Martin Edwards is a pretty amazing fellow. Not only a solicitor and a fine and prolific mystery author, he is also the consulting editor for the bestselling range of vintage mystery reprints currently being undertaken by the British Library (and he writes the intros for those too). For more INFO about his work, visit his homepage at: www.martinedwardsbooks.com. In 2007 he was appointed the Archivist of the Crime Writers Association and in 2011 he became the Archivist of the Detection Club. This has inspired his newest endeavour, a history of ‘the early days of the Detection Club in the 1930s.’ But don’t listen to me, read on and see what Martin himself has to say. Over to you, my learned friend …
“The mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story”
I’ve embarked on a short blog tour to promote my new book The Golden Age of Murder, and my thanks go to Sergio for allowing me a slot on Tipping My Fedora. The sub-title of my book is “The mystery of the writers who invented the modern detective story”, and what I have tried to do is to tell the story of the early days of the Detection Club in the 1930s, and to explain how the leading crime writers of the time developed the genre in ways that have often been neglected or misunderstood.
“Golden Age novelists who worked between the wars have often been caricatured as conventional, conservative, and cosy.”
This is a critical cliché that doesn’t stand up well to close examination. Yes, there were highly successful writers whose outlook was conservative, notably Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and John Dickson Carr, but it seems quite wrong to airbrush out of history other writers whose politics were very different, and whose books often reflected their outlook on society. The very term “the Golden Age of detective fiction” seems to have been coined by a Marxist, John Strachey, and there were plenty of writers with similar sympathies. Nicholas Blake (the crime writing alias of the poet Cecil Day Lewis) was a Communist, and so was Raymond Postgate, author of that superb story about a jury, Verdict of Twelve.
Christopher St John Sprigg, who wrote poetry as Christopher Caudwell, and very good mysteries under his own name, was killed fighting against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Ivy Low married Maxim Litvinov, one of Stalin’s right hand men. G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, the husband and wife team who poured out detective novels for about twenty years, were leading figures on the left; Douglas Cole was tutor to two future leaders of the Labour Party. Victor Gollancz, Sayers’ friend and publisher, and a passionate detective fiction fan, created the Left Book Club (with help from Strachey) and took a chance with new left-wing crime writers such as the young escapee from Nazi Germany who, under the name Cameron McCabe, wrote that remarkable deconstruction of the detective story, The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor.
Even when commentators have grudgingly acknowledged that not every Golden Age author was a card-carrying member of the establishment, they have often pointed to the (admittedly often indifferent) output of the Coles, to suggest that detective novelists with radical sympathies failed to reflect their attitudes in their books. And why were they invariably silent about the turbulent international situation?
The short answer is that they were not. The critics overlook the work of writers such as R.C. Woodthorpe, whose Death of a Purple Shirt mocks Mosley’s Fascists, E.R. Punshon, who flayed the Nazis and Mussolini more than one in mysteries such as Dictator’s Way, and Bruce Hamilton (brother of the more famous Patrick, yet another radical), whose Middle-Class Murder has savage things to say about a bourgeois killer, and whose R. v. Rhodes: The Brighton Murder Trial, anticipates a world where the Left eventually takes on the Fascists – and wins.
“The 1930s was an age of uncertainty – uncertainty about economics, politics, and much else besides.”
One can argue, as many people have, that classic whodunits provided comfort to ordinary men and women in difficult times, and this is true. But it isn’t the whole picture. The best detective novelists of the period were often subversive – the prime example being that extraordinary, difficult, and deeply troubled man, Anthony Berkeley Cox, who wrote detective stories as ‘Anthony Berkeley,’ and darkly ironic novels of psychological suspense as ‘Francis Iles.’ Berkeley was acutely aware of the uncertainties and injustices of life, and this is reflected in his fiction. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. Not a bad film, but nothing like as terrifying as the Francis Iles novel on which it was based, Before the Fact. Even the Master of Suspense, the man who went on to make Psycho, could not match the darkness of Berkeley’s vision.
“We can argue endlessly about whether the Golden Age was really as “golden” as its admirers believe.”
I’m the first to admit that many of the books published during the Thirties were as flawed as the people who wrote them. But although I’m proud to be a crime novelist of the twenty-first century, I think readers and writers of today can both admire and enjoy the achievements of those who preceded us, and learn from them. The Golden Age of Murder is a very personal book, my attempt to share not only the fruits of years of research, but also the pleasure that the work of Christie, Berkeley, Dickson Carr, and their colleagues have given me over a lifetime of enjoyable reading.
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is available to buy from all bookshops (from virtual to bricks and mortar) both in paper and e-book edition. Here are the links to the UK branch of Amazon and here is the one for the United States.