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The Golden Age of Mystery Writers

I just finished a three-hour class on Dorothy L. Sayers and her book, Gaudy Night. This is the book where Lord Peter Wimsey proposes to Harriet Vane and is finally accepted. She has kept Wimsey at a distance because he saved her from the gallows and she refused to accept a marriage tainted by gratitude. Gaudy Night explores such topics as personal integrity, relationships, and women’s role, but there is no murder, but there is a puzzle. At the end, Harriet and Wimsey find equal footing, dispense with gratitude, and move forward toward marriage.

Dorothy L. Sayers is one of the “golden age” mystery writers from the 30s and 40s who are described in The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards. This is an excellent read for mystery buffs written by Martin Edwards, author of the Lake District mysteries and a commentator on detective fiction.

The book is a history of an elite club of outstanding mystery writers from the 30s and 40s. It is full of interesting tidbits about the lives and personalities of the club members and guests. It opens with Ngaio Marsh’s impressions of a meeting in 1937. She was a guest for the evening, which began with a banquet in an opulent dining room. The meal ended, everyone rose and the party adjourned to another room, where the ritual began. With lights out, a door opens and the Orator enters holding a taper. The rest of the ceremony involves a grinning skull and lethal weapons. For this meeting, an oath was administered to a burly man in his sixties who had been elected to preside over the club affairs. He pledged to honor the rules of the game they played: “To do and detect all crimes by fair and reasonable means; to conceal no vital clues from the reader; to honor the King’s English...and to observe the oath of secrecy in all matters communicated to me within the brotherhood of the Club.”

These are my kind of people.

Edwards’ book lists the members and the year they were elected to the club. On the list are Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Julian Symons, Simon Brett, John Dickson Carr and many others. The club’s first president was G.K. Chesterton. The last members to join the club were Michael Innes, Michael Gilbert, and Douglas G. Browne, elected in 1949.

Lengthy chapters describe the lives and foibles of Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie, Douglas and Margaret Cole, and John Dickson Carr. For instance, Dorothy L. Sayers spent her life hiding the fact that she’d had an illegitimate child. Cynical Anthony Berkeley was witty and charming but loved to confound people’s expectations. Agatha Christie was pleasant and likable but her thoughts were hidden. John Dickson Carr was a heavy drinker.

Edwards also discusses the detective fiction of the time and the influence of politics and two world wars on the mystery novels of the golden age. It is an enjoyable and engrossing read.

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