Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is a fat and heavy hardback (the paperback is due out in 2016) endorsed by Len Deighton, as a study of the British writers who created the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s an absolute treasure chest of writers’ names and novels that have disappeared into oblivion, and a useful though patchy outline of the evolution of the detective story market between the wars. It is also a ramshackle mess, and shockingly badly written.
Martin Edwards is a former solicitor and an award-winning (so says his personal website) author of many detective novels. His lifetime of reading detective fiction has certainly formed the basis for this book, since only a true fan and a devoted reader could amass so much information. There are many nuggets: my favourite two are that A G Macdonell wrote as Neil Gordon! Edward VIII played erotic jigsaw puzzles! Unfortunately, this book also needed an editor. Edwards has skimmed the work of many biographers and critics by presenting their views with his own in an unattributed mass of statements, supported, some of the time, with a vague endnote saying that he has benefited from the work of X and Y. I am appalled that Harper Collins allowed him to get away with such sloppy non-attributions.
He was also in need of a fact-checker. Monsignor Ronald Knox’s sister was Lady Peck, not Lady Winifred Peck (their father was not noble), and she was the author of 25 books, not ‘several’. Naomi Mitchison and her husband Dick did not have ‘an oysters and champagne lifestyle’, nor a ‘Scottish baronial castle’ (it was just a big house). There were many ‘lady detectives’ predating Lady Molly of the Yard, in Victorian fiction magazines. St Giles in Oxford is not usually described as a ‘boulevard’. As Prince of Wales, Edward VIII was called David before his accession, not Edward, but the correct way to refer to him would be ‘the Prince’.
The structure of the book is bizarre, as noted by Simon in his Vulpes Libris review. Book titles float in and out of time, unconnected to their date of publication, so although we can sense that the book begins sometime in the 1920s, it wanders towards the 1950s in and out of chronology, with episodes and authors’ biographies beginning in the middle of their lives, jerking back and forth without any sense that history matters when you are discussing real lives or publications. The second half of the story behind The Detection Club’s Behind The Screen is given on pp.89-90, yet the first half is finally told on pp.162-3. Perhaps Edwards was playing with an alternate theory of time in which ‘the Three Cups Hotel – a favourite of Jane Austen, Tennyson and Tolkien’ (p.217) relocates itself outside time so that all three authors could chat together. Edwards certainly doesn’t bother to refresh his understanding of history by reading any: he cites two detective novelists’ memoirs as his only sources for the history of the 1930s.
There is a colossal imbalance between the amount of attention given to Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, compared to that given to all the other authors. The life and odd habits of Anthony Berkeley in particular, clearly Edwards’ special subject, are pressed upon the reader throughout the book, like an irritating chorus. It is certainly very useful to learn so much about this author whose works have not remained in the public’s affection so much as those by Sayers and Christie. However, I was not persuaded by Edwards’ culminating theory (mostly imaginary, as he admits) that Berkeley and his great friend the novelist E M Delafield conducted a chaste but passionate affair by ‘planting clues to their mutual devotion in plain sight’ in their novels: ‘She inspired and obsessed him. Without her, he was finished as a crime writer’ (p.425). Edwards’ exposition of this theory smacks of Mr Mybug insisting that Branwell Bronte wrote his sisters’ novels because they were all drunk (see Cold Comfort Farm). Edwards then goes on to criticise a Gaylord Larsen novel about the Detection Club as ‘a masterclass in howlers so extraordinary that the reader’s initial astonishment turns to hilarity’ (p. 431). Pot: meet kettle.
Nor am I persuaded by Edwards’ suggestions that random lines used by Berkeley in his novels (or his initials) inspired much more famous works by Christie and Sayers. If he bothered to give evidence, or publication dates, his case might be strengthened, but without them I am not. With so much noise being made about Berkeley, Sayers and Christie, we hear very little about the works of other Detection Club authors, from the still famous such as Ngaio Marsh, or the totally forgotten, such as Newton Gale. This is a disappointment. It is definitely useful to learn so much about Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane, for example, but in The Golden Age of Murder they and their works exist in isolation. There is no integration, and no sense of assessing a body of work across authors or time, or of trying to present a coherent and balanced picture of the writers who drove the detective novel industry.
Instead, the book presses scandal and personal drama upon us. Edwards insists, over and over, that Sayers had felt perpetual shame and guilt about the existence of her illegitimate son. All the Sayers biographies have already dealt with this in a far more balanced fashion, so what is Edwards’ point? His interest in the bodies of his subjects and what they do with them is repetitive and prurient. Sayers’ and Christie’s appearance, weight and shape are brought to our attention, repeatedly, as if their waist size or choice of hairstyle influenced their writing. If any author exhibits non-standard sexual interests in their lives or fiction (particularly whippings), we are sure to be told about it. Authors who did not marry have their sexuality speculated upon as a matter of course. These are wearying preoccupations to put up with if all we want to know is how they wrote their books and what inspired them.
Throughout The Golden Age of Murder there are many, sometimes lengthy, retellings of true crimes from the past, because they apparently influenced certain novels from the period. Given that Edwards has, rightly, sought to avoid plot spoilers in his discussion, it makes no sense at all to give the true crime origins of these plots as well. But most of the time he doesn’t bother connecting the history with the novel, he just enjoys indulging this sideline of antiquarian true crime for its own sake.
My final grumble is that Edwards’ passion for using all his research produces crass, or ludicrous, non sequiturs. On P G Wodehouse’s step-daughter Leonora: Her sudden death in 1944 was a crushing blow. “I really feel that nothing matters much now.” Her widowed husband, Peter Cazalet, went on to train Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s racehorse that mysteriously collapsed fifty yards short of winning the 1956 Grand National while being ridden by Dick Francis (later, like his son Felix, as a member of the Detection Club) (pp.129-30). Why connect horse-racing with her death, except to show off about your research?
On the ‘Hay-on-Wye Poisoner’ Major Armstrong: Armstrong was found guilty. He remains the only English solicitor to have died on the scaffold. True to type, he was wearing his best tweed suit (p.136). We have to ask: did murderers, or solicitors, routinely wear tweed?
On the novelist J R Ackerley: Joe Ackerley was the illegitimate half-brother of the future Duchess of Westminster, and his fondness for sailors and guardsmen caused E M Forster to warn him to give up looking for ‘gold in coal mines’ (pp.167-8). It’s nice to know that having a lively illegitimate half-brother did not prevent a ducal marriage.
On Agatha Christie: Christie was Ackerley’s favourite detective novelist. He regarded her persistent lateness in delivering her contributions as tiresome, but found her “surprisingly good-looking”. Yet he did not rate her highly as a broadcaster (171). They were broadcasting on radio, so I can see that lateness might be tricky, but why would Christie’s looks even be relevant?
On Helen Simpson: Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that women could have it all. Convent-educated, she was a keen snuff-taker with a love of fencing and witchcraft (p.214). We need to know how the convent led her to epées and broomsticks.
It’s not a bad book, just ridiculously distracting, with all these monstrous elephants flirting in the room in front of the interesting stuff. I wish Edwards had followed his obvious urge to write Anthony Berkeley’s biography instead.