45. The Detection Club Transcript

Caroline: Writing can be a lonely profession. Once a book or story exists, it can be a highly sociable thing — the author is interviewed about it, appears at events, and these days can always be available to talk to their readers online. But the period of creation is one of solitude. Just you and the page, alone in the process of finding the right words to put on it.

In the late 1920s, one writer of detective fiction was feeling this aloneness acutely. Anthony Berkeley had published several novels and was enjoying some success with them, as detective fiction surged in popularity during what we now call its golden age. But he was feeling the lack of colleagues with whom he could celebrate and commiserate over the minutiae of their shared occupation.

So he invited some writers over for dinner. Eventually, they would call themselves the Detection Club, and that’s what we’re going to learn about today.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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For all its later formality and ritual, The Detection Club had quite casual origins.

Martin: Well, the detection club was formed in 1930, but it sprang out of a series of dinners that Anthony Berkeley had hosted from 1928 onwards at his home in Watford.

Caroline: This is Martin Edwards, the current president of the Detection Club and the author, most recently, of the novel Mortmain Hall. Over the years of his involvement with the club, he’s made a study of its history, and he published some of that research in his book The Golden Age of Murder, which was a big inspiration for me when I was starting this podcast.

In that book, Martin explains that it’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint exactly when those early dinners at Berkeley’s house took place or who was there, because naturally nobody kept a proper record. I mean, who does keep carefully filed lists of their dinner guests? However, we do still have access to some of Berkeley’s motivations at that time via his letters.

Martin: And his idea at that time was that detective novelists really didn’t know each other socially at all, they were all working in isolation. And he thought it would be good to get together with fellow writers, and talk about matters of mutual interest, whether it was real life crimes of the day, whether it was their dealings with publishers or anything else.

Caroline: Although we don’t know exactly who was there when, I think it’s reasonable to guess that Berkeley hosted various combinations of people who would become founding club members — so Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, Margaret Cole and others. A good time was had by all, it seems.

Martin: And the dinners were apparently a big success. And arising out of that success, he felt that it would be a good idea to form a social club that would meet a number of times a year to have dinner and essentially just chat and chat into the night. And so the club was was proposed. Dorothy L Sayers was amongst those who was an enthusiastic supporter, and she became very much a prime mover, but also Agatha Christie. Ronald Knox and a good many other leading lights of the day came on board.

Caroline: Once he had an idea in hand, Anthony Berkeley was not slow to action. It was felt that a proper club should have a president, and that this should be someone eminent in the profession of crime writing.

Martin: And in early 1930, Berkeley approached Arthur Conan Doyle to ask him to become the first president. But this was shortly before Conan Doyle died. He was unable to accept. So Berkeley didn’t waste much time in approaching G.K. Chesterton, who did accept and became the first president of the Detection Club.

Caroline: Although Conan Doyle was sadly not able to be part of this new initiative because of ill health, it was fitting that he was Berkeley’s first choice for president. Back in the early 1900s, Conan Doyle had been part of something called the Crimes Club, a dining society made up of writers, lawyers, academics and others who shared a fascination with crime and the criminal mind. Fellow members included P.G. Wodehouse, Doyle’s brother in law E. Hornung, the coroner Ingleby Oddie, the MP and novelist A. E. W. Mason and many more. Although Berkeley’s idea for the Detection Club was more narrowly focused on crime writing rather than criminology, there can be no doubt that he was inspired by this earlier group.

The Detection Club’s first president, the critic, theologian and author, G.K. Chesterton is probably best known in this context as the author of the Father Brown mysteries. Like Conan Doyle, Chesterton was also fairly near to the end of his life when he became involved with the Club — he died of heart failure in 1936 — but for Berkeley, Sayers and the rest of the new generation of crime writers, he represented a vital link with their late Victorian forebears who had done so much to popularise the genre.

With a president in place, Berkeley began to invite fellow writers to become founding members. He had some strict ideas about who should be let in, it seems.

Martin: And the idea was that members would be people who wrote detective fiction of high calibre. They would have produced at least two such books, and they would be elected by secret ballot by the existing members. So it was a self-selecting elite, if you like. Thriller writers were not allowed in and the theory was that the standards of detective fiction were to be elevated.

Caroline: In practice, of course, many of the early members were people that Berkeley had got to know during those early dinners. Dorothy L. Sayers was very involved in the initial organisation and became an enthusiastic founder member when the club began in earnest in 1930, as did Agatha Christie, G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, Clemence Dane, Robert Eustace and others. By the time a formal set of rules and a constitution was adopted by the club in 1932, twenty eight members had been elected. It went pretty well from the start, by all accounts.

Martin: The club soon became quite well-known and very reputable because most of the major writers of the time became founder members, a set of rules and constitution were drawn up in 1932. And it really went from strength to strength.

Caroline: The popularity of crime fiction itself, coupled with the personal success of many of the members, assured the Detection Club a certain amount of publicity from the outset. And then there was also the brilliant brain of Dorothy L. Sayers, who had been working in advertising for a few years alongside her writing, to help it along. For instance, as Martin explains in The Golden Age of Murder, when Arthur Conan Doyle died on 7 July 1930, Sayers saw the chance for a bit of press and quickly sent a card in tribute from the whole of the Detection Club.

Ritual and rules were a key part of the Club early on. I talked about this a bit more in the ninth episode of the podcast. The Club’s constitution included a set of rules about who could join, how disagreements would be settled, and what kind of writing the club existed to encourage. The doctrine of “fair play” was crucial here, with the first rule declaring that “it is a demerit in a detetive novel if the author does not play fair by the reader”. This was an idea that had grown out of the “puzzle craze” after the First World War, and in a whodunnit came to mean that the writer constructed the story in such a way that it was possible for the reader to work out the solution for themselves, no clues withheld. The rules also prohibited members who produced “adventure stories or thrillers or stories in which the detection is not a main interest”.

Anthony Berkeley didn’t bring together these writers so that they could write necessarily — it really does seem that what he was intending was something in the style of the Crimes Club, a dining society and social club essentially, or at most a kind of professional talking shop or association. But quite soon after the club was formed, an opportunity arouse for the club members to collaborate on a mystery.

Martin: In its very early days, half a dozen of the members, including Agatha Christie, were signed up by the BBC to record a radio serial. They each wrote an instalment and read it out live. A competition was run alongside it, and that was a huge success. That was a story called Behind The Screen. And if you read it now, it’s not the best detective story, but it was enormously popular and they were then asked to write a second. This was called The Scoop and that was a good detective story. Dorothy L. Sayers took the lead with that. And again, it was listened to by many millions. The sort of audience that today the BBC or any other broadcaster would kill for.

Caroline: Readers and listeners seemed to really enjoy these whodunnits that were written in collaboration by a group of their favourite writers, and of course it was all excellent publicity for the club and for the individual authors. So much so, in fact, that the Detection Club decided to take control of the whole process.

Martin: They decided to abandon the BBC and produce a novel of their own, a collaborative novel. And this was called The Floating Admiral. And that was compiled by 13 of the members, they each wrote a chapter in turn and Anthony Berkeley wrote the final chapter when he had to solve the mystery, pull all the strands together. It’s a very long chapter and it’s called “Clearing Up the Mess”.

Caroline: There was another reason beyond pure artistic fulfilment that Dorothy L. Sayers and others put their time and effort into The Floating Admiral — money. The Detection Club wanted a room of its own, and that required club funds. The proceeds from sales of that book and its follow up Ask a Policeman enabled the members to rent two rooms at 31 Gerrard Street in Soho, right in the heart of what was then London’s red light district. Members gathered often, enjoying the local bars and restaurants before staggering back to their club house to debate methods of murder over a night cap. I think whenever I’ve imagined the Detection Club’s heyday, it’s this time in the early 1930s that I’ve thought of, when the popularity of the golden age style was high and these collaborative books were paying for its foremost practitioners to have a good time.

The question is, though, how long could it last? After the break, we’ll find out.

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Inevitably, the golden age of detection fiction couldn’t last for ever. I haven’t actually talked much about this on the podcast so far, focusing instead on how the period and the style came into being, rather than how it fizzled out. But if there’s anyone who is qualified to explain this to us, it is Martin, and he says that just as the First World War had a great influence on how things got started, so did the Second World War help bring it to a close:

Martin: The Second World War did change everything. And of course, all thing was a dead as that the books that had previously been enormously fashionable were no longer of such interest, much less appeal to the critics who were looking at the new writers like Patricia Highsmith, Julian Symons and others, and therefore perhaps of less interest to the publishers. So there were a number of golden age type writers not not not least in the United States who simply couldn’t get their books published at all. Christie, of course, is an exception to every rule. And Ngaio Marsh was a high profile and very successful book. But the Golden Age, although books of that type continued to be written and course still continue to be written in one way or another. The Golden Age as as a period of burning intensity and innovation seems to me to have come to an end with the war.

Caroline: The war changed lives all over the world, and the Detection Club members were no exception.

Martin: Well, the detection club really continued to flourish until the Second World War. And in fact, by that time, Agatha Christie, who wasn’t one of life’s great joiners, was actually on the committee. So that shows you just how interested and enthusiastic she was. And then, of course, the war came. The club couldn’t meet. The minutes were apparently lost in the Blitz and there was some suggestion. John Dixon Carr at one point told Ellery Queen that the club ceased to exist, but it hadn’t. But. But it came back in the late forties from about 46 onwards. But, of course, the founder members, a small percentage had died. Others had lost their enthusiasm, such as Berkeley, and Sayers, so more members were brought in.

Caroline: As Martin says, the war also marked a shift in the careers of two of the most enthusiastic original members, Berkeley and Sayers. Neither published any crime fiction after 1939, although Berkeley did keep up his journalism and Sayers of course devoted herself to plays, religious writing and translation work. For them, perhaps, the Detection Club had served its purpose. But there were still crime writers — what role could it play in their work?

Martin: But the club as a whole had a lower profile for a long time and it really continued although books were very occasionally published, it really continued to fly below the radar and operate just as a social club. But Agatha Christie took over as president after Sayers died in the late fifties and she remained president until her death and was a very loyal adherent of the club. And after her there was Julian Symons and after him Harry Keating. So, so remained a club which stuck to the basic idea of members by election and a relatively small membership because after all it’s a dining club.

Caroline: The Club’s fortunes were very closely tied to the style of writing that its founding members had stood for, and so as the public’s interest turned away from intricate puzzle based whodunnits and towards more psychological stories, police procedurals and the like, the Club too fell out of the spotlight somewhat. In an attempt to recognise the changing times, the ban on thriller writers joining was lifted in the 1950s.

I was really keen to hear from Martin about his own experience with the Detection Club — after all, it’s not exactly something that you can apply to join. So how does a contemporary crime writer get to be a member and eventually, president?

Martin: Well, I was invited as a guest a very long time ago by Robert Barnard, who’s a very good friend of mine, and one of those older writers who was to some extent a mentor. And someone somebody gave me a lot of encouragement, helped me to get early short stories published and things like that. And he invited me along to the Savoy. That was that was in the nineties and then somewhat out of the blue as these things happened. I got a letter when I got home from work one day from Simon Brett, the president told me I’d been elected. First I was aware of it, of course. And so that was in 2008. And I was elected and inducted on the same night as another good friend of mine, Ann Cleeves. So so we joined together and have been members ever since.

Caroline: The initiation ceremony dreamed up by the early members, in which the candidate had to swear an oath on Eric the skull to uphold the principles of the club, is apparently still in use, too.

Martin: Well, the initiation ceremony was dreamed up in 1931 mainly by Sayers, but with input from Berkeley and Ronald Knox and one or two others. I think it’s been adapted over the years and they’ve been various different versions of it. So the version that is used today is much shorter and crisper because ultimately the reality is that you have a nice long dinner and the initiation ceremony comes at the end of the dinner and you don’t want it to go on for hours and hours and hours. So it’s relatively brief, but it’s still part of the still part of the tradition of the club.

Caroline: There are some pictures from the modern swearing in ceremony on Martin’s website, which I will link to in the show notes, I recommend taking a look.

Martin, I should explain, has been publishing crime novels and short stories since the early 1990s alongside his work as a solicitor. He’s also worked very hard on promoting the genre — many of the British Library Crime Classic editions that you might have read are edited by him, and he’s also worked on lots of anthologies of short stories. Many of his own books are set in the modern day, but his two recently novels, Gallows Court and Mortmain Hall, are set in the golden age period, and the latter even includes a “clue finder” — a “fair play” device almost certainly not seen in a mystery novel since the heyday of the Detection Club in the 1930s.

My own introduction to his work, though, was through The Golden Age of Murder, his non fiction book about the founding of the Detection Club and the stories that surround its original members. There’s a huge amount of original research in that book and details about detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s that you will struggle to find anywhere else. He was able to include some of that information because of his role as the Detection Club’s archivist, a position he was given in 2011. As far as I can make out, he grabbed at the chance to amass golden age history, and has barely looked back.

Martin: Well, the the history to this is that probably about 15 years ago, knowing of my interest in the history of crime fiction. Even in those days, the Crime Writers’ Association asked me to be their archivist. They had kept material from the 1950s. And at that time, I was working full time so I wasn’t able to do very much with it. But coincidentally, a few years later, Simon Brett as president asked me to do something in the archives of the detection club. But the difference was that the Detection Club had no archives. There’s nothing there. So so the task was rather different. It’s to try to assemble material. And so I’ve gone around trying to pick up bits and pieces where I can find information about the early members as well. So so the archives of the Detection Club are much less thorough than those of the Crime Writers’ Association, which are quite substantial. But I’ve been trying to add to them. And for instance, I’ve added to them Bob Barnard’s archive. Quite a bit of his material is now part of it. And he was a not only an interesting writer and an interesting person, but he kept everything so so that that’s there’s some meat there that I think is interesting to study. And I reached an agreement with Gladstone’s Library in North Wales near Chester in a village called Hawarden, founded by Gladstone towards the end of the 19th century, a wonderful place. And they agreed to take the archives on loan and to catalogue them and look after them, and comply with GDPR and all these things that you’ve got to do with archives nowadays. So that that was a real breakthrough. And in the last few years, not this year, unfortunately, because of the pandemic, it’s had to be postponed until next year. But for the last few years, we’ve had a weekend in June called Alibis in the Archive where writers have given talks and members of the public have not only been able to come along and indeed stay because you can stay in the library, it’s got very nicely pointed rooms, great place to stay, very convivial atmosphere. But you can also have a look at some of the material. So this is a long term project and it’s certainly one that will far out last me. I’ve got no doubt about that. But I think that as with any major project, you’ve got to start somewhere. And although in a low key way I feel that it was right to try to stockpile and preserve material where possible and make it accessible to people so that people can see it for themselves. It’s not locked away in some dusty basement all the time. And so my my hope is that as interest in the heritage of crime fiction develops, so interest in the archives will increase.

Caroline: The modern day Detection Club is also still publishing collaborative novels. In 2016, along with other members of the club, Martin wrote The Sinking Admiral, the title being a nod to the original Club round robin work.

Martin: Well, we did a modern homage to it called The Sinking Admiral that Simon Brett masterminded. And I wrote one chapter of that. When we’d written most of it he organised a dinner, which was called the Whodunnit Dinner, when we all sat around the table and figured out who the murderer would be and selected the unfortunate person who had to write the final chapter, which thankfully wasn’t me.

Caroline: It didn’t work quite the same way though — unlike in The Floating Admiral where each chapter was written and signed by a different author, in The Sinking Admiral you have to work it out for yourself.

Martin: That was that was a little game, so that the challenge to the reader is to see if you can figure out who wrote, who wrote which.

The Detection Club does non fiction, too. In 1936, they published a book called The Anatomy of Murder, which features essays by Sayers, Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts and others about real life cases. And later this year, an anthology of writing by members past and present will appear under the title of Howdunit.

Martin:  Publication has been delayed this year because of the pandemic, but it will come out soon in September, I think, this book called Howdunit, and that’s the Detection Club’s new book about the art and craft of crime writing. And it’s predominantly present day members, but they’re also 20 odd members from the past with their thoughts on different aspects of the process. And that’s something that was was great fun to put together. It was it was quite, quite a demanding job, as it turned out. So I envisaged 15 or twenty pieces, really, rather than 90. But but it was worth it because it’s a book I found really interesting to work on.

Caroline: The focus on craft is apt, I think, given how much the Detection Club has always been about writers and the writing life. Although regrettably some of the early Club papers and records have been lost, what remains still constitutes a fascinating record of a group that has gathered down the decades in honour of an enduring literary art form: the detective novel. Some things change — the people, for one thing, and the premises. No more sleazily glamorous Soho club house. But others remain the same — the writers who are devoted to this form are still gathering to experiment, collaborate and commiserate with each other.

And Eric the Skull of course. He never changes.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated and edited by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find show notes and links to Martin Edwards’s books at shedunnitshow.com/detectionclub, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics I covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

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I’ll be back on 2 September with another episode.