There Really Was A Golden Age Of Murder
As some of you know, I write a weekly column for the Independent on Sunday called ‘Invisible Ink’, about once massively popular authors who have now become a minority taste or who have vanished altogether. I thought carefully about including Margery Allingham in the column. She’s hardly ever out of print, and readers certainly know her name, but very few of them have really got to grips with her books. The ones who have become passionate fans. For many years I had her wrongly pegged as an Agatha Christie, until I took time to properly read her prose.
What I discovered, and what I suspect every Allingham fan discovers, is the extraordinary richness of her writing. It is allusive, colloquial, witty, bravura stuff – a window to a London mindset that is now so completely lost that I found it best to have a copy of Brewer’s Phrase & Fable beside my reading copy.
I knew that Allingham regarded the mystery novel as a box with four sides; ‘a killing, a mystery, an enquiry and a conclusion with an element of satisfaction in it’ and loved the fact that her detective was unassuming to the point of vacancy, so ethereal that I understand he vanishes altogether in the film version of her most famous novel. I knew Campion had an unusually smart wife, but there any comparison to other crime writers ended, because Allingham was clearly unique.
The first time I read ‘The Tiger In The Smoke’, I kept losing my place. The chase to track Jack Havoc, jail-breaker and knife artist, in the London fog was as densely confusing as the choking gloom through which he carves his way. There’s that central image of a hopping, running band of ragtag musicians silhouetted in the murk that stays beyond the conclusion. It’s a dark, strange read and I realized, possibly not the best place to begin – but now, many of Allingham’s books appear to have vanished into that pea-souper.
‘I don’t stick me ‘ead into every nark’s nest I ‘ear of’ said one character, and I wanted to hear the book read aloud, possibly by Alastair Sim. Allingham’s exuberant early works gave way to a more mature, elegant style but both, I think, are wonderful.
My path to writing modern versions of golden age fiction – not pastiches, I hasten to add – was via Sherlock Holmes and G K Chesterton’s ‘Father Brown’ tales, but the little Essex priest was rather genteel for me, and his adventures were too whimsical to be read en masse. I did love the idea that he was out to save souls rather than point the finger of guilt, though, and thoroughly enjoyed the Alec Guinness film version. At this time I brushed against Margery Allingham in the form of some short stories, but didn’t venture to the novels. Also, I found her imitators virtually throttled by the frightfully English language of their times. When you’re young, you’re not very nostalgic.
Graduating instead to the Agatha Christie books, the initial thrill of discovering such plot ingenuity also created a curious sense of dissatisfaction. The characters, I felt, were board-game pieces. How was I supposed to identify with any of them? On my street there weren’t any colonels, housemaids, vicars, flighty debutantes, dowager duchesses or cigar-chomping tycoons. Certainly, none of our neighbours had ever attended a country house party, let alone found a body in the library. Nobody owned a library, and country houses were places you were dragged around on Sunday afternoons. I never went shooting on my estate – although there was a shooting on the nearby estate (quite a different thing).
Now, however, there’s a fascinating book called ‘The Golden Age of Murder’ by Martin Edwards. It’s the first book about the Detection Club, the world’s most famous and most mysterious social network of crime writers, and is the astonishing story of how members such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers reinvented detective fiction.
Edwards is at pains to debunk a myth; detective stories from the Golden Age between the wars are often dismissed as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth: some explore forensic pathology and shocking serial murders, others delve into police brutality and miscarriages of justice; occasionally the innocent are hanged, or murderers get away scot-free. Their authors faced up to the Depression and the rise of Hitler during years of economic misery and political upheaval, and wrote books agonising over guilt and innocence, good and evil. Though the stories included no graphic sex scenes, sexual passions of all kinds seethed just beneath the surface.
Attracting an extraordinary mix of personalities, feminists, gay and lesbian writers, Socialists and Marxist sympathisers, the Detection Club authors were young, ambitious and at the cutting edge of popular culture – some had sex lives as complex as their mystery plots. Fascinated by real life crimes, they cracked unsolved cases and threw down challenges to Scotland Yard, using their fiction to take revenge on people who hurt them, to conduct covert relationships, and even as an outlet for homicidal fantasy.
Their books anticipated a great many modern crime novels and their influence continues continues to this day. One problem; you may be spending a fortune after reading it, as it will drive you to seek out many of the books. I suggest you start with the still-shocking Frances Iles’ ‘After The Fact’.