This quotation, the title of the last chapter in Martin Edwards’s seminal The Golden Age of Murder, is, as so many things in the study of the genre, from Agatha Christie. The last lines of Mr Edwards’s book are:
The last word belongs to Christie. In 1940, at the height of the Blitz, when she could not know if she or her family and friends would survive for long, she inscribed a copy of Sad Cypress: “Wars may come and wars may go, but MURDER goes on forever!”How right she was. Furthermore, despite all predictions to the contrary, traditional murder and detective fiction go on forever. Nothing could prove that more clearly than the popularity of the British Library series of reprints, first of Victorian but more recently of various half-forgotten Golden Age detective novels and collections of short stories, all of which have been immensely popular.
Martin Edwards’s role in publishing and publicizing the series cannot be overestimated. He has chosen the books, provided highly knowledgeable introductions to a number of them and edited collections of short stories. While doing all that he has been writing his own books and running a blog about detective fiction that is to be recommended to anyone who is even half-way interested in the subject. His greatest achievement to date, however, is this massive volume, a history of the Detection Club in the thirties and forties, a collection of biographies of the extraordinary people who were its members and, incidentally, a history of the genre in the period. That is what I call a useful book.
Not only is it useful but it is wonderfully well written; indeed the story of the Detection Club [photo of one of their dinners above], whose headquarters at 31 Gerrard Street in Soho (though nowadays mostly known as Chinatown) ought to be commemorated with a blue plaque, unfolds like a collection of interlocking thrilling short stories. One cannot say this often enough: the people who created the Club and the genre, which has not died out to this day, were quite extraordinary. And while many of us know the story of Agatha Christie, her sensational disappearance, divorce and second marriage to Max Mallowan, the story of Dorothy L. Sayers and her secret illegitimate son, the story of Margery Allingham (though this is less well known) we do not necessarily know the story of John Dickson Carr, John Rhode/Miles Burton, Henry Wade, Anthony Berkeley, Helen Simpson, Christianna Brand and a number of others. The fact is that despite the rather lazy assumption by people who have recently written about the subject, there were far more writers than just the “Four Queens”, many of them more popular at the time (though Christie overtook most of her colleagues by the forties) and, whisper who dares, many of them men. Nor were these writers particularly cosy in their approach to the subject or, necessarily, conservative in their attitude though I still maintain that somewhere at the heart of the genre there is a conservative moral attitude, which did not mean the same in political and social terms.
Many of the writers were good at hiding details of their own existence and Mr Edwards must have enjoyed playing the detective to uncover matters hidden or just forgotten for a long time.
To me the most interesting “discovery” was the relationship between Anthony Berkeley (real name Anthony Berkeley Cox and also Francis Iles) and the underrated E. M. Delafield, a very popular novelist of the period who dared to touch a lot of rather difficult subjects in her novels but who is known now largely for the delightful series of Provincial Lady diaries, rather deceptive in themselves, and who is often confused with the main character of those books, the Provincial Lady herself. Martin Edwards thinks he has traced a much closer relationship between these two difficult, talented and now half-forgotten writers than most of us, including Violet Powell, Delafield’s biographer realized. Admittedly, the trail that leads through novels more than letters and reminiscences depends a great deal on hypotheses and assumptions but it may not be too far off the truth. (Though I do not believe and neither, I think, does Mr Edwards that Delafield’s husband was abusive, no matter what Anthony Berkeley implied in his novels.)
I do have a couple of bones to pick. One has nothing to do with the author and much to do with the publisher. Is it really not possible for a respectable publisher like HarperCollins to employ a proof-reader? The number of serious errors is outrageous and completely unnecessary: this is not a hastily produced paperback. (I wonder if HarperCollins would consider employing a highly experienced eagle-eyed proof-reader.)
My second bone is to do with the general assumption of what the thirties were like. There were serious economic problems in many parts of the country, especially after the 1929 crash and there was a great deal of uncertainty, both with employment and more generally in the second half of the decade as the probability of another big war became stronger. But, at the same time, it was the decade of much house building, when the well-known two-down-three-up houses with decent sized gardens grew in large numbers and many more families could afford to live in their own homes; it was also the period when many more council and housing association estates went up and these remain far better and more attractive than those built later on; when the popular Morris Minor meant that a good many more people had cars than just Lord Peter Wimsey; when holidays became statutory for many more people. It was also the period when new publishing houses were created and magazines were set up; when writers could live off their writing and the audience for new books and periodicals grew; when
Lane revolutionized publishing and reading by his
brilliant idea of the Penguin paperbacks.
The two views are not mutually exclusive but both are important as we look at the background to the enormous popularity of detective stories, both bought and borrowed from various libraries.
Martin Edwards: The Golden Age of Murder
The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story