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The Best Golden Age Mysteries

recommended by Martin Edwards

Blackstone Fell by Martin Edwards


Blackstone Fell
by Martin Edwards


Partly as a response to the horrors of World War I, the 1920s and 30s saw a surge in the writing of whodunnits, a period often referred to as the 'golden age' of mystery writing. Here, Martin Edwards, one of the leading experts on the genre, picks out some key works, with a special focus on 'locked room' mysteries.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Blackstone Fell by Martin Edwards


Blackstone Fell
by Martin Edwards

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For those of us who enjoy mysteries but haven’t studied the history of the genre, can you start by explaining what is meant by ‘golden age’ mysteries? They seem to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance at the moment.

That’s absolutely right. There are two aspects really. First of all, the period. It’s a vague term but for me, it’s the period between the two World Wars when people reacted to the horrors of the First World War by going for escapism and fun and the game playing of the classic whodunnit. That’s when the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers came to the fore. Then, after the Second World War, tastes and fashions changed. So I think the golden age itself is really the period between the two World Wars.

But the golden age style of writing, a style that evolved during that period, is something that continued. Agatha Christie continued writing into the 1970s, for instance, and to this day, people use tropes from the golden age and write different versions of golden age fiction. I’ve done it myself in a number of different ways and so have many other people. These books range from straightforward pastiche to something rather different and sometimes quite distinct from the types of books that were being written in the original golden age.

How did you choose the books you’re recommending today? Are they personal favorites or did you select them because they were important in the evolution of the genre?

It’s a bit of both really, Sophie, because of course I have many favorites. It’s always a bit of a challenge picking out five or 10 or even 20. I once wrote a book called The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books and it actually had 102 books in it because I couldn’t stop myself! The five I’ve chosen today are very, very strong stories but they’re also quite significant in various ways.

I noticed that there’s a locked room element in almost all of them.

Yes, we’re going to focus mainly on locked room mysteries. It’s a term that’s become popular all over again in recent years, but it’s sometimes misunderstood. There’s a confusion between the locked room mystery and what other people call the ‘closed circle mystery,’ which is where you just have a limited group of suspects—maybe on an island or in some other restricted community.

A locked room mystery, as the purists might regard it, is one where there’s a definite element of impossibility about the mystery, a paradox. This couldn’t have happened, yet it did. So how did it happen? That’s the central puzzle. It might be that the body is found in a locked room that nobody could get into or out of, or the weapon has disappeared, or people are observing the place where the murder was committed, or it was committed in a beach hut, and there are no footprints in the sand, or it was committed in a summer house in the winter and there are no footprints in the snow. It’s that element of impossibility or paradox or miracle, almost, that distinguishes the locked room mystery.

And would you say both locked room and closed circle mysteries are characteristic of the golden age?

Yes, because they both involve puzzles. The locked room mysteries tend to be more elaborate, very often more artificial, by definition, because this element of impossibility is quite hard to achieve effectively. It’s easier with a closed circle mystery. Nowadays, publishers tend to call things locked room mysteries that really aren’t, I guess it’s a commercial tag that they like. But a locked room mystery is where—even if there’s no actual locked room—there’s an element of something impossible going on.

On that note, let’s look at your first choice, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a story that was first published in 1841.

This is by Edgar Allan Poe, the great American writer, and most people would agree that it’s the first actual detective story. There are other stories about crime beforehand, there are even one or two locked room mysteries, but this is the first great detective story. The detective is called Auguste Dupin and it’s set in Paris. Dupin is the archetypal great detective, the brilliant reasoning machine with an admiring unnamed friend who’s the narrator of his exploits.

There are two women murdered. One of them is found in a room that’s locked and shuttered and there’s no way in and no way out. You can’t get through the ceiling; you can’t get through the floor. How did it happen? That’s the central puzzle. The police are baffled by the murders, but by applying his brand of logic, Dupin solves the mystery to everybody’s amazement. I won’t say what the solution is but it’s a pretty remarkable one, that’s for sure.

So “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was really a very significant story historically, and also very entertaining and influential in all sorts of ways.

It obviously touched a nerve because nowadays mysteries almost always seem to feature a brilliant detective. I guess afterwards writers decided that that was the way to go?

That’s right. Sherlock Holmes was the prime inheritor of Dupin’s mantle. There were a number of impossible crime stories written by Conan Doyle. One or two of those are quite excellent, actually.

Let’s move on to your second choice. This is a French mystery from 1907, The Mystery of the Yellow Room.

Yes, it’s got another great detective. He’s young, said to be only 18—which is hard to reconcile with the story—and is called Joseph Rouletabille. He is a brilliant young journalist. It’s by an author called Gaston Leroux who today is better known for The Phantom of the Opera, which he also wrote. But, in its day, The Mystery of the Yellow Room was a very, very famous locked room mystery. Rouletabille makes all these enigmatic remarks as many great detectives, particularly in the past, used to do. That’s part of the appeal. There’s a lot of drama and atmosphere surrounding what actually went on in the yellow room. There’s an enigmatic professor who’s involved and a lot of classic tropes.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room was highly influential. It was greatly admired by some of the great golden age writers. It was hugely successful and astonishingly—to me, at least—it’s actually been transformed into an animated movie with Lego characters, which you can watch on YouTube. It’s really quite stunning to watch this classic golden age mystery in Lego. It’s very, very funny and quite unique, so special kudos to whoever did that.

Now your next choice I didn’t manage to find so I haven’t read it. Tell us about “The House in Goblin Wood” by Carter Dickson, which dates from 1947.

“The House in Goblin Wood,” like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is a short story, not a novel. It’s one of the most famous of the impossible crime stories. I do think that because of the artificiality of the locked room concept, very often it works well in a short story, or as an element in a novel. If it’s a full-length novel very often the book itself is quite artificial, which can be fine, but it’s more of a challenge to keep the reader engaged.

It’s written by Carter Dickson, which is a pen name of John Dickson Carr, an American writer who lived for a long time in England and was a great anglophile. He was very prolific in the 1930s and the 40s and wrote under a number of different pen names. He was the king of the locked room mystery. He read The Mystery of the Yellow Room as a boy and loved it and devoted himself to the locked room puzzle. He was hugely influential, and his best mysteries are very, very clever.

“A locked room mystery, as the purists might regard it, is one where there’s a definite element of impossibility”

He has a number of detectives. Some of his early writing, featuring Henri Bencolin, have been republished by the British Library in recent times. He also created a character called Dr. Gideon Fell, whose case, The Seat of the Scornful, has been republished recently. (Fell is modeled on GK Chesterton, who was also very keen on locked room mysteries and impossible crimes and the idea of paradox. I could easily have chosen a Father Brown story by Chesterton for this list, had I more than five to go with).

Another character he created is Sir Henry Merrivale, who features in this short story. It’s a brilliant example of what you can do with a locked room or impossible crime puzzle in a short space. The mystery is very ingenious, the characterization is quite sharp, the atmosphere is fantastic. And the solution is great. There’s an absolutely chilling finale to it, the sort of thing you don’t really expect in a traditional golden age novel. It’s not in the least cozy, I think that’s fair to say. It’s a brilliant story.

Short stories are very much part of the early history of the genre, aren’t they? The work of many writers appeared as short stories in magazines.

Yes, there were a lot of markets for short stories in that period. Going back to Sherlock Holmes, the Strand Magazine really grew on the back of those stories. It wasn’t really until after the First World War that novels came into the ascendant really, but short stories continued to be written and most of the great crime novelists have written good short stories as well, sometimes with an impossible crime element. For example, Agatha Christie wrote a few short stories with an impossible crime element. She wasn’t someone who specialized in the impossible crime story, and she didn’t write many, although she was a great friend of John Dickson. They were both members of the Detection Club and spent a lot of time socializing together.

As an aside, if anyone wants a full-length book by John Dickson Carr, you mentioned his novel The Hollow Man in your email.

Yes, The Hollow Man is also a very ingenious and atmospheric novel with multiple impossible crime situations.

Let’s go on to the next book on your list which is by Agatha Christie. This is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Why did you choose it?

I chose Hercule Poirot’s Christmas because it’s a very good example of the classic whodunnit with an impossible crime element woven in. It’s not the main aspect of the story. It doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of the novel. I’ve just written a novel myself where there is a locked room puzzle, but it’s not the central focus of the story. It’s a lot of fun, from my point of view, to write it, but you can do things with a novel that go beyond the locked room element.

That’s what Christie does in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. She has a very good plot with some good clueing and misdirection. It’s a good mystery in a country house setting, at Christmas. What more could you want but a murder? That murder involves an apparent impossibility.

So this is a different kind of story from the others we’re talking about because the locked room is not the central focus of the story, but it does illustrate that it’s something that can be utilized in quite a wide variety of ways.

Have you managed to figure out why these books—with puzzles about gory murders—are such a popular form of relaxation for human beings?

I’ve actually written a whole book called The Life of Crime, a history of crime fiction, which explores that and other issues, such as the connections between different types of crime stories. I do think it’s interesting that you can find these hidden connections in different subgenres which people might not expect. So in Scandi noir, the Swedish writers Sjöwal and Wahlöö wrote a very good crime novel called The Locked Room as part of their Martin Beck series. The series has a political dimension, it’s about 1960s Scandinavia, so it’s very, very different from John Dickson Carr. It shows that the appeal of these entertaining puzzles is very wide. You can employ them in different ways and achieve different effects as a writer. Can this apparent miracle, with its potential rational solution, play a part in my story? That’s quite thought-provoking, the sheer range that throws up, and you see these ideas cropping up all over the place, which probably brings me to the next example.

Yes, tell me about the fifth mystery you’ve chosen, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders.

This is by Soji Shimada, a contemporary Japanese writer who has been highly influential, particularly in Japan and Asia, in reinventing the locked room mystery and traditional golden age story. These have been very, very popular in Japan and now to some extent in China as well, with mystery games being popular amongst young Chinese people. I met Soji Shimada at a mystery game convention in Shanghai and we were both bewildered by all these young people playing very elaborate golden age-type mystery games. Often there is a dark edge to the storyline that in general—with some exceptions, like “The House in Goblin Wood”— you tend not to find so much in the 1920s and the 1930s. Again, it shows the potential.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was published in the 1980s but has only been available in English translation in recent years. It is a very interesting book. It’s pretty dark and gruesome. It’s convoluted in a Christie-style way but quite distinctive. It’s one of those books which very consciously references the golden age traditions, the great detective, the various ideas of clueing and red herrings and the twists, the surprise solution at the end. So it falls within the tradition but it remakes it at the same time. Soji has been very, very successful at doing that. His approach and that of a number of other writers from that part of the world has shown that the locked room mystery isn’t as played out as people used to think in the past. If you’ve got enough energy and imagination as a writer, you can take these ideas and do something fresh and interesting.

In terms of your most recent novel, Blackstone Fell, which I’ve just read and you’ve referred to in passing, you’re also trying to write in the style of the golden age mystery, is that right?

Yes, Blackstone Fell is the third in a series about a character called Rachel Savernake, who denies being a detective, but is within the tradition of the great detective in some ways. She’s got a sidekick, a Doctor Watson figure called Jacob, who is a journalist and very impetuous and naïve. He gets into a lot of difficult situations. Rachel is enigmatic and mysterious, and very ruthless too, it must be said. She’s a complex character.

What I’m trying to do in that series is to write books that feel as though they were written in the period. I do a lot of research to try to make sure that they have that authentic feel. They have a lot of golden age tropes, but I’m writing in the 21st century. These are not pastiches, they’re not an attempt to write Agatha Christie, they’re an attempt to do something different with those ideas about society, about human nature, about character. The settings are important, too. I’m trying to take those ideas and use the freedom that writers have today—which is a different sort of freedom from writers of the 20s and 30s—to write stories that are a bit quirky, a bit different but which, nevertheless, fall broadly within that great tradition. They are quite dark, but they’re also meant to be fun and entertaining, and to offer a genuine mystery to be solved. So with this book, Blackstone Fell, and the last one, Mortmain Hall, there’s a cluefinder at the end, which is something that some of the books of the 20s and 30s used to have. The author puts clues at the end of the book that the reader may or may not have picked up in the text. You’re demonstrating that you’ve played fair, which was very important in the golden age.

You’re also very actively involved with the British Library Crime Classics, which is a series that republishes golden age mysteries and I absolutely love. As a consultant to that series, are you always racking your brains for mysteries that are no longer available and that you’d like to see out there again?

That’s right—and trying to show the sheer range of stories written. The series really spans from the 1920s to the 1960s and crime fiction changed a lot during that period in many, many ways. It’s certainly not all me! It’s the British Library who decides, they do all the work and also take up ideas from others who make suggestions.

What I’m very keen on is the quality of the stories and the range so that, if you take the series overall, there’s a number of different approaches in terms of writing style and types of story. So Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert is a locked room mystery, but it’s set in an Italian prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. It’s actually a locked escape tunnel mystery. Things like that greatly appeal to me. Also, particularly with the more recent titles, I’m trying to show the diversity, because diversity in crime fiction isn’t a new thing. It’s been there all along; it’s just been underestimated.

I should add that you nearly included a new book in the series, Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand on this list, in case I wasn’t happy with having two short stories. Was this book quite hard to get hold of before the British Library republished it?

That’s right. Death of Jezebel has been unavailable at a sensible cost for decades. People have been talking about it, but not able to find it. Now it’s available as a mass market paperback, which is great in itself. It’s a very interesting story. It’s complex, it’s labyrinthine. It’s set at a pageant post-Second World War. Apparently, that was a big thing at that time, which I didn’t realize before I read the book.

It’s got multiple solutions and is very ingenious. It’s also a closed circle mystery, because she gives you a cast of characters at the beginning and says that one of those people is the killer. You’ve also got a fair idea of why. It’s quite tightly written, but she manages to juggle the suspects around in a very ingenious way.

Thank you so much, Martin. I very much enjoyed Blackstone Fell. If you told me it’d been written in the 1930s I would have believed it.

That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I dream of people saying!

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

September 6, 2022

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Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards has won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating, Macavity, Poirot and Dagger Awards and is President of the Detection Club. In 2020 he was awarded the Diamond Dagger for his outstanding contribution to crime fiction. Martin is the consultant to the British Library's bestselling crime classics. He has been the Chair of the Crime Writers' Association and is the award-winning author of The Golden Age of Murder.

Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards has won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating, Macavity, Poirot and Dagger Awards and is President of the Detection Club. In 2020 he was awarded the Diamond Dagger for his outstanding contribution to crime fiction. Martin is the consultant to the British Library's bestselling crime classics. He has been the Chair of the Crime Writers' Association and is the award-winning author of The Golden Age of Murder.