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Editor’s choice: ‘THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER’

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, HarperCollins, 481 pages, $27.99. It almost sounds like a TV pilot. Once upon a time, between the World Wars of the 20th century, there was an actual club created for authors of detective fiction that included four of the most famous of all time – G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Julian Symons.

It was called, rather plainly, “The Detection Club” and it still exists, more or less. Martin Edwards describes the version of it from 1930 on as “an elite but mysterious group of crime writers over which Sayers, Christie and Symons presided for nearly forty years.”

When Edwards, an author of crime fiction himself as well as a historian of the profession, was elected to join the club and serve as its archivist “I tracked down and interviewed relatives of former Detection Club members and other witnesses to the curious case of the Golden Age of Murder.”

These are the practitioners of, you remember, exactly the all-too-genteel literary genre associated with anti-semitism and snobbery and decried generically by Raymond Chandler in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” and all ensuing Chandlerians who followed his credo of finding crime on “the mean streets.”

You look at the list of members and it scarcely seems believable, though Edwards assures us that it is: Chesterton, Christie, Symons, Sayers, A.A. Milne and Hugh Walpole in early years, all the way up through Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr and beyond.

They are the “unusual suspects” who have banquets in “opulent dining rooms” where wine flowed and unsolved cases were pursued and rituals observed. “The sun had not quite set on the British Empire but this was the twilight of the Imperial Era.”

What Edwards is doing here in this artfully written scholarly fable about the real world is nothing less than the reclamation of an eclipsed literary genre from history’s stylistic re-alignments and its re-positioning as the fount of the modern world’s “CSI,” Ruth Rendell, PD James and the like.

Outlandish. Absurd, Altogether irresistible. –Jeff Simon