Simon Brett opened the proceedings with a hilarious rendition of Agatha Christie reading her convoluted and motive-providing will, before Martin Edwards took to the stage to discuss his new book The Golden Age of Murder, telling the story of the Detection Club and the interwar writers who have been labelled ‘Golden Age’. He pointed out that our 21st-century view of Golden Age mystery writers as elderly was incorrect. In the 20s and 30s they were the bright young things with oodles of youthful energy and a spirit of innovation. They had lived through, and in many cases fought in, the Great War, and their work represents in some ways a retreat from violence.
(Incidentally Martin told us that the term Golden Age was coined by the Marxist critic and politician John Strachey in 1939; later in the day Tony Medawar said it was Howard Haycraft, the US critic and co-compiler of an essential reading list. A cursory internet search backs up both claims…)
Barry Pike then gave an entertaining account of the relationship between Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. In many ways they had similarly traumatic lives, but somehow never managed to click – Allingham describing Sayers as ‘schoolmistressy’ and finding her very hard work.
Simon Brett and Martin Edwards returned to give an account of the Detection Club’s collaborative novels (written to raise funds for the society). They began with some anecdotes about the Club’s rituals. Eric the Skull (who may in fact be an Erica), who has glowing red eyes designed by electrical engineer John Rhode, is part of the tongue-in-cheek initiation. The enormous red robe designed for G. K. Chesterton, swamps most incumbents of the role of Chair.
Bookseller Richard Reynolds gave an account of the ‘battered bedders, poisoned proctors, and tortured tutors’ of the many Oxford and Cambridge mysteries of the 20s and 30s.
David Brawn of HarperCollins and Rob Davies of the British Library spoke about publishing Golden Age detectives (of which more in another post).
After lunch, Tony Medawar played a complete radio play by John Dickson Carr, which raised a few laughs.
Somebody in this boat has got a revolver.
Then Tony gave a talk on locked-room mysteries, recommending The Hollow Man, Ellery Queen’s The American Gun Mystery, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. He also mentioned some turkeys – featuring trained chimpanzees at a seance, and a giant catapult used to place a body in the middle of a muddy field.
Dolores Gordon Smith gave us a likeable and refreshing look at Freeman Wills Crofts, who ‘didn’t write a book so much as engineer it’.
Academic and editor of Agatha Christie’s diaries, John Curran, spoke about the authors who influenced her, and looked at how she employed them in her novels.
L. C. Tyler, author of the engaging Ethelred Tressider novels, argued that in many ways the Golden Age is still with us.
Finally, the panelists each recommended a Golden Age book that is ripe for a reprint.
Altogether an enlightening day – and well attended. Lovely to see that classic crime fandom extends beyond the internet. Hopefully this will be the first of many such events.
- Agatha Christie didn’t go to school, which gave her a lifelong appetite for reading.
- Amongst the writers she admired (surprisingly) was Patricia Highsmith.
- The Book of Judges features the first impossible crime (a sword is pushed so far into the body of an overweight king that it is concealed by his belly).
- The Detection Club is, after 80 years, writing a new collaborative novel, a sequel to The Floating Admiral.
- A book of Dorothy L. Sayers’ crime-fiction reviews may be coming out later this year.