Review: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER, by Martin Edwards, published by Harper Collins 2015

Review: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER, by Martin Edwards, published by Harper Collins 2015

ISBN: 978 0 00810596 9

I regularly get copies of books to review. In fact, rather too many. I currently seem to have a bit of a glut – probably because I’ve fallen behind with a lot of work recently and reading has to take second place to writing. Only recently I was joking with a friend that I rarely get the chance to read anything for pleasure – in fact I couldn’t remember picking up any book for pleasure since May.

That is why, when a book arrives that is so stupendously good that it’s almost impossible to put it down, not only is it a joy to read, it’s also a worrying distraction from my own work.

This is one such book.

I should first say, that I do have a personal  interest. I am a member of the Detection Club, and Martin Edwards is the President. So I have the twin conflicts of interest.

However, as those who know me and know my reviews here on Writerly Witterings, are aware, I have some firm rules. I never review for money (Chance would be a fine thing) and I never lie. If I dislike a book, I will not review it. This isn’t enormous kindness, it’s simple logic: the fact a novel doesn’t appeal to me doesn’t mean it won’t work for someone else. I personally haven’t read a book by Patricia Cornwell that I liked, but that doesn’t affect the view that others have of her work.

Still, if I choose to write a book review, it is because I have a genuine liking for it and I want to share that with other people.

So, The Golden Age of Murder.

This is not a novel, but a work of detailed non-fiction. It is sub-titled The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story”. Martin once told me that the book came about because he heard that the records of the Club’s beginnings had been lost during the Blitz. Sadly the Club had also sold off a set of unimaginable treasures: the club’s own library. I imagine that would have included a series of personally signed first editions, but also books on toxicology, forensic pathology, and a number of other fascinating subjects. It’s very sad to think how much has been lost.

However, Martin, on joining the Club, decided that he would try to track down some of the original documents, the archives of other Members, and begin to build a history of the Club. It helped that he was soon asked to become the Club’s archivist. The task was a challenge, but at least he had the Club’s backing. Soon, however, he began to unravel puzzles about the early Members.

He knew about Agatha Christie’s disappearance and sudden reappearance, but before long he was discovering puzzles about the other members. “I quickly discovered far more puzzles, especially about Christie and other early members of the Club, than I expected. I began to question my own assumptions, as well as those of critics whose judgements were often based on guesswork and prejudice.”

Martin travelled widely over the UK and beyond. He had to visit America and remote libraries in Australia, Japan and beyond, questioning relatives of long-dead members. Often he discovered darker secrets than he had anticipated. Occasionally, according to his foreword, he was forced to leave matters alone, when his enquiries seemed likely to cause distress. But at the end of it, he had enough material for this book.

The book itself set out to depict the Club itself, how it was formed and how its fortunes waxed and waned. But it is a lot more than that. Martin has managed to capture the period. It was a time when crime and thriller writing was in its infancy. The war had not long concluded, and many of those involved in writing crime stories had seen enough death and destruction. I well remember my “Uncle Albert” (both my grandfathers died when I was a toddler, sadly), who had lost friends and relations in the hell of the First World War. He never spoke to us of his experiences, sadly. Ever wondered why depictions of murder scenes in “golden age” crime stories tended to be mild and non-bloody? As Martin points out, those writing these books had no desire to remind people of the horrors of death. Modern crime writers go to the opposite extreme. In our cosseted society, people are looking for the thrill of the gory, as in the 1970s they used to turn to horror.

However, just because a writer chooses not to exploit what has been called the “pornography of death” doesn’t mean that they don’t have an interest in murder, the causes of it and the impacts on other people.

Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, and the other members of the Club, had a fascination with murder, but also the tricks and mental gymnastics involved in finding a killer. While they delighted in toying with a reader, they also looked to actual events and details of investigations and court cases to inform their plots.

More than that, as Martin shows, the Members of the Detection Club used their own experiences to inform their works. So much is known about some of these writers, and yet there is so much that is as mysterious as any story their wrote.

Martin has brought these members to light in a wonderfully imaginative way. His book looks at the individuals, at their petty arguments, at the period and at the quality of their writing, but he does so by treating the book as a crime investigation in its own right. This is not a dry, historical tale, but a glorious celebration of fascinating lives, what drove them, what inspired them, and what destroyed not a few of them.

I’d rank this, so far, as the best book I’ve read this year.

One Response to “Review: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER, by Martin Edwards, published by Harper Collins 2015”
  1. Ralph Spurrier says:

    Hi Michael,
    It is indeed a glorious work including and discussing many of the writers that are highly prized among the detective fiction cognoscenti but little known outside that circle. Fortunately now, with POD and e-book downloads, some of these “forgotten” writers are coming back into general circulation.

    I can recall being asked by Harry Keating to assess the library of the Detection Club many, many years ago. He had them stored in his Notting Hill house but by that time it was, sadly, just a rump of what it had been in its glory days and there was little of really great value – financially and figuratively – left on the shelves. Back in the mists of time I can vaguely remember that the DC library had been housed on one of the Channel Islands with Duncan Kyle but I maybe mis-remembering.

    As an aside: Is Anthony Price a member of the DC and is he still with us? I was a great fan of AP but his star has waned somewhat since he stopped writing in 1990. Quality espionage thrillers.


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