Sunday, June 21, 2015

When Murder Was Golden

Some years ago I got an electronic subscription to The Spectator, a British magazine known for its ties to the Tory Party. Most of us know it from those essays of Addison and Steele that we read in high school and college. It’s most famous contemporary editor is the mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Though I rarely agree with the Tory political view, the magazine is well written and has an excellent book section. I frequently find out about books that are available here, but not reviewed or in any way noticed.

My latest find in that category is The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards who is himself a mystery writer. Edwards tells the story of The Detection Club, which was founded in London in 1930. Among its early members were Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. It’s first president was G. K. Chesterton.

Its oath said, in part, that members would “do and detect all crimes by honourable means; conceal no
vital clues from the reader; honour the King’s English and observe the oath of secrecy in matters communicated within the brotherhood of the Club.”

My favorite part of the oath is this: “Do you swear to observe a seemly moderation in the use of thugs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to foreswear Mysterious Poisons Unknown to Science?”

I was initially a bit frustrated with the book because Edwards does not always seem very organized. He dwells too long on Agatha Christie’s disappearance and Dorothy Sayers’ illegitimate child. I did uncover what I believe to be the chief trait of the successful mystery writer: girth.

That’s right, guys and gals! Feel free to chow down.

Edwards mentions repeatedly the large size of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. He also mentions that Allingham became so depressed that she underwent ECT. I was a bit surprised by this as I just recently read her wartime memoir, The Oaken Heart, and she seemed absolutely intrepid and unflappable.

But Edwards clearly loves these authors and their work and talks about many other writers not as well known as the founding members of The Detection Club. The book is also filled with interesting tidbits (usually found in footnotes):

W.H. Auden, a mystery addict, was approached to “write a few poems masquerading as the work of P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh.” He was a James fan but died before he could honor the request.

Of the first 10 Penguins published, two were mysteries: The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

Josephine Tey was never invited to become a member of the Club.

Georgette Heyer refused membership, probably, says Mister Edwards, because her husband developed the mystery plots.

The chappie who reviewed The Golden Age of Murder for The Spectator complained that the author never met a Golden Age mystery he didn’t like. But I, for one, was reminded of writers I hadn’t thought about in a while (Anthony Berkeley and Nicholas Blake) and introduced to ones I knew nothing about (Muriel Bowers, Helen Reilly, Raymond Postgate, Anthony Gilbert.)

While I’m sure it’s true that some writers’ reputations fade because their mysteries don’t wear well, it’s also true that many very fine writers never get the recognition they deserve. I’m sure I’m find some gems among these Detection Club members who are now largely unknown.

Stephanie Patterson


  1. I have to add this to my reading list -- although it is as overwhelmed as my desk. I also love that oath. It's interesting to see what those writers -- even with their tongues in their cheeks -- considered unseemly intrusions on the character of "real" mysteries.

  2. i was fascinated by " seemly moderation."! I'd love to sit in on a discussion of a 2015 Mystery Writers Conference in the USA of this oath! tjstraw