When organising my blog tour to celebrate the publication of The Golden Age of Murder, I approached several bloggers whose work I admire, and John is certainly one of them. I’ve learned a huge amount from Pretty Sinister Books, and I share John’s enthusiasm for finding out-of-the-way books from the Golden Age that deserve to be better known.
Long before either John or I developed our love of classic mysteries, Anthony Berkeley Cox, better known as Anthony Berkeley, was writing them, and also reviewing them, usually under the name Francis Iles. His novels and criticism were highly influential, but possibly his most lasting achievement was the foundation of the Detection Club. This was a London-based dining club, the first significant social network for leading detective novelists, and it flourishes to this day. Membership has always been by election (by secret ballot) and the number of members has never been more than about 70.
My own election, in 2008, was a source of great pride to me (but would Berkeley have sniffed that standards have slipped? Who knows? He was an acerbic fellow...) I was subsequently asked to become Club archivist. A great honour, and a supreme thrill for someone as fascinated by the genre’s history as I am. The only snag was that, in reality, there were no archives. I found I was embarking on a voyage of discovery when I tried to find out more about the early days of the Club, and the remarkable people who piloted it through the Thirties.
In trying to build up the archives, I found that I was in effect also undertaking research that influenced the direction of the book about the Golden Age that I’d been writing, on and off, for years. It became a kind of literary quest, to find out the truth about writers whose lives were often as puzzling as their fictional murders. I travelled up and down Britain, talking to descendants of the Detection Club’s early members (including Berkeley’s niece, who proved extremely hospitable when I visited her in Kent), trying to capture memories before it was too late. And thanks to the wonders of cyberspace, I picked up snippets of information from across the globe about Golden Age books and the men and women who wrote them.
The Golden Age of Murder discusses a wide range of authors, and there is also good deal of information about writers who were not members of the Detection Club, although they feature mainly in the chapter end notes; I didn’t want this to be a dry scholastic text with lots of ibids and op.cits, and when Harper Collins bought the rights to publish the book, they made it very clear that they didn’t want it to become overly academic. Neither did I. So although the end notes contain plenty of references to sources, they are also crammed with details about people who made a contribution to the Golden Age, including several unexpected names. There are also plenty of items of trivia that pleased me and will, I hope, entertain as well as inform. This is a 520 page book, so I thought the ends of the chapters provided a good opportunity for readers to draw breath, and take a short break from the ongoing story of the Detection Club!
One challenge for anyone writing about Golden Age puzzles is the question of how to avoid “spoilers”. One solution is to include “spoiler alerts”, but although this device can work effectively in some cases (Douglas G. Greene’s superb biography of John Dickson Carr is the prime example), it can disrupt narrative flow. I decided early on that it would not suit The Golden Age of Murder – I was, after all, using the techniques of the novelist when writing this book. So while there are few if any direct spoilers, it is possible in some cases for astute readers who put their minds to it to figure out a few of the plot twists to which I allude. A price that I thought worth paying in order to avoid a fragmented text (and skipping “spoiler alerts” can itself be rather frustrating, I find.)
Berkeley plays a central part in my story, because the more I learned about him, the more I realised that his life played a crucial part in his fiction. He was a secretive man, with a famously perverse sense of humour, and although he refused to allow much biographical data to become public, and refused to allow his photograph to appear on his books (but two previously unseen pictures appear in my book, thanks to his niece’s generosity), he loved to slip in to his novels portrayals of himself, and people in his circle.
I felt like a detective myself, trying to interpret the clues, and figure out which were the red herrings. Whether my deductions are as fallible as some of those of Berkeley’s main sleuth, Roger Sheringham, who knows? I’m sure there will be people out there ready and willing to correct me. No matter - writing this book has definitely been a labour of love. Of course, I hope that fans of the Golden Age (and perhaps even those who have until now dismissed the novels as old-fashioned and of little merit) will love reading it. Most of all, I hope that it will encourage more people to discover the pleasures of the fine and often neglected mysteries written in an era that was very different from our own – and yet, in some ways, surprisingly similar to it.
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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is now on sale at all the usual online bookselling sites and I'm sure can be ordered from your local bookseller. Get yours now! Mine is in the mail as I write this and I can't wait to dig into its pages.