one another that when they came together, they could still manage to “solve” a crime with only half the story. At the appendix at the end of the book, each writer also gets a chance to explain the solution they were aiming for, giving a great example, as seen in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, of how facts can be distorted and how odd it is to take the protagonist’s theory as sacrosanct. Had any chapter been the final one, there’s a very different solution up for grabs.

The Detection Club actually did a few of these, but this was the only one that Agatha Christie joined in with, so it’s naturally the one I was drawn to. Perhaps I’ll return to the others once I’ve become more familiar with their work, but this is a must for any lovers of classic detective fiction.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

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“Roger Sheringham took a sip of the old brandy in front of him and leaned back in his chair at the head of the table.”

During the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, dozens of authors tried their hands at writing murder mysteries. When Anthony Berkeley published this one, he attempted to subvert a genre that was saturating the market and yet was nowhere near being over. Agatha Christie had only published eight of her books by this time; Ngaio Marsh was yet to publish anything. However, the tricks and tropes of the genre were well-established, and so people were already playing with the conventions. Here, Berkeley does it with serious aplomb.

The murder in question here is that of Joan Bendix. Devotedly married to her husband Graham, they seem to have an ideal life, until a box of chocolates drops into their life. Joan is killed by poison hidden within the chocolates, and the police, led by Chief Inspector Moresby, are at a loss to explain who killed her. It seems, after all, that she was never to be the intended victim, as the chocolates had originally been delivered to Sir Eustace Pennefather. Disinclined to have a sweet tooth, he passed the chocolates onto Graham Bendix and he in turn gave them to his wife as a gift.

Stumped, Moresby calls upon his friend Roger Sheringham, who leads the notable group the Crimes Circle, a motley crew of amateur detectives who love nothing more than discussing crime and murders. Each is given exactly the same details that the police have, and sent out to test their skills – can they, in the space of a week, solve the crime that has plagued the police? The six amateurs – including a crime novelist, a dramatist and a lawyer – set about their task, but when all six of them return with six entirely different solutions, how can anyone be sure who the real killer is?

Berkeley does a great job at bringing up the fatal flaw in detective fiction. In most stories, whatever importance the detective hero ascribes to an object or clue is taken at face value and it is assumed that he is correct. The characters here, quite wonderfully, display that any clue can be taken in any number of ways. There are only three obvious clues here – the box of chocolates, the wrapping they came in, and the accompanying note sent to Pennefather – but the characters manage to construct whole theories based around these items.

Each theory is actually entirely compelling and believable, and it’s remarkable to see each character bring forward their solution, only to have it torn down by the next one. Each uses different methods, focuses on different aspects of the case, and comes up with an entirely different killer. Members of the Circle themselves are accused, and one of the characters even manages to build a watertight case against himself, thus showing the readers that anything can be “proven” if you look at the facts in a certain way.

Even more wonderfully, at the end of the original book, it becomes clear who really had the right answer, but that was then. In the 1970s, writer Christianna Brand who knew Berkeley penned her own ending, changing the outcome to a seventh villain. And in the new edition I have, published by the British Library, contains a brand new, never-before-seen ending written by the current president of the Detection Club, a very real version of the Crimes Circle that, over the years, was presided over by such luminaries as Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. As such, with each new chapter we are given a new solution, meaning the book now contains eight alternative theories, each which could potentially have led to an arrest if used alone.

It is an outstanding piece of work, occasionally dry due to the language, but funny and clever enough to keep my attention. Anyone who loves a good mystery will find something to appeal to them here. In fact, I would compare it a little to the podcast Serial. Several of my friends listened to it and, with our own backgrounds in different fields, we each came up with different ideas as to what really happened.

A remarkable novel.