Private Notes to The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

This blog post was intended as a private note, but I thought it might be of some interest to regular or occasional readers.

20170323_155457-1(Please, do note some quotes are not literal, though I hope I have not modified its meaning)

  • The term ‘Golden Age of detective fiction’, was coined by John Strachey in 1939, to represent the kind of mystery books that were in vogue in Great Britain during the 1920s and 30s, that is to say, throughout the period comprised between the two World Wars. Though there’s no widespread agreement to determine how long it lasted, some scholars coincide in highlighting that the ‘phoney war’ not only marked the start of war, but it also served to anticipate the end of the Golden Age of detective fiction – barely nine months after John Strachey introduced the term. Nothing will ever be quite the same again. Even though Christie and her disciples continued to produce new books, and enjoy much success, long after that time, but most of the classic detective fiction appeared between the wars.
  • For Strachey, like so many of his contemporaries, detective fiction offered much-needed escape from grim reality and dread about what the future might hold. Knowing that his name appeared on a Nazi death list, he had a suicide pill prepared. If Germany invaded Britain, he expected to be tortured before being killed, and suicide seemed preferable. (page 390)
  • During the Golden Age the main market for commercial fiction was the libraries. … Roughly three-quarters of the borrowers were woman and woman’s tastes and interests influenced detective novelists in their work. This helps to explain the distance that existed between Golden Age fiction and thrillers aimed at a masculine readership. (page 308).
  • Mystery has shrouded the origins of the Detection Club. Julian Symons, a historian as well as a crime writer of distinction and former Club President, mistakenly wrote that the Club started in 1932. The Club itself continues to circulate a private list of members’ details giving the same date. The misunderstanding arouse because a formal constitution and rules were not adopted until 11 March 1932, but the Club effectively came into existence two years earlier, and its origins date back to 1928. (page 82)
  • The first dinners were hosted by Berkeley and his wife Peggy, and held at their home. … , and although there are no known records to identify the attendees, it is safe to assume they included Sayers, Christie, Douglas and Margaret Cole, Ronald Knox, Henry Wade, H. C. Bailey, and John Rhode. All of them lived either in London or within easy reach, and were members of the generation of detective novelists whose careers began after the end of the war. (page 83)
  • To begin with, many Detection Club members treated their novels like a game, and consciously tried to `play fair`with their readers. Before long, subversives like Berkeley found it was more exciting to break the rules.  (page 106).
  • Detection Club members were escapists, just as much as their readers. The Twenties and Thirties supplied plenty of reasons for people to yearn for a break from their everyday lives …. For readers the chance to read a mystery set somewhere unfamiliar added to the pleasure of discovering whodunit. (page 217). The cliché that detective novelists routinely ignored social and economic realities is a myth. The trouble was that many readers were not in the mood for realism. They wanted to be entertained by light-hearted films and plays, and novels set in fascinating places. (Pages 260-61). Information Received, the debut novel of Punshon’s policeman hero Booby Owen, which earned Sayers’ admiration contradicts the glib assumption of critics who claim that social comment is absent from Golden Age detective novels; innumerable other examples are to be found in Punshon’s work, and that of many of his colleagues. (page 284).
  • During the Golden Age, detective novelists usually kept their readers in the dark about the solution to the crime. The climax of the story was the revelation of whodunit, or occasionally how it was done. But there was another way to maintain suspense, … A writer could show readers the carrying out of an ingenious and apparently foolproof crime, and then describe how the detective solved the case – an ‘inverted’ detective story. (page 286). ‘Here the usual conditions are reversed: the reader knows everything, the detective knows nothing, and the interest focuses on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstances.’ (page 287). The appeal of the form has endured, and in the television age, the inverted stories of Columbo achieved enormous popularity. (page 288).
  • A myth has grown up that Golden Age detective fiction was an essentially British form of escapism in response to the First World War, an effete counterpart to the tough and realistic crime fiction produced in the United States…. Hammett’s first two crime novels appeared in 1929, and The Maltese Falcon followed as the Detection Club was becoming established. Yet the distinction often drawn between the two countries is simplistic. In the US, tough guys and traditionalists co-existed until the Second World War. (page 116).
  • The key difference between the two countries, according to the American critic Howard Haycraft, was the existence of the highly honourable company of the Detection Club. … Haycraft believed the Club gave British writers ‘one inestimable advantage denied to their American brethren’ – and to their colleagues in continental Europe, he might have added if crime fiction in translation had been as popular as it is today. (page 116). The Detection Club fostered a collegiate spirit which buttressed members’ determination to try out fresh ideas – and to keep going in the face of the disappointments which are part and parcel of a writer’s life. (page 117).
  • The quality of what she (Christie) wrote was mixed, but that was inevitable, partly because she was so prolific, but also because she was never afraid to take a risk and try something new. (page 154).
  • A. A. Milne reckoned that it the detective novel was a game, readers and writers needed to know the rules. When The Red House Mystery (1922) was reprinted in 1926, he set out half a dozen key points:
    1. The story should be written in good English.
    2. Love interest is undesirable.
    3. Both detective and villain should be amateurs.
    4. Scientific detection is `too easy`. 
    5. The reader should know as much as the detective.
    6. There should be a Watson: it is better for the detective ‘to watsonize’ than soliloquize. (page 113).
  • Berkeley believed firmly in distinguishing between detective fiction, thrillers and novels of psychological interest, and deplored the general term ‘mystery’. (page 135)
  • The question of when murder can be justified is tackled so often – and so inventively – in books by Detection Club members that it was surely debated over drinks in Gerrard Street. Christie was so fascinated by the notion that it inspired three of her finest plots. (page 331). The widespread consensus that Christie and company never questioned the status quo is widely mistaken (page 358). Read, for example, Five Little Pigs
  • The sunset of the Golden Age yielded the ultimate masterpiece of traditional detective fiction. And Then There Were None, published two months after the outbreak of war is Christie’s most stunning achievement. (page 398). ….. As in Murder on the Orient Express, Christie is using the classic whodunit form to explore how to secure justice for innocent victims when the conventional legal system fails to do its job. (page 399).
  • Yet during the Golden Age, writers who enjoyed and wrote detective fiction were as diverse, and as geographically scattered as Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges, Australia’s Miles Franklin, Paul McGuire and Arthur Upfield (an Englishman who emigrated at the age of twenty), and Europeans such as Karel Čapek, Friedrich Glauser, Stanislas-André Steeman, and the creator of Maigret, Georges Simenon. (page 223).

See also Martin Edwards blog post at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’ under the title Top 10 Golden Age novels

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