Bodies from the Library

The Murder Room’s Julia Silk reports back from the British Library’s Bodies from the Library conference on the mysteries of Golden Age crime fiction.

At the end of June the British Library ran the excellent Bodies from the Library conference, which was a day of lively discussion on the mysteries of the Golden Age from both bigger names and lesser known (if not entirely forgotten) popular authors of the era.


I couldn’t be there for the first part of the day, but I know from reports that a heated discussion was had between Martin Edwards, author of The Golden Age of Murder and two popular series of detective novels, and Jake Kerridge, the Telegraph’s crime fiction critic. I gather that they concluded that the Golden Age ended in September 1939, with the beginning of World War II. An assertion hotly disputed by later panellists during the course of the day.

By the time I arrived the conference had also covered two of the four Golden Age queens of crime, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham (the other two being Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh), and the Detection Club and its collaborative novels, which I caught the end of, and was fascinated to hear that the members of this illustrious club use these collections as a means of fundraising for the society, taking no royalties for themselves. Very noble!

The focus of the second half of the morning was crime among the dreaming spires of Oxford and The Other Place. Both cities have been a setting for more than their fair share of fictional murder over the years, imagined by authors from Dorothy L. Sayers in Gaudy Night, through Adam Broome’s The Oxford Murders and The Cambridge Murders to The Murder Room’s own Ronald Knox, priest and author of Fair Play mysteries.

This was followed by a panel discussing the ins and outs of editing and publishing the Golden Age, with the publisher of the British Library Classic Crime collection, Rob Davies, and HarperCollins Estates publisher David Brawn, who spoke eloquently and eruditely about the intricacies of making editorial decisions on previously published work, dealing with estates and navigating the differing copyright laws in various countries.

The biggest treat of the day came after lunch, with the broadcast of a radio play by the master of the locked-room mystery, John Dickson Carr – complete with wonderfully RP narration, dramatic incidental music and fabulously overblown dialogue (‘There’s a criminal lewnatic on the loose’) as we ‘waited for the terror to strike on the balcony of death’. And strike it did.

Tony Medawar on locked-room mysteries explored one of the most engaging sub-genres of Golden Age crime, and Dolores Gordon-Smith, author of the Jack Haldean mysteries, was illuminating on Freeman Wills Crofts, whose ‘humdrum’ (as described by Julian Symons) mysteries are in fact anything but, and who, in Inspector French, created a character whose attention to the detail of crime make him a fascinating forerunner of today’s police procedural.

Although I’d missed out on the morning’s helping of Christie, Dr John Curran gave an illuminating talk later in the day, with an insight into the Grande Dame of mystery’s own contemporaneous influences – including the likes of Leo Bruce and Mignon Eberhart, both much admired in their time – and referencing her character Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s alter ego. He also revealed that, perhaps surprisingly, she was a great admirer of Patricia Highsmith.

Author and Chair of the Crime Writers Association L. C. Tyler was next up. Author of the charming Elsie and Ethelred series, he traced the heritage of the Golden Age into the modern day (puzzles, clues, red herrings, twists within a properly constructed plot, domesticity among the middle-classes, amateur detective as central figure) and his therefore logical contention that the Golden Age is still with us was both convincing and well received. He pointed out that most Golden Age authors wrote well after 1939 (some for decades), and that the Golden Age continued to reinvent itself.

Finally, and here I was of course all ears, the Ripe for a Reprint session, in which each of the panellists made a recommendation for a book they would like to see come back into print. A number of titles were mentioned that I am pleased to say are coming soon from The Murder Room, including Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive.

If the subject fascinates you as much as it does me, here’s some further reading you might like to check out. Most of the speakers have their own websites where they share their boundless knowledge of and enthusiasm for classic crime, as well as information about their own books.

Martin Edwards

John Curran

L. C. Tyler

Here you can find the recommended reading list that the organisers put out ahead of the conference, as well as some of the other titles mentioned on the day.

HarperCollins’ Detection Club collections as well as their new hardback releases (with original jacket art) of old titles from their Detective Story Club.

And of course the excellent British Library Crime Classics list.