Trending: Why is the Golden Age fashionable again?

By Martin Edwards (adapted from a talk given at the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Week-end, August 2016)

In Britain, and various other parts of the world, Golden Age detective stories are at present enjoying a renaissance. I’ll examine this more closely in a moment, but first, I’d better define my terms. What do I mean by “the Golden Age”? Of course, it’s a vague phrase, and capable of many different interpretations. There is no single “right” definition. But I agree with those who argue that there is a compelling logic in defining the Golden Age as the period between the two world wars (or, if you prefer to put a slight gloss on it, between the ends of both wars).

I explored the background in some detail in The Golden Age of Murder, but briefly, it seems to me that the game-playing aspect of the detective novel came to the fore during the “play fever” years after the Armistice. People who had lived through years of slaughter just wanted to have fun. And Christie, Sayers and the rest provided precisely that.

From the early Thirties on, however, economic stresses and international anxieties meant that the shadow of war began to loom again. Interest in psychology deepened, and many of the leading crime writers tackled the notion of the “altruistic crime”. In other words, if the legal system is impotent, when does true justice make murder legitimate, or even desirable?

This question is, without giving the game away, at the heart of two of Christie’s most famous novels, of Anthony Berkeley’s brilliantly ironic mystery Trial and Error, and books by John Dickson Carr and several others.

Once the war was over, though, the world had changed again. Christie, Carr and others continued to write (although Sayers, Berkeley and many of their peers gave up) but – crucially – they were no longer the innovators. The likes of Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, and Julian Symons took the crime novel in a fresh direction.

Naturally, a good many other definitions of the Golden Age have been suggested over the years, and I enjoyed Pete Johnson’s contribution to the debate in CADS 72. But although I share Pete’s admiration for Patricia Moyes’ excellent whodunit Who Killed Simon Warwick? , published in 1978, I can’t see that it’s logical to define the Golden Age by reference to a single book, especially one that (for all its merits) made no major impact, and wasn’t even its author’s final novel. Nor does it seem meaningful to define the end of the Golden Age by the year of death of a particular author.

Of course, books featuring the tropes we associate with the Golden Age appeared before the First World War, and in particular after the Second. There were enjoyable post-war books from Christie and many others; even my own first series of books in the Nineties, about Harry Devlin, represented a conscious effort to marry Golden Age story elements (dying message clues, impossible crimes, and so on) with a portrayal of contemporary urban society. But to my mind, Moyes, Sarah Caudwell, and similar writers were working in the Golden Age tradition, which is not the same thing as saying that the Golden Age continued while they were writing. It seems to me that the patterns of Golden Age fiction were laid, and most brilliantly refined, between the two wars.

Next question. Is it really true that Golden Age fiction is enjoying a revival?

Surely the answer has to be yes. Let me take as an example the amazingly successful British Library series of Crime Classics. Now, some of the books’ publication dates fall outside my definition of “the Golden Age”, but not too many. And the statistics are worth considering.

So far, in the UK alone, over 600,000 paperbacks have been sold in the series – in the space of two and a half years. Not counting ebooks. Every single time a new book appears in the series, it enters the Bookseller Magazine’s chart for small publishers: quite a feat. Sometime next year, it’s likely that total sales of the series will exceed one million. And all this with a list of authors whose names, not so long ago, would have been unfamiliar to the overwhelming majority of crime fans. Names like John Bude, Mavis Doriel Hay, Christopher St John Sprigg, Charles Kingston, and John Rowland. Most of that lot were even pretty obscure even during the Golden Age itself!

At Christmas 2014, Mystery in White, by J. Jefferson Farjeon, was Waterstone’s number one bestseller. It sold about 75,000 copies in a month, pushing even that superb book Gone Girl into second place.

The received wisdom in publishing is that anthologies don’t sell, but in truth this is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. The British Library Classic Crime anthologies, which I compile, sell roughly ten times as many copies as the various other anthologies I edit.

As always happens in publishing, all this success has led to much flattery in the form of imitation. Last Christmas, you could hardly move in Waterstones for stacks of paperbacks with Yuletide covers. Stories with unseasonal titles, like Jill McGown’s Redemption, and Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca, were ruthlessly renamed to justify covers featuring scenes covered in snow. Well, the British Library can play that game too. Our next anthology is out in November, and it’s called Crimson Snow…

But the British Library is not alone. Harper Collins recently began to republish their Detective Story Library books from the Twenties and Thirties, bringing back to life long forgotten titles by the likes of Vernon Loder and Philip Macdonald .They have also reprinted Francis Durbridge’s early Paul Temple novels. And for some time, they have been reissuing Detection Club books from the Thirties with great success. The Floating Admiral, first published in 1931, was a round-robin mystery novel, with chapters written by Sayers, Berkeley, Christie, and the rest of the gang. Ask a Policeman saw Detection Club members using each other’s detectives and parodying each other’s writing styles. In Six Against the Yard, Sayers, Margery Allingham and company pitted their wits against a Scotland Yard Superintendent in trying to devise the perfect crime.

As recently as June, Harper Collins published The Sinking Admiral, written by present day members of the Club, and masterminded by Simon Brett. It’s set in the present day – but as the title suggests, it pays homage to The Floating Admiral and that whole era of Golden Age fiction. Ten years ago, the thought that such a book would ever be commissioned, let alone by a major publisher, let alone earn great sales and reviews, would have seemed risible. We all loved working on The Sinking Admiral, but the scale of its success is, if we are honest, an accident of timing.

The Bodies in the Library conference, a day devoted to Golden Age writing, and held at the British Library, attracted about 200 people this year, even more than last, and the enthusiasm of the attendees for talks about the likes of Freeman Wills Crofts, H.C. Bailey, Ngaio Marsh, Philip MacDonald, and all the rest, was plain for all to see.

And this, of course, gives us a clue to help us answer the question about why the Golden Age is back in fashion. Enjoyment is the key. Those stories (or, at least, many of them) are truly enjoyable.

But let’s examine this resurgence of interest more closely, as we try to explain it.

One of the key drivers of the revival of Golden Age books has been changes within the publishing industry.

In the past, once a book went out of print, that was usually it. It seldom resurfaced. Many perfectly good Golden Age novels never once appeared in a paperback edition. Why would a publisher take a risk on reprinting an old book when it was possible to pick a new book and hope that it would do better?

Two things have changed the landscape. First, technology now makes small print runs, and printing books on demand, perfectly feasible. So even if one does not expect massive sales, the economics of meeting a limited demand are perfectly feasible. So small publishers like Ostara Books have been able to establish a niche in the market, bringing out vintage mysteries that are mostly unfamiliar, and usually very interesting.

Second, digital publishing means that all manner of books are now available at the click of a mouse. Several publishers are offering a combination of print-on-demand and ebooks. An example is Dean Street Press, a relatively new kid on the block. They have for instance, reissued all eight of the Richardson novels, early police procedurals by Sir Basil Thomson as well as many books by E.R. Punshon, Patricia Wentworth, and others.

Prices are often astonishingly low, especially for works that are out of copyright. When I checked the other day, you could buy seven novels and one excellent short story by Ethel Lina White, author of the book on which Hitchcock based The Lady Vanishes, for 49 pence. 49 pence! Not so long ago, it would have been impossible to believe.

Of course, the mere fact that many books are available again, in some cases for the first time in three-quarters of a century, does not adequately explain the Golden Age revival.

There are, I think, special factors that help to explain the success of the British Library Crime Classics. I’d like to say that it’s all down to the marvellously perceptive introductions written by the hard-working series consultant. Unfortunately, not even I am capable of such a degree of self-deception. Other factors are at work.

First, the British Library name counts for a great deal. It carries prestige.

And then there is the cover artwork. People say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but rightly or wrongly, a lot of book-buyers do exactly that. Most of the covers come from Thirties railway posters. Where there is no poster bearing any relationship to the story, new artwork in roughly the same style is commissioned. The result is elegant and appealing. Many people have, apparently, been drawn by the covers to collect the series as a whole. And a couple of weeks ago, the British Library Publishing Division was shortlisted in the British Book Design and Production Awards, on the strength of the “brand identity” of the series.

Nostalgia, fostered by those covers, as well as by the books’ contents, is also a factor. The books by John Bude, John Rowland, and others take us back to a time that is perceived as gentler and more appealing. The reality of life in the Twenties and Thirties was very different, of course, but the past can often seem appealing. If you’re a commuter suffering on Southern Rail, for instance, it must be very tempting to escape into the world of Freeman Wills Crofts and Miles Burton, where murderers could craft their alibis safe in the knowledge that the trains would always run as per timetable.

But there’s much more to it than looking back through rose-tinted spectacles. The appeal of history in general, and social history in particular, is very powerful, and I would argue that one can learn a huge amount about life during the Golden Age from the stories of the time.

This is not because the writers were consciously trying to present a picture of their times – although some of them did make direct political points. I’ll take one example to stand for hundreds. There’s a little known book, published in 1935, and never reprinted, called Foul Play Suspected. It was the first detective novel by a writer called John Beynon. The story is a lively, quick read, but what’s striking today are Beynon’s fierce comments about arms manufacturers and the threat of war. They are only incidental to the story, but they give it quite a resonance for a modern reader. John Beynon, by the way, wrote two subsequent detective novels which he never managed to publish, poor chap. But he wasn’t lost to literature. After the end of the war that he’d dreaded, he became world famous – as the science fiction writer John Wyndham. Yes, the author of The Day of the Triffids started out as a detective novelist.

For Golden Age writers, the plot was the thing. But inevitably, the settings they chose, the characters they created, and – yes! – even the plots they devised, cast light on a truly fascinating period in our history.

The present day has more in common with that period than some people acknowledge, and it may be that the similarities are among the factors which have sparked the Golden Age renaissance. It’s sometimes said today that trust in politics has never been lower. Well, it was exceptionally low in the Golden Age, I can assure you. Unpleasant politicians were forever getting their come-uppance.

A few titles illustrate my point:

  • Death in the House by Anthony Berkeley 
  • Murder of an MP! By Robert Gore-Browne.
  • Death of the Home Secretary by Alan Thomas.
  • The Prime Minister is Dead by Helen Simpson.

And there were plenty more in the same vein.

Similarly, in these days of LIBOR-rigging, and the fiasco of the collapse of British Home Stores, it’s instructive to note how many Golden Age stories feature villainous financiers. The book which became the catalyst for the Golden Age, Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley, opens with an excoriating denunciation of the money man, Sigsbee Manderson.

Slimy old Sigsbee is, of course, a super-typical Golden Age murder victim. Someone who, like an unscrupulous politician, or a dastardly blackmailer, or a rich and miserly old uncle, supplied a long list of suspects with motives for murder.

We can see, by reading Golden Age mysteries, that for all the differences between the between-the-wars society and ours, many themes are common, because they are enduring. Above all, of course, crime fiction deals with the eternal realities of human nature at moments of intense pressure. Awareness of this caused Agatha Christie to create one of the most appealing amateur sleuths of all, Miss Jane Marple. She may have spent her life in a small village, but she has learned enough about people to make her a gifted detective. The fact that she relies on intuition rather on matching DNA samples simply makes her, many readers may think, more engaging than most of her paper-suited twenty-first century successors.

Speaking of Miss Marple brings me to consideration of Agatha Christie. For so many years, she was the exception that proved the rule. In the days when nobody dreamed that the books of Mavis Doriel Hay would ever see the light of day again, Christie was everywhere. As she still is, and probably always will be.

Christie’s success is unique, but a few other major Golden Age writers never blipped completely off the radar. Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, and Edmund Crispin retained a loyal fan base, and their books have never been hard to find. They are, in one sense, exceptions who proved the rule. But I’d go further, and suggest that, so far as readers are concerned, interest in Golden Age fiction never really died away. Whenever Christie stories were adapted for TV or the cinema, or instance, they met with a receptive audience, even if the quality of the adaptations was wildly variable.

The trouble was that most publishers and critics were, for many years, simply not interested in Golden Age fiction. CADS supplied a rare exception, but broadly speaking , Golden Age fiction suffered from being stereotyped as cosy, conventional, and conservative. And like most stereotypes, those generalisations were fuelled by a combination of ignorance and laziness.

Cosy? Read Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley, under his alias Francis Iles. A story so dark that even Alfred Hitchcock, the man who would direct Psycho, felt he had to give it a happy ending, quite the opposite of the brilliantly bleak original. Or read the finale to Punshon’s Crossword Mystery, or think about the nature of the murder in Christie’s Five Little Pigs.

Conventional? Consider The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace, an attempt to marry an epistolary detective story in the manner of Wilkie Collins with discussion about the meaning of life in the context of modern science. Or how about The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by Cameron McCabe, which Julian Symons described as “the detective story to end detective stories”?

Conservative? Where do I start? The very term “the Golden Age of detective fiction” was dreamed up by a Marxist. This was John Strachey, who later became a minister in Attlee’s government. Douglas and Margaret Cole, Christopher St John Sprigg, Bruce Hamilton, Nicholas Blake, Raymond Postgate, all of them were either Marxists or left-wingers who flirted with Marxism. And there were plenty of other Golden Age writers who were on the left. R.C. Woodthorpe, and E.R. Punshon, were mocking dictators and Fascism in detective stories before many people woke up to the threat they posed. The reason these writers were long forgotten is simple. They often wrote well, but they weren’t in the Premier League. The most successful writers of the period, such as Christie, Sayers, and Berkeley, were conservative in outlook. Yet as I’ve mentioned, even their work often pushed at the boundaries.

Unfortunately, the myths about “cosy crime” prevailed for decades. I would be the first to acknowledge that many Golden Age novels, whatever the political views of their authors, reflect the prejudices of the era. But critical commentary about the Golden Age has too often been unsympathetic, ill-informed, and hopelessly prejudiced.

In the internet age, however, it’s easier than ever before for like-minded people around the world to discuss shared interests, and this is another factor influencing the revival of Golden Age mysteries. There are now a great many blogs which discuss the Golden Age with enthusiasm and often erudition, while the Golden Age Detection group on Facebook is a mine of information, as is the GAdetection site. Certainly, I’ve learned a great deal from exchanging views with fellow enthusiasts around the world – many of them subscribers to CADS – and the fact that we have much more information and many more opportunities to discuss classic mysteries nowadays has helped to fuel the renaissance.

For many years, I cherished the notion that one day I might write a book about Golden Age fiction. Eventually, I started to work on the book that eventually became The Golden Age of Murder. My ambitions were modest in one sense, immodest in another. I anticipated the manuscript would go to a small press, and be read by a limited number of people. That was reasonably modest. But I did want to express my enthusiasm for Golden Age fiction in a way that would encourage thoughtful people to look at those old books in a completely fresh light. Not so modest an aim, I admit.

For once in my life, my timing was good. By the time the manuscript was ready – after only about ten years – to send out to publishers, the Golden Age revival had begun. Harper Collins accepted the book, and they’ve done a great job with it. I’ve been thrilled by the response of readers and reviewers alike.

One thing in life leads to another. I managed to persuade the British Library to republish Berkeley’s wonderful whodunit The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and to commission me to write a brand new solution to it. The twist comes in the final word, and the book comes out in October. The Dorothy L. Sayers Society has agreed to republish Sayers’ wonderful reviews of detective stories from the Sunday Times, and I’ve written a commentary. The result is a chunky volume, Taking Detective Stories Seriously, which is also due out in October. And next year the British Library will publish another book of mine, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. It’s a title the Library was keen on, but I’ve managed to squeeze in discussion of something closer to 500 books.

The fact is that there’s a lot to say about Golden Age fiction, because the better books from that era are hugely interesting as well as extremely entertaining. St Hilda’s has always afforded us the chance to celebrate the best of the past as well as to enthuse about the marvellous mysteries of the here and now. And so, of course, has CADS. Long may both of them, and Golden Age detective fiction, continue to flourish.

(This article previously appeared in CADS)