‘The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story’ by Martin Edwards investigates the mysterious Detection Club of famous crime writers including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Margery Allingham amongst others. While many of the works by these authors have been dismissed by some as “cosy” crime stories compared to the more graphically violent offerings today, Edwards reveals that this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth as he investigates the stories behind the authors, their books and the curious social network that linked them together.
While I had heard of some of the mysteries surrounding Agatha Christie’s life, such as her famous disappearance in 1926, I was much less familiar with the Detection Club itself as well as many of the less prominent authors who were among its original members. The Club was created in 1930 with members elected by invitation, holding dinner meetings and publishing joint works together with several members contributing individual chapters. Although its relevance became less prominent after the so-called Golden Age between 1930 and 1949, the Club still exists today with more recent members including Ian Rankin and Val McDermid.
Edwards has very cleverly structured the book so that the story of the Club and its members unravels like a mystery itself. Touching on elements of the political, social and cultural context of the early 20th century, the book is a winning combination of biographies of the authors and their relationships with each other, woven together with the true crime stories from the era which inspired their novels. Most authors feature elements of their own lives in their fiction but the vast extent to which members of the Detection Club thinly disguised characters and plotlines based on their own acquaintances and experiences is particularly interesting. It also allows Edwards to explore their lives more analytically, laying down possible theories about why their lives developed in the way that they did with plenty of red herrings along the way. As he notes in the opening chapter, “Detective novelists, like their characters, often make suspect witnesses and unreliable narrators” (p.6).
‘The Golden Age of Murder’ is a weighty read with extensive notes and the comprehensive content of the book is a result of “years of research and a lifetime of reading”. Edwards himself is a successful crime fiction novelist as well as a member, archivist and President of the Detection Club and both his knowledge and enthusiasm for the genre is unparalleled. Whether you are a long-time fan of crime fiction novels from the era or someone (like me) who has seen a fair number of TV and film adaptations based on the novels but not actually read that many of them, ‘The Golden Age of Murder’ is a must-read for anyone who enjoys crime fiction.