Martin Edwards. In addition to his latest work The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards is the author of eighteen crime novels, most recently the Lake District Mysteries, and of sixty short stories, including “The Bookbinder’s Apprentice” which won a CWA Dagger and “Acknowledgments” which won the first CWA Margery Allingham Prize.
The Golden Age of Murder
The Golden Age of Murder is a tale of the unexpected. Although I write contemporary crime fiction, I’ve always been fascinated by the detective stories of the Twenties and Thirties. That period is often described as a “Golden Age” of the genre, and the phrase has become associated with cosiness and nostalgia. Well, there’s plenty of that to be found in some of the books. But the best detective fiction written between the wars also offered much more.
Crime writers are, quite naturally, interested in real life crime. We have taken material from actual cases and fashioned them into fiction since the days of Poe and Wilkie Collins. But I suspect that nobody did so more eagerly – and, perhaps, effectively – than the novelists of the Golden Age.
The controversial hanging of Edith Thompson in 1923, for instance, made a conspicuous impact on the genre. Her young lover was the person who actually killed her husband and Edith was, as Anthony Berkeley put it, “executed for adultery”. Her case inspired one of his most interesting and least-known novels, As for the Woman, published under the name Francis Iles. The title came from the dismissive words that the judge used about Edith before sentencing her to death.
Dorothy L. Sayers, who knew what it was like to be a wronged woman, was rather less sympathetic when she created a fictional version of Edith in The Documents in the Case – her only novel without Lord Peter Wimsey, and a rather daring departure in content, style, and theme, that has never quite received the attention that I feel it deserves.
Agatha Christie was also intrigued by Edith’s fate, which was the subject of a play called People Like Us, by the actor and playwright Frank Vosper. There was a real life mystery concerning Vosper’s death – he fell out of a liner into the Atlantic – and during my researches, I found some connections between Christie and Vosper that I found tantalising.
Berkeley founded the Detection Club in 1930, and Sayers and Christie were leading lights. The Club produced several books, collaborations between its members, and these included The Anatomy of a Murder, which contains Sayers’ superb essay on the murder of Julia Wallace. It’s an early example of an attempt to put together a psychological profile of a suspect, to help determine whether he was a killer.
The Detection Club thrives to this day, and I’m proud to be its first archivist, although it came as a disappointment to find that there really were very few items in the archives! So, as well as wanting to research for my book, I had another motive to explore the lives and work of the Club’s early members.
Many of them, although now dimly remembered, were once major figures in the genre. I found that authors such as Milward Kennedy and R.C. Woodthorpe made a greater contribution to the development of crime fiction than has been acknowledged until now. Others, such as Henry Wade, are better known, but still under-valued. Wade’s Lonely Magdalen is, in my opinion, the best police novel of the Golden Age. And Hugh Walpole’s The Killer and the Slain is a brilliant forerunner of the psychological crime stories we devour today.
Not everything written in the Golden Age was equally distinguished, naturally. But I do believe that it is unfortunate that so many fine books and wonderful writers of that era are now overlooked. My hope is that The Golden Age of Murder will help to put that right.
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