Friday, 29 May 2015

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

published 2015








I have two complaints about this book: firstly, it has made me want to read and re-read about a hundred books from the era it covers, and I don’t have time. Secondly,  there isn’t a great deal about clothes in it – but I am breaking the rules and giving over an entry to it anyway.

In fact Martin introduced the book on Clothes in Books himself a couple of weeks ago, as a guest blogger. Now I’ve had the chance to read it myself, and it is fair to say that I loved it, I think it is a fabulous achievement. I would be pretty much guaranteed to like any book about Golden Age crime fiction, but this is a spectacularly good one.

When I first understood that the book would be based on the members of the Detection Club – a social and dining group formed by a self-selecting group of the writers – I was surprised and perhaps a teensy bit doubtful. But Martin totally justifies his decision. He must have worked very hard on the book: it has a very complicated structure – but one that is only hard for the writer: it reads beautifully and smoothly, it is very entertaining, and I raced through it in no time at all.

In the background there’s a complicated process: Martin tells the story of the Detection Club from its founding at the end of the 1920s. He also follows the careers of some of the major contributors – including Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L Sayers – throughout the book, picking up and dropping their stories as he moves through time, returning to them later. Less famous and important writers are dealt with as they turn up chronologically. In addition, he looks at real-life crimes as they  influenced and inspired his writers. He takes time out to look at certain themes and questions raised in the books, such as miscarriages of justice and  whether murder is ever justified. He looks at contemporary events such as the Abdication of Edward VIII – which had the surprising effect of suppressing a potential Lord Peter Wimsey book. And he demolishes many myths about the Golden Age, which are usually promulgated by people who don’t appear to have read any, but think they know what type of books they are.



This sounds tremendously complicated –  and there is an incredible level of accuracy and detail – but the point is that Martin has done all the work so the reader doesn’t have to. You just read along, enjoying the fascinating stories, with all these amazing plaited strands going on in the background.

He describes the mystery books just enough,without spoilers, and he has uncovered all kinds of strange new stories and facts about the writers – I thought I knew the lives of Christie and Sayers, in particular, very very well, but he still managed to surprise me.

And the book isn’t just entertaining and readable – it’s hilariously funny at times, with a very dry wit on show. Possibly my favourite line in the book is about the Left-wing writers Douglas and Margaret Cole: 

These were hectic years for radical activists, and on returning to live in London the Coles kept in touch with the working classes by engaging three servants.

And there is a tour de force look at the Crippen case, with the book showing how different writers reacted to it according to their own personal lives…

Every fan of 
crime fiction should read this book: it is a triumph. 

I know that I will keep it to hand as a work of reference, but also I'm sure will re-read it frequently for sheer enjoyment.

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Many, many Golden Age writers and books have featured on the blog: click on the Sayers and Christie labels below just for starters. You can check out other authors from the lists on the tabs at the top of the page, and there is one tab just for crime fiction.
  

20 comments:

  1. Marvellous - Can't wait to read it - thanks Moira.

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    1. It's fabulous Sergio, you will love it.

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  2. Moira, I plan to read this book for two reasons: one, because Martin has authored it, and two, I'm not very familiar with the Golden Age of crime fiction. From your review it's clear that Martin gives the readers much more than they might have expected. That said, I like the name "Detection Club."

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    1. Two very good reasons Prashant, and I am sure you will enjoy it as much as I did.

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  3. So glad you enjoyed this, Moira. Of course, with Martin Edwards at the helm, I had no doubt that you would. And if this book inspires people to read more Golden Age crime fiction, so much the better!

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    1. That's a lovely thought, Margot, that more people might discover the treasure house.

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  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this book (although, like you, I was constantly beguiled by the descriptions of Golden Age mysteries I either had to re-read or purchase at once), and even more, I greatly admired Martin Edwards's approach to organizing and presenting the material. There are very few spoilers about the mysteries themselves, which I so appreciate, yet Edwards managed to describe individual volumes in great detail. And the chapters, though basically chronological, were also organized thematically, making it possible to "read around" in the book instead of progressing from start to finish. I think that in this type of book, where many readers will go first to the index to sample what the author has to say about his/her favorite novelists, the ability of the chapters to stand alone is critical -- yet you also want the flow of events in time. A very difficult balance, and Edwards achieves it beautifully.

    As much as I enjoyed the descriptions of the books, my favorite aspect of this book is the detail about how the writers actually lived and reacted to the events of the day. The post WWI blues, the Hungry Thirties, the political movements -- all of this was presented in a fresh and interesting way. I had never thought about, for instance, the exotic locales in many of Agatha Christie's works as appealing to people who had no hope of such travels in their own lives. And I loved the chapter on Oxford mysteries. So many riches in one book! A treasure to be dipped into again and again in the hunt for great Golden Age mysteries.

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    1. That's a great description of what makes the book so good, Sappho, thank you! I so agree with you about all of it.

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  5. Moira, there's more on Margaret Cole and the servants in The Spectrum of English Murder. ;) There is quite a bit of irony there. Just let me know if you'd like an RC, would be happy to oblige.

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    1. I'd love to see it Curt, I'm really interested in both the Coles and Henry Wade, who I think I've missed out on over the years....

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    2. As she portrays him, Margaret Cole's father was positively Dickensian--in a bad way! I can see, concerning personal lives, why Martin wanted to include a lot about them in his book, but I have a better opinion of their crime fiction than he appears to have. I recommend about half the novels and some of the short stories and novellas.

      From what I have seen Margaret Cole was not that admired by other DC members. Christianna Brand actively disliked her, though Martin tags her as an unreliable gossip. She was certainly a gossip, but others seem to have found MC a prickly personality.

      Wade is great, his obscurity has always struck me as odd and unfortunate.

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    3. I am getting very interested in these characters (as if I needed more authors to pursue...). I read one or two by the Coleses many years ago, and wasn't impressed, but am certainly ready to give them a chance with a good recommendation.

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  6. Col the party pooper - just not my thing - but if we all liked the same thing it would be a dull old world - back to the sex carer girlfriends and helper monkeys then!

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    1. I like the way you leave the casual blog reader to decide whether monkeys etc are part of you reading world or your actual life....

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  7. Looking forward to finding out more about the origins of the Soviet Club and the fad for "glands", and all those unsolved mysteries (Madeleine Smith).

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    1. You will really enjoy this book Lucy.

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  8. Thanks so much for this review. Of course I'm very grateful for your kind comments (as well as those of the other commenters), but I'd also like to say how much I value the way you have highlighted the structure and the humour, two elements that are not the most obvious ingredients of the book, but which were extremely important to me as one re-write succeeded another. It is so gratifying when a reviewer spots what one has tried to do, and appreciates it. And I'm glad you liked that Coles quote!

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    1. Thanks Martin - I just loved your book so much, and will certainly be reading it again.

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  9. It looks like I have a lot to look forward to when I read this, Moira. I have had my copy since it came out over here, but I haven't started it yet and it will take me a while to read it. This kind of reading I prefer to spread over time.

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    1. I raced through it because I was enjoying it so much, Tracy, but you could perfectly well read it slowly: it would suit that very well.

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