May 06, 2015

The Crime Lady #020: Of Murder's Golden Age

Now that The Crime Lady is back on the regular Wednesday schedule it means I can talk about books I've read again. Funny how gallivanting around the globe and back takes away from reading time, or writing-about-reading time.

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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards is what I'd call a nerd book. I genuinely couldn't say what interest it might have to the casual reader, to those with a dim awareness of the so-called "Golden Age of Mystery" and the solidification of the genre around some incredibly great women -- Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh, the four "Queens of Crime", a term that none particularly liked but stuck, for better or for worse -- but it is of great interest to me because I am interested in the history of the genre and the people who are part of it. So, too, is Edwards, and this love he has for crime fiction permeates every page of this book, all about the dawn of the Detection Club, a group formed by Christie, Sayers, Anthony Berkeley Cox (best known by dropping the "Cox" for his detective novel pseudonym and as Francis Iles for the psychological fare) and the many other writers who were inducted into the club from 1930 through about 1950.

The Golden Age of Murder works best when it centers around the trifecta of Sayers, Christie, and Berkeley, each of whom had great tragedies and secrets. Christie's, of course, was her 1926 disappearance after the breakdown of her marriage, still officially unexplained but plausibly attributed (to understate) to a major, irrational, stress-induced reaction. Sayers' great shame was her illegitimate child, whom she told hardly anyone about (John Anthony, her son, didn't know until after Sayers was dead, believing her to be an "aunt" for much of his life) and Berkeley had a nasty habit of mucking up marriages (his own, others) and, according to a theory Edwards presents near the end of the book that I found credible, a great unrequited love affair for a literary novelist whos death triggered the end of his mystery-writing career, though Berkeley would continue to review (as Francis Iles) and generally alienate almost all of the other Detection Club members by the time of his 1971 death.

Christie and Sayers I knew about and they interested me because they are interesting and well-known. Berkeley came off as "the dark lord of the Detection Club" and, as Edwards presents him, is a compelling figure in the way that anti-heroes often can be. His first and greatest Iles novel Malice Aforethought (1931) is a key prototype for the contemporary psychological thriller, and knowing more about Berkeley's own pathologies helps unlock some of the weird character descriptions that pop up in that book and subsequent ones.

Edwards also spends a great deal of time dissecting the Detection Club's overall fascinating with real-life cases, which I in turn found fascinating because there is something of a truism that readers of crime fiction and readers/watchers of true crime are not the same audience. And yet, Dorothy L. Sayers devoted a great deal of energy to the Edith Thompson case, not only using it as the basis for one of her novels but as the basis for a proper essay that appeared in one of the Detection Club-organized anthologies. Berkeley and Christie also had their own pet cases, while poor Milward Kennedy, a supporting player on the Detection Club stage, ended up in financial ruin after a libel lawsuit because he didn't fictionalize a real case enough and one of the people involved, still living, got pissed off and litigious. So crime writers of now, if you're obsessed with true crime -- as I am, of course, as are many others -- then know there is longstanding historical precedent in the genre.

Much as I love nerd books, The Golden Age of Murder still felt overlong (fine, Milward Kennedy is interesting, but is he that interesting?) and it rankled that Edwards casually dismissed Christianna Brand as an "unreliable gossip" without elaborating (with respect to a claim that a woman mystery writer "lusted after John Dickson Carr". Um, okay...) Still it fills in necessary gaps about the world these writers inhabited as solitary creatures looking for friendship among like-minded peers. We forget how few crime novels were published decades ago compared to now, and how difficult it was for people to get together since travel even within England was prohibitive, let alone across oceans. The Golden Age of Murder is a sparky slice of crime fiction history and fellow nerds of a certain type must read it.

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Congrats to the Anthony Award nominees, a fine roster of writers.

Speaking of award nominations, "The Real Lolita" is up for the Canadian National Magazine Awards' Best Investigative Feature category. The winners will be announced June 5. It was pretty cool to be nominated.

Much has been written about Ruth Rendell since she died (I recommend tributes from Val McDermid and Peter Robinson above all) and one theme that keeps recurring is how her passing, as well as PD James' just a few months before, marks the changing of the crime fiction guard, to so speak. Who's left of the earlier generation? I did a rough count and to my non-surprise, the answer is: not all that many. Sitting through the Grand Master montage, followed by the In Memoriam one, at the Edgars last week seemed particularly sad because we're losing more and more institutional memory with each new death. Obviously, that is what's supposed to happen, but it feels like it's happening a lot more quickly.

The first of several Library of America volumes of Ross Macdonald's work inspires this excellent essay by Linwood Barclay, Macdonald's one-time protege and permanent fan.

Pretty much everything I've been thinking and saying about the need to diversify who gets published in crime fiction was said with greater clarity and eloquence by Sara Paretsky in this essay for Booklist. [PDF]

Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA has new owners, Trevor Thomas & Natalie Sacco.

Meet Ashley and Jaquavis Coleman, the power couple of street lit.

Thomas Edison's talking dolls come alive with the help of new technology. The results are as spooky as you'd expect.

My experience is that these incredibly annoying types who show up at readings and panels and then spend minutes opining without actually asking a question are about 70-30 male-female, but the sentiment's accurate.

Finally, here is a 2002 short film by Dutch filmmaker Arjan Vlakveld that reveals "Sylvia's Mother", the hit song by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, was, in fact, a bona fide person. Her name was Emma Louisa Elliman Pandolfi, and she was 95 years old when Vlakveld tracked her down (she died seven years later.) The real Sylvia shows up, too, with old letters from Shel Silverstein in tow -- she moved to Mexico City with her husband and became a highly regarded art museum curator there. It's not fully clear from the video when the famed breakup/phone call to Mrs. Pandolfi happened, but it likely occurred after the late 1950s car accident in Africa that shattered Silverstein's leg and nearly killed him, requiring a nearly two-year recuperation stateside. Not exactly a great time -- but it sure led to some good material.