Thursday, May 07, 2015

Go for the Golden Age

(Editor’s note: British attorney-turned-author Martin Edwards has lately been making a grand tour of crime-fiction blogs [see here, here, and here, for instance], touting the publication of his latest non-fiction volume, The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story--which has its official release today. You might remember reading on this page about Edwards’ superb 2008 standalone thriller, Dancing for the Hangman, but hes also penned a series of novels starring Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin (Waterloo Sunset) and another succession of mysteries set in England’s Lake District (The Frozen Shroud), and as an editor he’s produced more than a few mystery-fiction anthologies. As if all that weren’t enough to carve his name in the genre’s history, in 2007 Edwards was appointed Archivist of the UK Crime Writers Association and four years later he became the Archivist of the Detection Club. That last role fed his interest in the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction and helped inspire his new book, about which he writes below.)

The first crime novels I ever read, as a young boy, were written by Agatha Christie. I loved the puzzles, the clues, the red herrings, and the surprise solutions, and with the boldness of youth, I conceived an ambition. One day, I wanted to write stories that entertained others the way Christie entertained me. Since I was only 8 or 9 at the time, many years had to pass before I wrote a book good enough to be bought by a publisher. But the ambition never wavered.

In writing my first novel, All the Lonely People (1991), I was combining two contrasting types of story. My setting was urban and dark--Liverpool, at a bleak time in the city’s history--and the tone and content of the book reflected that. After all, by this time, I loved not only Christie, but Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, and all the rest. The story included plenty of sleazy scenes, and a body was found on a municipal rubbish tip rather than in a library, but it was also a whodunit that reflected some, at least, of the plot elements of Golden Age mysteries (much later, I discovered a Golden Age novel with an identical crime scene--it really is hard to be truly original!). There were clues, misdirection, and a twisty ending. The same was true of later books in the Harry Devlin series. Eve of Destruction (1996) had a “dying message clue” in the Ellery Queen style. The Devil in Disguise (1998) was a conscious homage to Christie, although again hidden inside a dark wrapping.

I was lucky with reviews of the Liverpool books, but one thing baffled me. They were frequently described as “gritty,” and Eve of Destruction was even called an “erotic thriller,” which I found slightly over-the-top. But none of the critics picked up on the Golden Age elements in the stories. This set me wondering. Had I been over-subtle? More likely, perhaps, Golden Age tropes were so out of vogue that nobody cared about them anymore. Christie continued to sell, of course, but she is in a league of her own. My enthusiasm for the Golden Age was hopelessly unfashionable. Most of the authors from the years between the two world wars were forgotten. Almost all of their books were unobtainable.

How much has changed since then. The Internet, in general, and the blogosphere, in particular, have enabled people with shared enthusiasms to make contact through cyberspace, and exchange and disseminate information about obscure books and writers. And the revolution in publishing technology, with e-books and print-on-demand, has made it possible for old books to be revived at affordable prices.

I’ve been working on a book about detective fiction’s history for more than a decade, but even five years ago, I’d never have dreamed that I’d be able to persuade a major publisher such as HarperCollins to take it. Recently, though, we’ve seen an astonishing upsurge in interest in mysteries from the past. The distance of time now allows us to see that these books--flawed though some of them are--represent a hugely important part of our cultural heritage. And the authors may not have intended this to be so, but their books cast fascinating light on the times in which they lived as well as on their own, carefully concealed, private lives. Yes, some of the stories are cozy and conventional. But a significant number of the best Golden Age books are daring and very different.

(Right) Author Martin Edwards

This is one of the themes of The Golden Age of Murder. I’ve told the story of the times from the point of view of members of the Detection Club, and this gives the story its narrative thread. But I also wanted to share the fruits of years of research, and include lots of trivia and fun facts. The result is a big book, yes, but a book that I hope readers will want to return to time and again.

Small presses are doing a great job of resurrecting obscure titles, often as very cheap e-books. What is even more extraordinary is the success of the British Library’s Crime Classics series (the books are distributed in the States by Poisoned Pen Press). I’m the series consultant, and I write the introductions to almost all of the books, In the past eighteen months or so, more than a quarter of a million paperbacks have been sold, and last Christmas, Mystery in White (1937), by the long-forgotten J. Jefferson Farjeon, was the number-one best-seller, outselling Gone Girl among other major titles.

For the moment, at least, the Golden Age is back in fashion. So it’s perfect timing for the appearance of The Golden Age of Murder--I hope! I’ve tried to explain why detective novels written between the wars deserve a better fate than to be dismissed as “snobbery with violence.” People do care who killed Roger Ackroyd, and the real snobbery is demonstrated by those who deride readers for caring about mysteries. If my book encourages some folks to think again about early 20th-century novels and authors they dismissed previously, it will have served a worthwhile purpose. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had from the best Golden Age fiction, and plenty to be learned. We’ll see what happens, but suffice to say that I was immensely heartened by an early review from Sarah Weinman which said: “this love he has for crime fiction permeates every page of this book.” That’s exactly what I was trying to convey.

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