Glowing Skulls, Murder Mysteries and The Detection Club

The Golden Age of Murder frequently feels like spending time in the company of a loquacious friend who is a veritable storehouse of information about the Detection Club.

Detective stories are so much a part of our cultural landscape today that it’s worth remembering that this form developed relatively recently. Many consider Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” the first modern detective story, and the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, published from 1887 to 1927, remain among the finest examples of the genre. The period between World War I and World War II is often termed the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, due to the quality of the work produced and the central place detective stories and novels held in the popular culture of the day, particularly in England.

The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story is a love letter to the English detective story of the ’20s and ’30s and some of the best writers of the era. Despite the subtitle, there’s really no mystery to be solved, just a lot of information to be presented about an influential group of people who were members of The Detection Club, a private organization of detective fiction writers in London whose purpose combined sociability and mutual support with the explicit statement of principles for creating a good detective story and the desire to promote high standards for the genre. Charter members (there were 26 in all, plus two associate members) included G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, the Baroness Orczy, and Dorothy Sayers, while later members included Margery Allingham and Michael Innes.

Edwards begins his book with a description of the initiation ritual for new members of the Club (it involved a skull with glowing red eyes and the firing of a gun), as reported by the New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh, and closes with an evaluation of the detective fiction written by the Club members. In between, this book consists of a sort of free-flowing discussion of a number of related topics, including biographical information about members, plot summaries of their works, considerations of commonalities and differences among them, and reflections on how societal concerns were reflected, or not, in their works. Edwards does not engage in deep analysis of any work, but provides enough information about works and authors that fans of detective fiction will no doubt come away with a long list of books they’ll want to read, or re-read.

There are many ways to write a detective story, of course, but members of the Detection Club had a particular type of story in mind. In their view, proper detective fiction was a sort of a contest between author and reader, rather like a sporting event in which specific rules must be followed and it was possible to win or lose. The author set up a puzzle for the reader to solve, and the rules of fair play required that the reader be given a fair chance to win by solving the puzzle. In fact, the oath taken by members of the Club included pledges to “detect all crime by fair and reasonable means” and to “conceal no vital clues from the reader” as well as to “honour the King’s English”.

Author Martin Edwards is both a published mystery writer and the archivist of the Detection Club (which is still in operation), the former qualification giving him an understanding of what it means to write for a living, and the latter providing him with access to Club documents and other materials not available to the general public. Both are positives, and reading The Golden Age of Murder frequently feels like spending time in the company of a loquacious friend who is a veritable storehouse of information about the Detection Club and its members of the interwar period. Edwards’ tone is less that of someone imparting factual information (although the book is loaded with that, and includes chapter references as well as a bibliography) and more that of someone who loves sharing a good story.

The most important prerequisite to enjoying The Golden Age of Murder, beyond having an interest in its subject, is a willingness to follow Edwards’ train of thought wherever it may lead. This is no ready-reference book or compendium of organized facts, but rather a discursive ramble through a number of related topics. For readers who likes books to stick to a topic and come quickly to the point, reading The Golden Age of Murder could quickly become exasperating, as Edwards may introduce a topic, then drop it only to revisit it hundreds of pages later (an index does help to locate the different discussions of a single topic). Similarly, a brief discussion of forensics leads to consideration of a true crime incident (the case of Alfred Arthur Rouse) that inspired a Dorothy Sayers story, which leads to a discussion of the Detection Club member’s views of eugenics and then to the life and work of Richard Austin Freeman. Stylistically, The Golden Age of Murder shares a great deal with Yunte Huang’s Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History, and if you found Huang’s style enjoyable, there’s a good chance you will like Edwards’, also.

RATING 6 / 10