Today I’m excited to welcome Golden Age expert and talented crime writer Martin Edwards to Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… Edwards knows far more than I ever could about Golden Age crime fiction and those who created it. You’ll learn more than you could imagine by visiting his blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? – a must for any crime fiction lover’s blog roll. Edwards has just released his new book, The Golden Age of Murder, a unique look at the people who made the Golden Age what it was. Now, without further ado, here he is to talk about it. Writers, you’ll want to learn from his process. Crime fiction fans, you’ll be interested to know what went on ‘behind the scenes.':
It’s kind of Margot to give me the chance to tell readers of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist about my latest book – it’s one that means a great deal to me. The title is The Golden Age of Murder, and although it isn’t a novel, I’ve used novelistic techniques, and undertaken quite a bit of detective work in writing it. In short, I set out to tell a story about detective novels and detective novelists from that extraordinary period in history, the years between the two world wars. It’s a story I found as fascinating as any fictional mystery, and when undertaking my researches I felt rather like a would-be Poirot, presented with endless clues, but also plenty of false trails and red herrings.
The first confession from this particular mystery novelist is that I’ve always had a passion for ingenious and imaginative whodunits. Agatha Christie was the first adult novelist whose work I read, at the tender age of nine, and the intense pleasure her twisty plots and surprise solutions gave me then is something I’ll never forget. As I read more widely, enjoying contemporary crime fiction as well as the classics, it dawned on me that even today’s most prominent cutting-edge authors owe a considerable debt to those who went before.
As well as thousands of detective novels, I’ve devoured countless books about the genre, but none of them offer an in-depth study of the men and women who wrote Golden Age fiction. I kept wondering – how did those writers interact with each other, and how did their membership of the legendary Detection Club, founded by the brilliant yet tormented Anthony Berkeley, inspire them? When I became the Detection Club’s archivist, I was struck not only by the paucity of the records, but also by how little was known about most of its early members. These people were the leading exponents of popular fiction in the Thirties, yet apart from Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and one or two others, most have been forgotten. So (at least until recently – the internet, digital publishing, and the diligent research of enthusiastic bloggers have been a boon) have their novels.
The idea came to me of a book that explored the Golden Age in general, and the Detection Club in particular. I felt I’d like to connect classic detective fiction to the society it came from, and the real life crimes which often influenced it – but this was a mammoth task. Nothing like it had been attempted previously, and I was far from confident that anyone would want to publish it. And how on earth to go about producing such a book? Nevertheless, before long, I became passionate about the project, and spent every spare minute working on it.
After I set up my blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? I found the blogging community very supportive. I was especially gratified by the interest shown in my posts on Forgotten Books. I found myself writing a book that developed some of themes hinted at in those posts, but before long the project took a new direction, as I decided to investigate the early years of the Detection Club’s existence. At first, this meant jettisoning a good deal of interesting material – but at a later stage, I managed to smuggle much of it back in, by way of end notes to chapters…
At one point, an expert in the field whom I’d told about the project suggested that we write the book together. I’ve done a lot of co-writing over the years, and enjoy it, but I felt that this book was too personal for the collaboration to work. But no writer is an island. I did want to take into account the views of others in forming some of my judgments, not least about how best to present all the material I’d accumulated. So I decided to consult a handful of people whom I trusted to be frank yet positive in their appraisal of the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. When I’d written about two-thirds of the draft, I shared it with three leading British novelists – all current members of the Detection Club. Ann Cleeves, Peter Lovesey, and Ruth Dudley Edwards each gave me invaluable help and encouragement. Energised, I pressed on.
When the book was at long last complete, I shared it with four genre experts. Two are American – Douglas Greene (biographer of John Dickson Carr, and founder of that splendid press, Crippen & Landru) and Tom Schantz (renowned bookseller, and owner of the Rue Morgue Press.) One is Irish – John Curran, who decoded Agatha Christie’s secret notebooks. And one is British – Tony Medawar, who is arguably the genre’s leading researcher. Again, they were constructive in their criticisms, and generous in their comments, and they saved me from many errors. So at a late stage did another American expert, Arthur Robinson, when he checked the proofs for me. I owe a great debt to all eight of my “advisers”, as well as many others who have supplied me with precious scraps of fresh information in my hunt for the truth about the Detection Club.
Thankfully, my long quest eventually had a happy ending. I was thrilled when Harper Collins – Agatha Christie’s publishers, no less! – bought the rights to publish The Golden Age of Murder in both the US and the UK. And I was ecstatic when that wonderful novelist Len Deighton read the book before publication, and said that it provides “a new way of looking at old favourites.” That was exactly what I hoped to do, when I started work on the book all those years ago, and such a response made all those years of writing and re-writing seem worthwhile. How others will react to the book, time will tell. But my hope is that it will, at least, convey my love of Golden Age fiction, and perhaps encourage readers who are unfamiliar with some wonderful books of the past to give them a try. Those who do will not, I’m sure, be disappointed.’
Thanks so much, Martin, for your insights! Folks, do check out The Golden Age of Murder.