Martin Edwards's wonderful new book The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story gives a history of the modern detective novel, including going back to its roots: the legendary Detection Club, which included members like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Here, Edwards traces the detective novel through the decades, and the many forms its taken on the way to its current form.
Millions of readers are, like me, enthralled by the books of Gillian Flynn and Ruth Rendell, of Lee Child and Laura Lippman. But most fans of modern crime fiction are only vaguely aware of the writers who invented the modern detective novel. Yes, everyone knows the name of Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers also remains popular to this day. But how many of their gifted contemporaries are remembered? Very few. And that is a pity, because their books are enjoyable, and the story of how they came to write them is utterly fascinating.
Edgar Allan Poe is widely credited as the author of the first detective story, and Arthur Conan Doyle as the creator of the most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. But their best detective fiction, other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, came in the form of short stories. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who at one time was regarded as second only to Holmes among the Great Detectives, only appeared in short stories, never in a full-length book. Often the mysteries concerned crimes other than murder, such as burglary, and jewel thefts, which were a staple of the popular stories about the “amateur cracksman” A. J. Raffles
The roots of the modern detective novel can be traced back to Trent’s Last Case, written by E.C. Bentley, and published in 1913. Bentley intended to write an ironic exposure of detective fiction, but the book’s cleverness and lightness of touch meant that readers took it seriously, and it became a wildly successful best-seller. Above all, it influenced a new generation of writers after the First World War.
Two writers whose first books appeared in 1920 led the way in creating the modern detective novel. Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced Hercule Poirot, and a type of detective story where readers were invited to pit their wits against her sleuth’s. The focus was on the puzzle rather than on in-depth characterisation, and on a challenge to the intellect.
Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask, a meticulous account of a police investigation into a missing cask that contains a woman’s body parts, sold much more briskly than Christie’s debut at first. Crofts was highly regarded by that passionate fan and occasional critic of detective fiction, T.S. Eliot, and his fetish for accuracy of detail meant that his stories were impressively intricate if not always nerve-racking. He specialised in seemingly unbreakable alibis that could only be cracked by his painstaking cop, Inspector French.
Crofts’ style of writing attracted several disciples, including the prominent left-wing economist G.D.H. Cole, who wrote a long series of mysteries in collaboration with his wife Margaret. Another was Henry Wade, a member of the aristocracy who soon realised that the key to success was to marry a clever plot with credible characterisation. Wade was a Justice of the Peace whose understanding of real life police procedure helped him to write police novels that combined authenticity with entertainment. His crowning achievement was The Lonely Magdalen, a superbly constructed mystery about the murder of a prostitute that wasn’t remotely cosy or conventional. Wade’s police story is at least as gripping as any written by that post-war American master, Ed McBain.
Christie’s duels with her readers were in keeping with the times – this was the age of “game fever”, when crossword puzzles were invented, and became massively popular. After all the bloodshed during the war, readers (and authors) wanted to escape. That is why Christie and her contemporaries refused to wallow in gore – they had had their fill of it in real life. Everyone knew someone who had been injured or killed, and several war-wounded former soldiers turned to writing detective fiction in peacetime. Wade was one, Milward Kennedy and John Rhode were among the others.
Anthony Berkeley, who was gassed by the German military, and suffered ill-health for the rest of his life as a result, was the most brilliant of Christie’s contemporaries. She described him in her private notebook as a “fantastic” writer. A clever, but difficult man, he wrote ingenious mysteries such as The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in which he came up with no fewer than half a dozen solutions to a murder puzzle.
Not content with that, he adopted the name Francis Iles for a trio of ground-breaking novels of psychological suspense, starting with Malice Aforethought. This classic crime novel, with its focus on the mind-set of a murderer, set the genre in a new direction. Berkeley, like many of his Detection Club colleagues, was obsessively intrigued by real life murder cases, and their fascination with morbid psychology was often reflected in their work.
After the Second World War, a new generation of writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, Ruth Rendell, and recently Sophie Hannah, would explore criminal psychology with skill and insight, but it is a shame that Berkeley’s pioneering work is frequently overlooked.
In 1930, Berkeley founded the Detection Club. This was a small dining club, which was very choosy about its membership. Berkeley, like his friend Dorothy L. Sayers, fervently believed that crime fiction ought to be well-written and ambitious, and they practised what they preached. Christie, Crofts, and Wade were among the founder members, and soon the Club became a by-word for excellence in crime writing. It also functioned as a support network for its writers. Christie, Berkeley, and Sayers had all suffered personal crises in the late Twenties. For them, Detection Club meetings were more than just enjoyable social occasions. They were a lifeline.
Detection Club members made a lasting contribution to the genre. Sayers, for instance, strove to turn the detective story into the “novel of manners”, and books like The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night continue to attract devotees, and to influence present day authors. J. K. Rowling is a Sayers fan, and there are hints of Sayers’ influence in her splendid detective novels written as Robert Galbraith.
In the United States, there was no equivalent to the Detection Club, and Howard Haycraft, who wrote a notable early history of the genre, regarded the Club as “one inestimable advantage denied to their American brethren”. An air of mystery has always clung to the Detection Club, and there was even uncertainty for many years as to when exactly it came into existence. The members were jealous of their personal privacy, often refusing to allow their publishers to release biographical information about them. Berkeley refused to allow his photograph to appear on his books. He was one of several members who had good cause to keep his private life secret.
Golden Age novels reflected the times during which they were written. Inevitably, many of the attitudes on display are different from those of the twenty-first century. But for too long, even the best of these books have suffered unfairly from critical prejudice. Hugely enjoyable in their own right, they give a fascinating insight into a vanished world. What is more, they set the pattern for crime fiction for decades to come. The time is ripe to rediscover the Golden Age of Murder.