The Detection Club

Review: Martin Edwards, ‘The Golden Age of Murder’

Agatha Christie

And in those days, a genius arose among the people, and she taught them greatly the ways of … um, well, the writing of mystery novels. However much it was clearly a breakthrough of small but real genius, what Agatha Christie achieved in 1920 with her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, is hard to describe with any precision.

It wasn’t the character of the detective—Wilkie Collins had solved that problem sixty years earlier, satisfactorily enough that even his friend Charles Dickens was persuaded to try his hand at the genre. But, then, it also wasn’t the sheer puzzle-plot of mystery fiction—the 1880s generation of British writers, staring out their windows at the fog of gaslight London, had managed that all on their own, thank you very much. The breakthrough of the 1920s wasn’t even the setting in the stately homes of England—the picaresque novels of the 18th century, from Tobias Smollett on, had been happy to wander through those locations.

No, what Agatha Christie found was the formula for it all. Like a miniature blown up on to a larger canvas, she took the Arthur Conan Doyle-approved pattern of a 5,000-word Sherlock Holmes story and opened it up to an 80,000-word Golden Age novel. She developed the pleasant and deliberately unremarkable prose the new turn in the genre needed—"invisible prose," we might name it: a style that never rises or sinks enough for the reader to be distracted by becoming aware of the act of reading it. And she figured out how to set in the foreground the rule-bound logic of detective fiction, convincing readers that the author is playing fair.

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The formula seems obvious now, but once upon a time it was new, and surprisingly few authors in the 1920s actually got it. Agatha Christie herself didn’t understand at first what she’d achieved, and she followed The Mysterious Affair at Styles with a few spy stories, in the already fading mode of E. Phillips Oppenheim, thinking that thrillers would lead to popular sales. Even by the late 1920s, the British writers awake to the new formula numbered only in the dozens, and the most successful and professionally admired of them banded together to form a London dinner society called "the Detection Club." Such luminaries as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, the Baroness Emma Orczy, Ronald Knox, R. Austin Freeman, and E.C. Bentley were among them, and they elected G.K. Chesterton as their first president.

It’s here that Martin Edwards takes up the story in The Golden Age of Murder, his delightful new book about the Detection Club. Edwards traces the existence of the club from a crackpot idea of Anthony Berkeley’s through the death of Dorothy Sayers in 1957. (The Detection Club still exists, but The Golden Age of Murder focuses on the foibles and fancies of the founding members.) As it happens, Berkeley was hardly alone in needing the occasional companionship of his peers. His home life was an unhappy mess, and the lives of Sayers and Christie would have periods scarcely better and sometimes worse. The club even included—the suggestion is made—good, old-fashioned, quiet British adultery.

But Edwards has a purpose for all the biographical and bibliographical information he pours into the pages of The Golden Age of Murder. Several purposes, in truth—one of which is his mostly charming but sometimes annoying determination to cram into any available paragraph several of the many factual nuggets he’s uncovered in the course of his prodigious reading. And another is his (again mostly charming but sometimes annoying) boyish belief that these people are just so fascinating that we will be gratified to learn about the works of the lost-in-the-mists-of-time writer R.C. Woodthorpe—and gratified to read about John Rhode’s 1944 mystery, Vegetable Duck, a contender for the worst-titled book of all time.

Edwards’s deepest purpose, however, is to refute the charge of "cozy" that has hung over the Golden Age writers since a rebellious Englishman named Raymond Chandler moved to California and took to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly to denounce the whole project of British detective fiction in a famous 1944 essay called "The Simple Art of Murder." Chandler singled out A.A. Milne’s 1922 The Red House Mystery, which is in truth an awful little book: Trent’s Last Case rewritten without E.C. Bentley’s gentle humor or the genre-busting twist of the final pages. But Chandler intended Milne to stand in for all the rest of the authors who he thought were being surpassed by the new, hardboiled style practiced by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Chandler himself.

If The Golden Age of Murder has an enemy in its sights, Chandler is it, and Edwards relates all the haunted, naughty, and desperate biographical details of the Detection Club’s members to show that they weren’t prissy, namby-pamby people. They were well aware of the intricacies of sin and human deception, and their personal knowledge was echoed in the psychology and settings of their books.

Which might even be true. To the British Golden Age authors ("The crime novel, like the world itself, is ruled by the English," as Bertolt Brecht complained at the time), Chandler was unfair in any particular instance. Christie is darker than readers remember. Chesterton more profound. Berkeley wittier. Sayers more peculiar. But there really was a general tone to it all. Insofar as any tale of murder can be cozy, these books were cozy. They downplayed the dark horror of murder in order to play up the bright logic of detection. And it’s on those grounds that the authors of the Detection Club should be defended—not, I think, on Edwards’s grounds that their work had its own form of hardboiled realism.

Of course, the actual argument of The Golden Age of Murder is almost beside the point. The book is too enjoyable, too enthusiastic, to live or die by the success of its thesis. Martin Edwards has poured down on readers a blizzard of detail about these Golden Age authors, their interconnections down through the years, and the intricacies of their detective stories. And why not? This is fun reading as fun reading is supposed to be—a cozy book to curl up with.