We live in a world where the 80 novels and collections of short stories by Agatha Christie are in no doubt — she wrote them, they were published, and they will doubtless be available in perpetuity. This is equally true of the work of John Dickson Carr, though less readily available, or Miles Burton or Christianna Brand; the work is closed, finished, and while an occasional unknown one may appear at some point, it’s reasonable to assume that there’s nothing meaningful to be added to these bibliographies.
The tempting extension to the understanding of there being nothing new forthcoming from these authors is to assume that there’s also nothing new to be written about these authors…until you realise just how little about them as people you really know. Hell, I — after realising at some point in the last ten years that classic era detective fiction is where my heart really lies — am still trying to read enough of the books in the genre to be able to discuss it with any authority, never mind also having a sense of the people involved in the writing of the books. Indeed, in my mind I suppose there’s always been a sort of natural inversion in expectation when it comes to the authors of genuine classics from yesteryear and the prevailing publishing trend of today: now you become famous first (via television, radio, YouTube, etc) as a result of which you get offered a publishing deal, so it stood to reason in my mind that a certain occlusion of writers from the 1930s — who did the writing first and then happened to become famous because of that writing — was inevitable. They wrote in less publicity-minded times, and, as mentioned above, the book of their life and works is now closed.
Well, as it turns out, not so much. Led by the savvy, advertising-honed brain of Dorothy L. Sayers — partly responsible, I learned, for those toucan-themed Guinness adverts — the detective fiction writers of the 1930s actively courted publicity and sought to devise their own sense of branding well before branding of authors was a thing. I’m guilty of not realising this in my analyses of radio serials ‘Behind the Screen’ (1930) and ‘The Scoop’ (1931), two novella-length dramas written as collaborations shortly after the formation of the Detection Club that clearly screamed for people to pay attention to a new formal undertaking of literary gamesmanship — essentially the Marvel Cinematic Universe of its time (though not a consistent universe in the same way, since a novel by one author could contain mentions of novels by other authors, rendering those fiction within the first author’s fictional world…my advice is not to think about this too hard). Sure, a lot of the people involved may have still shied away from the limelight, especially since more than a few of them held secrets close to their hearts that they would have preferred remain undisturbed, but the fact remains that a collegiate undertaking was nevertheless undertaken for the purposes of achieving some sense of notice and interest.
The immediate assumption is that this was a purely pecuniary undertaking — hell, no-one is immune to the charms of wealth, as even G.K. Chesterton, first President of the Detection Club, wrote at one point:
The glitter of guineas is like the glitter of buttercups, the chink of pelf is like the chime of bells, compared with the dreary papers and dead calculations which make the hobby of the modern miser.
But, see, the genius of Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is that it makes these realisations feel both revelatory and also somewhat obvious, without ever talking down to its readership in either regard. Edwards makes you see the people behind these undertakings, these people who are best known to us as lists of the books they wrote and the books we love and the books we deride and the books we desperately seek, he makes you see them as people. The story he spins here, of branding and fame and creativity pushed to its limits, is fundamentally a story of hugely motivated but damaged and afraid and boastful and frustrating people who found common ground and delighted in doing so. Hell, chances are that you — reading this — are the only person you know in real life who has any interest in reading mysteries from the 1930s. Hopefully blogs like this, the annual Bodies from the Library conference, magazines such as CADS, groups on Facebook, and the general connectedness afforded by the interwebs allow you to share in that enthusiasm, but still reading this sort of thing feels at times like a rather lonely prospect.
Now imagine what it must have been like writing the stuff before such easy connectivity existed. Not only do you sit on your own for hours a day putting the words down, but equally you probably fear talking about it lest someone either give the game away prior to publication or, worse, someone else turns out to have written that exact idea and gets it out before you. For all the common themes present in GAD — impatient heirs, unhappy husbands, social conventions, easy access to poison (seriously, so many people just went out and bought arsenic…) — the time you come across a genuinely original approach or intriguing idea sure to stand out from the crown must have been equally thrilling and terrifying. We have the benefit of knowing how successfully Christie exploited the idea that came to her from travelling on the Orient Express, or how fully Sayers pushed the boundaries of the detective novel, but Edwards makes you feel the excitement of these burgeoning ideas, and of the possibilities still open to the writers he features.
The Detection Club, then, while still a place for a certain guardedness over one’s ideas, was a chance for these authors to meet with others from this lonely profession who would understand, a social club for the voluntarily unsocial. They didn’t necessarily all like each other, and there’s no suggestion that the authors involved became lifelong friends as a result of this de facto membership — not least because they often took an excessive interest in the curiosities of each others’ lives before knowing they would later meet — but even if they didn’t always see eye-to-eye it was at least somewhere to meet people who would understand. No doubt this applies to varying degrees for the various authors, but the case put across for the Club’s reinvigoration of Christie following the opprobrium and suspicion directed at her following her 11 day disappearance is as compelling as any murderous motive laid out in fiction. Indeed, the involvement of so many authors from this era betokens some deeper purpose served by the Detection Club that might even remain palpable if undefined — a great many, possibly all, of the very best practitioners of these arts accepted membership, lets not forget, and the tying of so many luminaries to a simple common cause should not be overlooked.
The sheer number of writers whose lives and works must be covered in order to give even a decent overview of this era and this field are legion. By the halfway stage we’re already treated to superbly informed portraits of Sayers, Christie, Anthony Berkeley, J.J. Connington, and G.D.H. and Margaret Cole — filling is such details of their private lives as I never imagined — as well as mentions of the influence of Philip MacDonald, Ellery Queen, S.S. van Dine, Ronald Knox, Hugh Walpole, and Ngaio Marsh, with Margery Allingham, Nicholas Blake, John Dickson Carr, Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode, and Henry Wade still to come…and that’s a very selective cross-section of what you get! It’s a tricky tapestry to weave, and at times Edwards must jump back and forth over himself in order to draw his threads together, never losing track of the personal lives of these authors nor the real life tragedies that informed and enriched so many of their professional undertakings.
I can well believe that this must have been more complex to write than any plot yet wrangled in fiction, and Edwards remains a calm, enlightening, and dryly humourous narrator throughout — admitting flaws in authors’ works or attitudes without resulting to lazy pillory, and prone to delightful turns of phrase such as “The arrival of a mysterious box of chocolates became a recurrent hazard in the lives of Golden Age characters, but the concept of talking hedges was too strange for fiction” (I shall leave it to you to discover the context of that one…). I don’t feel, looking back over the above, that I’ve done justice to just how much this book has impacted my perspective of GAD, giving a shape to the structure that I felt I understood well enough, but filling in the background with such richness of detail that I suppose would have occurred to me at some point but always consciously hovered just out of reach (ha, I’m overestimating my own insight here — most of this would have eluded me, but I feel like I’ve reached some staggering revelation after Edwards has gently led me by the hand into everything).
Best of all, this is a loving homage to the people behind the books so many of us love so much, untainted by either over-enthusiasm or obvious distaste for the work they did, brilliantly separating the people from the books but showing how the latter could only have been produced by this particular set of the former, their flaws and shortcomings as vital a piece of the process as anything else they brought. If was as GAD fans have much to be grateful for in the formation of the Detection Club for providing an outlet or a common purpose that helped inspire or promote so many of the books we love, we can be doubly grateful for Martin Edwards’ impassioned, fair, and hugely authoritative tracing of its history, purpose, and impact. I’m sure you’re all ahead of me in reading this, but on the off-chance I’m not the last GAD fan on the planet to have read it, I urge you to track it down at the earliest opportunity.
‘Reflections on Detection’ will be the theme of my Tuesday posts this month, even though I didn’t get to do all four of the intended mysteries for younger readers in November. No fear, I shall just do another month of mysteries for younger readers at some future point.