Saturday, May 7, 2016

Let It Shine: The Golden Age Detective Fiction Revival

Martin Edwards' recent win of not only the Agatha but the Edgar for mystery criticism for his book The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story (2015) seems like something of a turning point in attitudes toward the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Winning the Agatha, to be sure, was great for Martin, but not exactly an improbable event, for the Agathas have never been what one would call indifferent ground for books on British mystery. The Edgars, however, are always a tougher nut to crack with studies of British subjects, unless they deal with Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. (The history of Edgar wins shows Arthur is even more popular than, well, Edgar; seven books about Holmes and his Great Detective have won Edgars in the last twenty years, versus three about Poe.)  Winning the Edgar in this case feels like quite a big deal.

Twenty years ago Douglas Greene's classic biography of classic mystery writer John Dickson Carr--American, a member of the Detection Club and an Anglophile, not to mention one of the great exponents of the clue-puzzle detective novel--lost out to Robert Polito's masterful biography of noir master Jim Thompson--a decision that, whichever book one might have sided with at the time for the win, long seemed symptomatic of the general preferences of Edgar voters.  Aside from Doyle and Poe, the Edgars by and large seemed to go for tough stuff and noir.

When my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (very academic-ish title, I know), which looked at the rise and comparative fall of the clue-puzzle mystery through the careers of a trio of British puzzle purists and Detection Club members, was published four years ago in 2012, it received, both publicly and privately, high praise from a number of people who happened to be past (and in the case of Martin Edwards future) Edgar winners and nominees, (See Jon L. Breen's review here.)

However, Masters was not nominated for an Edgar, so certainly was not in a position to win one. One of the books which was nominated that year was Books to Die For, a tome which repeated a lot of the dismissive conventional wisdom about the Golden Age of detective fiction. (See my review here.) The juxtaposition seemed telling to me.

A year after the publication of Books to Die For, we saw the publication of the disappointing A Very British Murder: The Story of a National Obsession (2013), Lucy Worsley's book on British mystery fiction, which has a very superficial take on the Golden Age.  A few years earlier there appeared P. D. James' similarly disappointing (though elegantly written) brief mystery genre survey, Talking about Detective Fiction (2009). None of these books, it seemed to me, were really bringing anything new to the table, as far as the Golden Age of detective fiction was concerned. (See my four-part review of Worsley's book: onetwothreefour.)

Meanwhile there was a great deal of very interesting discussion going on at internet fan groups, websites and blogs, where you found people who were really well read in Golden Age detective fiction (more on these sites--some of which have been around for quite some time now--to come this week).  Something was in the air, which even the James and Worsely books, limited and blinkered as they were, indicated.

In my case, I have been involved, since the publication of Masters, with other writing projects, including my books Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013), Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014) and The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole (2015).

I also published as a pamphlet essay of nearly 20,000 words, Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play, a study of how the Detection Club handled the fair play requirement to membership over the years (as well as the disruptions of the Second World War). People will see mentioned this work in the endnotes in Martin's book along with Masters and some additional, shorter pieces from Geoff Bradley's great magazine CADS. (People who go in for reading endnotes, anyway.)

I have also been involved in reissuing Golden Age detective fiction with Coachwhip Publications.  I think the greatest success in this venture so far has been with J. J. Connington, one of my book subjects--his books now all have been reprinted--and the American Choctaw mystery writer Todd Downing.

However, what really captured wider public attention, surely, was the British Library's reissue a couple of years ago of titles by largely forgotten Golden Age mystery writers John Bude and Jefferson Farjeon. (I will pass by in silence M. Doriel Hay. Okay, not quite, Mavis.) The success of these and other reissues have proved what I had long contended: that there is a significant market for Golden Age detective fiction by "forgotten" writers.

On my blog back in 2011, on the day after Christmas, I had reviewed the very Farjeon title the BL chose to reprint, Mystery in White, a holiday bestseller in England for them.  My review, as far as I know, was the first blog piece on a Jefferson Farjeon novel anywhere on the net; the very name of my blog was a tribute to Farjeon's tramp series character, Ben.

It was wonderful to see this particular reissue take place and enjoy such resounding success, though I doubt many people who read the book were aware I may have had any connection with it.  The British Library has gone on to score other successes with their attractively designed volumes with introductions by none other than Martin Edwards himself, including titles by my book's other two Humdrums, John Street and Freeman Wills Crofts.

The success of the British Library (joined in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press) has encouraged other publishers to get involved with reprinting Golden Age mysteries, including Dean Street Press, with whom I have done quite a bit of work over the last year. DSP has brought forth titles by Detection Club members E. R. Punshon and Ianthe Jerrold, as well as Annie Haynes, Harriet Rutland, Robin Forsythe, Basil Thomson and Patricia Wentworth--and more is on its way this year.

Martin Edwards' Golden Age of Murder tells the fascinating story of the lives of the talented men and women who were members of the Detection Club in the 1930s, arguably the greatest decade in the history of true detective fiction.  Though Martin includes chapters on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, many of the writers he discusses obviously were terra incognita to many mystery fans out there and I think his book is having a great impact on popular perceptions of the period.

A fan of Golden Age detective fiction for many years now (as well as a writer of esteemed modern detective fiction), Martin has not only ventured beyond the Crime Queens in his own critical writing but has read blogs and books which have delved more deeply than was traditionally the norm into myriad untapped veins of research.  Just as Sarah Weinman's recent work on psychological suspense fiction has revivified popular interest in mid-century mistresses of psychological mystery praised by a variety of knowledgeable bloggers, Martin's book is shining more light on the Golden Age, beckoning readers to explore its riches for themselves.

Let it shine, oh, let it shine.

Expect a fuller review of Martin's book soon, along with more on the various websites, blogs, authors and presses which have been and currently are involved in this exciting ongoing revolution in the perception of the Golden Age.


  1. All good news Curtis - and great to see so much hard work paying off where it matters most: the readers.

    1. Yes, I'm glad to be involved in some of these publishing efforts (though recommending series, making books available for scanning and writing intros) and seeing people enjoying the results. Of course not everyone loves reprints, but a lot of people are really happy to get affordable copies of these so long oop mysteries and that's nice to see.

    2. Let's just hope the momentum is maintained. There are still plenty of fine GAD writers waiting to be rediscovered. I live in hope that we may see some reprints of Christopher Bush and R.A.J. Walling.

  2. A good sign indeed that Martin's fine book got the Edgar. But is it more for Martin rather than the book? I often wonder how many voters actually read the books. Having attended only one Malice Domestic convention and overheard how many of the attendees arrive at their voting choices for the Agathas I was very disappointed. Why do you think Louise Penny and Daniel Stashower have so many Agathas? Because the attendees know them by sight and like them not because they read their books. That's the problem with an award that is given away at a convention and all the participants are allowed to vote. I wonder if the MWA voters base their choices on being familiar with the author rather than ever having read *any* of the books let alone the one that is nominated.

    1. Well, I wasn't nominated by the Agathas either, do don't expect me to defend their system! ;) To be honest, I doubt many people there had even heard of my book.

      The Edgar committee, however, had sixteen submissions as I recollect and nominated 4 of them, so Masters was left out with the 12 rejects, despite the fact that I had all these past Edgar winners and nominees, prominent people in mystery criticism, telling me the book should be nominated. Obviously, word didn't get to that committee. ;)

      That's why I think Martin's win with the Edgars is unusual and significant, books on classic British mystery just haven't tended to win. I think until Martin's win in the last 20 years only one such book, a book of criticism on Sayers, won. Honestly it stands out in its singularity. There was the excellent book on Charlie Chan as well, if you count that.

      But you can't write books to win awards, that's no good. I'll do my best to keep publishing mystery scholarship, whether or not any of the awards organizations in the mystery world recognize it. I'm confident in the merit and value in my work, or I wouldn't be doing it.

    2. There's also Nancy Drew, who one could argue belongs to the "classic" tradition, but, like Charlie Chan, she isn't British! So, yeah, aside from Sherlock, it's been it's been a tough slog for British mystery tghe last 20 years. Sherlock is like a force unto himself though.

  3. For years I was a Hammett-Chander kind of guy, with a bit of Goodis-Thompson thrown in for good measure. But the works of authors like yourself, Pretty Sinister Books, and Martin Edwards have opened me to the pleasures of Golden Age writing. What strikes me is the high quality of the writing about the Golden Age--people like yourself don't just love the authors but understand them so well that reading your opinion is as much fun as reading the originals! So here's a thank you to you all....

    1. I'm really pleased you enjoy our writing, Joe, it means all the more from a hard-boiled-noir guy. I think we're pretty ecumenical too! I need to do more with hard-boiled/noir on the blog, it's been a while, but so much has been going on the "classic" department. Truth is I'm fascinated with the rich diversity of vintage crime fiction. If I ever do a detective fiction top twenty list it certainly would have some Chandler in it.

  4. The reprinting of the Conningtons has been very welcome indeed. I'm intending to buy them all! In fact I've just finished reading THE BOAT-HOUSE RIDDLE and it's splendid stuff.

    1. Yes, I'm very glad the Connington estate has been more proactive than the Street estate seems to be. Glad you are enjoying his books too!

  5. To be clear,the Edgars are voted on by committees of writers who spend a great deal of time reading through the submission. Martin won Best Critical/Biographical because the 5-writer committee felt it was the best in the field. And of course, they are correct.

    1. Its just interesting to me, Sarah, that Edgars committees on criticism so rarely find books on classic English mystery to be the best in the field (unless we count Sherlock Holmes). It makes Martin's win all the more notable In my view. The voting patterns of awards groups often do seem to suggest certain tendencies. It doesn't mean that all those Sherlock Holmes books that have won over the years didn't deserve to win, but I can't speak to them all personally. I know Michael Dirdas book was wonderful.

    2. Sherlockian winners:

      1997 The Secret Marriage of Sherlock Holmes
      2000 Teller of Tales: The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
      2005 The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
      2007 The Science of Sherlock Holmes
      2008 Arthur Conana Doyle: A Life in Letters
      2012 On Conan Doyle
      2013 The Scientific Sherlock Holmes

      Sherlock is due for another win next year,

  6. Thanks, Curt. A very enjoyable piece to read and I very much agree about the GA renaissance. I'll be referencing your comments on my blog tomorrow.