Saturday, May 09, 2015

Talking About the Detection Club

It is often said that the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” took place in between the two World Wars. For my money, such a characterisation is far too simplified and gives rise to a popular narrative Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder sets out, which treats Golden Age fiction like some freak of nature which popped up between the two world wars because [insert pet sociological theory here]. I cringe whenever this view of the genre’s history is brought up, all too often by authors eagerly assuring you that their stuff transcends all that silly puzzle nonsense and Asks Really Deep Questions [translation: There Is No Plot].

The truth is, the Golden Age was a time of great variety and experimentation within the genre, and The Detection Club was formed in the late 20s in England. The exclusive club gave authors a chance to socialize, and since membership was attained only by secret ballot, it was also a way to ensure the quality of the genre remained high. Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder looks at the men and women who were members of The Detection Club during the Golden Age. It’s an enormous project, one which might overwhelm a lesser man.

The good news is, it’s a great read. This book is a love letter to the classic books and authors. Martin Edwards has clearly read his stuff and knows a lot about it. He examines the members of the Detection Club and looks at their work and how it reflected their desire to innovate. He talks about people like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but he also extensively discusses the work of such members as Henry Wade and Anthony Berkeley.

The book is written with enthusiasm, warmth, and humour. Along the way, Martin Edwards debunks several false narratives about the Golden Age. For instance, he denounces the oft-parroted claim that this was a time dominated by “Crime Queens” (i.e. Sayers, Allingham, Christie, Marsh, and Josephine Tey for bonus points). He proclaims such a view as lazy scholarship, and instead takes the time to seriously look at neglected writers such as John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts, and John Dickson Carr.

There are limitations to a project like this. Despite the book’s enormous size, Edwards cannot cover everything. His scope requires the omission of some things and the considerable simplification of others. Martin Edwards limits the scope of the “Golden Age” to the period in between the two world wars, but this is likely due to the limitations necessary for the publication of the book. I would personally argue for a view of the Golden Age that extends throughout the 1940s. Another victim of simplification is G. K. Chesterton. A recent biography of Chesterton by Ian Ker ran to 784 pages—I’m still in the process of reading it—whereas The Golden Age of Murder is comparatively slim at a mere 448 pages. I would argue that Chesterton is still well remembered for his spiritual writing, especially in Catholic circles, whereas in the course of the book Edwards claims that he is more remembered for the creation of Father Brown. However, if this is the extent of the criticism I can give the book, I think Martin Edwards has done his job very nicely indeed. (For instance, I was very uncharitable towards P. D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction.)

I was particularly delighted at all the true-crime scholarship throughout the book. Martin Edwards has done an absolutely brilliant job digging through the true crimes which inspired these writers and some of their plots. There are some familiar cases, such as the Dr. Crippen affair and the Charles Bravo poisoning, but then there are some cases which are much more obscure, such as the death of Cecil Hambrough (which may or may not have been murder), or the murder of Emily Kaye.

Author Martin Edwards
I would like to point out one thing: I did not get a review copy in advance. Thus, my Kindle edition was downloaded to my device at midnight on May 7th. As I write this review, it is currently 6:30 PM on May 9th. My point is, I have already finished this 448-page book, and I found it irresistible reading, very hard to put down. Martin Edwards has succeeded in making The Golden Age of Murder a veritable page-turner. So much of his passion for the genre has been transferred to the page that it made for a real pleasure to read.

The Golden Age of Murder is a very good overview of the members of the Detection Club during the Golden Age. Though there are some limitations to this project because of its sheer enormity, Martin Edwards is more than up to the challenge. This is a work of passion, a work which I hope will do much to revise lazy narratives about the history of detective fiction. If you are a casual fan just dipping your toe into the waters of classic mysteries, or if you’re a hard-core fan eager to learn more about how these great writers interacted, this is an accessible page-turner of a book for you.

6 comments:

  1. Great review Patrick (and welcome back by the way - is this just a pre-birthday treat or shall we be reading you more frequently from now on?). I'm not going to agree with you about Chesterton though - certainly in terms of what gets reprinted, which i think is a fair barometer, it is only his mystery fiction that we see in new editions.

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    1. That's not strictly true. "Orthodoxy" (which is in the public domain, and thus a cheap title to make) is also a fairly popular reprint. I must admit to bias as a member of the American Chesterton Society, and also as a Catholic, which has put me into contact with plenty of people who admire his spiritual writings. I myself really like them, although I'm far from being an authority. There could also just be a geographical difference, where I'm experiencing more reprints because more are available in my area than in yours.

      I'm hoping these blogs of mine can become semi-regular over the summer (with the exception of May 21st to June 25th, when I will be on retreat and away from the Internet altogether). I'm not expecting anything as prolific as some of the months I've had on here in the past, but I have a relaxed summer job (as opposed to working the line at Toyota) which will permit me to do some more reading if I like.

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    2. The Collected Works of Chesterton are being reprinted by Ignatius Press.

      "I would argue that Chesterton is still well remembered for his spiritual writing, especially in Catholic circles"

      I would agree with you.

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    3. "He proclaims such a view as lazy scholarship, and instead takes the time to seriously look at neglected writers such as John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts, and John Dickson Carr."

      Rhode (John Street), Crofts and Carr haven't been neglected by everyone, surely, but I know what you mean. Martin's book must be a tremendous improvement over that of, say, such a popular book as Lucy Worsley's, which very much sticks to the traditional script.

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    4. Curt, of course they haven't been neglected by *everyone*. But thinking back to P. D. James' book, I think Carr got a grand total of a half-sentence devoted to him. Crofts may have suffered the same fate, but I'm pretty sure there was no mention of Rhode. I think "neglected" is the proper word for that.

      Looking at the market today, these writers are unfairly neglected. The Mysterious Press has brought a bunch of Carrs back into e-book form (and in Canada, those books are on e-book form thanks to The Murder Room), but Rhode is only present in the market thanks to some obscure (and probably not-quite-legal) e-publishing venture, and there's only marginal Crofts out there.

      This is why I'm glad Martin's book does what it does -- hopefully it revives some interest for these old books and authors... and maybe we can see them finally reprinted!

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    5. "Curt, of course they haven't been neglected by *everyone*. But thinking back to P. D. James' book, I think Carr got a grand total of a half-sentence devoted to him. Crofts may have suffered the same fate, but I'm pretty sure there was no mention of Rhode"

      Well, yes, of course that's so on James, but I was thinking of my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (60,000 words on Street) and Doug Greene's Carr bio; also Carr gets a bit of a workout in Mysteries Unlocked. (I understand some of these works are mentioned in the endnotes.) Of course when HarperCollins gets behind the recognizing these authors, it makes a difference, as obviously the book will reach a larger audience.

      My belief is the Streets, some of them at least, will be reprinted in some form, due to the success of the British library project. Once John Bude is selling in the tends of thousands, others will inevitably follow. I would like to see all his books made available as eBooks, at least, but that may prove trickier.

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