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The Golden Age of Murder

Author, Martin Edwards tells about his journey to discover the beginnings of The Detection Club, leading to his new and fascinating book.

The Golden Age of Murder is a book about the classic detective stories written between the two world wars and the extraordinary people who wrote them. It tells, for the first time, the story of the Detection Club whose members laid the groundwork for the kind of crime fiction people love to read and write in the twenty-first century.

But what is the Detection Club? In essence, it was the very first social network of crime writers to be established anywhere in the world, and it thrives to this day. The fact is that the Club is a small members’ dining club, nothing more, nothing less. Yet during the so-called ‘Golden Age of detective fiction’, it enjoyed a high profile, and made a lasting contribution to the development of the genre.

The Club was founded in 1930, following the success of a series of dinners hosted by Anthony Berkeley Cox at his home in Watford. Cox, better known as Anthony Berkeley, was a leading light in a new generation of crime writes to emerge after the First World War. The years of slaughter had led to a craving for escapism in the Twenties. Writers as well as readers had suffered injury and bereavement during the conflict – Berkeley, for instance, was gassed while serving in the trenches – and they were desperate to have some fun in their lives. The detective story was seen as a game in which the reader pitted his or her wits against the writer’s.

This game-playing ethos loomed large in the Club’s early years. In 1932, a constitution and rules were adopted, and rule one made reference to the importance of ‘playing fair’ with the reader. The clues to the puzzle should be supplied, even if a shoal of red herrings swam around them, so that the reader had a chance of competing with the fictional detective in the race to work out whodunit (or, sometimes, howdunit, or whydunit.)

Berkeley and Dorothy L. Sayers (pictured) were leading lights, and a select group of founder members included Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton (the first President) and, perhaps unexpectedly, A.A. Milne and Hugh Walpole. Before he created Winnie-the-Pooh, Milne had published a celebrated detective story, ‘The Red House Mystery’. Walpole was a prominent man of letters whose occasional ventures into the genre culminated in a posthumously published masterpiece of psychological suspense, ‘The Killer and the Slain’.

The Club raised funds to subsidise its dinners, and to rent meeting rooms in Soho, by writing collaborative mysteries. Two highly successful radio serials were broadcast by the BBC, with successive instalments written by the likes of Walpole, Christie, Sayers, and Berkeley. Their next venture was a full-length “round robin” detective novel, The Floating Admiral, which achieved terrific sales (as it did when republished recently by Harper Collins), and a follow-up, Ask a Policeman, saw members exchanging detectives and parodying each other’s work. An initiation ritual for new members was devised which involved swearing an oath on a skull.

Members were fascinated by true crime, and The Anatomy of Murder was a collection of essays in which they analysed real life cases. These included the Constance Kent case (the subject of that modern bestseller, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher) and the Wallace murder case of 1930, most recently re-investigated by the late P.D. James, herself a pillar of the Detection Club for many years.

After my own election to the Club seven years ago, I was asked to become Club archivist. The only snag was that, in reality, there were no archives... It became a kind of literary quest, to find out the truth about writers whose lives were often as puzzling as their fictional murders. I travelled up and down Britain, talking to descendants of the early members, and trying to capture memories before it was too late. Berkeley plays a central part in my story, because the more I learned about him, the more I realised that his life played a crucial part in his fiction. He was a secretive man, with a famously perverse sense of humour, and although he refused to allow much biographical data to become public, and even refused to allow his photograph to appear on his books, he loved to slip in to his novels portrayals of himself, and people close to him.

I felt like a detective myself, trying to interpret the clues, and figure out which were the red herrings, and writing the book definitely became a labour of love. Above all, I hope it will encourage more people to discover the pleasures of the fine and often neglected mysteries written in an era that was very different from our own – and yet, in some ways, astonishingly similar to it.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is available now from HarperCollins.

 

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