10 Undervalued Golden Age Mysteries
Anyone who enjoys classic crime is well aware of the merits of books like Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. But there are plenty of novels, by these authors and others, that in my opinion deserve to be much better known, and much better regarded. Quite a few of them are not conventional whodunits – and the point to keep in mind is the sheer variety of books that were actually written during the 1920s and 30s. Many of them were not remotely formulaic or cosy. Here are ten personal favourites by British writers which were published during the Golden Age of detective fiction.
Curtain – Agatha Christie. Perhaps this book was under-rated because it was published in 1975, not long before she died and at a time when the quality of her original fiction was in decline. But she wrote this one while still at the height of her powers. It wasn’t published back in the Golden Age simply because it was Poirot’s very last case. This story of a highly unorthodox serial killer is, however, quite creepy and brilliant.
Dead Mrs Stratton – Anthony Berkeley. Also known as Jumping Jenny, this is a case for Roger Sheringham, surely the most fallible of great detectives. Berkeley’s wit and flair for the ironic and macabre are on full display in this characteristically ingenious story.
Lonely Magdalen – Henry Wade. No Golden Age writer had a better understanding of the way in which the police actually work than Wade, and this book, his masterpiece, has been unaccountably ignored over the years. The structure is clever – an account of a police investigation into the murder of a prostitute is followed by a long flashback which traces the background to the crime, before the detectives finally close in on the killer. But are they looking for the right man?
The Documents in the Case – Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace. Perhaps because this is the only detective novel that Sayers ever wrote that didn’t feature Lord Peter Wimsey, it is too often overlooked. Sayers borrowed her narrative technique, involving multiple viewpoints, from Wilkie Collins, and wrote a bleak story (inspired by a real life crime) with a remarkably ambitious theme – the nature of life itself.
The Sweepstake Murders – J.J. Connington. During the Golden Age, few writers were as scrupulous about playing fair with the reader as Connington, but the ingenuity of his clueing ensured that in this book in particular the mystery remains intriguing to the end. A sweepstake win proves to be the catalyst for the series of cunningly contrived murders. But who is guilty?
Suicide Excepted – Cyril Hare. In real life Hare was a barrister who became a judge and his masterpiece, A Tragedy at Law, has been justly acclaimed. But this early novel, in which his series characters don’t appear, deserves to be better known. It’s clever and engaging and written in Hare’s customary smooth and highly readable style. It’s also perhaps the best-plotted of all his books.
My Own Murderer – Richard Hull. Hull was inspired by the books that Anthony Berkeley wrote under the name of Francis Iles to write a number of darkly ironic tales of murder-gone-wrong. This book, much admired in its day, but long neglected, is characteristically wry. It’s narrated by a lawyer who happens to have the same name (Richard Henry Sampson) as the author, a neat touch, but is his confidence in his own ability to evade the clutches of the law is misplaced?
Middle-Class Murder – Bruce Hamilton. The brother of the playwright and novelist Patrick Hamilton was himself a talented crime writer whose work has mysteriously been overlooked by most critics. His left-wing views are evident in this novel, but the real strength of the story is the gripping way in which he recounts the misadventures of a would-be killer.
Poison in the Parish – Milward Kennedy. Kennedy, like Hull and Hamilton, was influenced by Francis Iles, and his books are similarly crammed with ironic twists of fate. This strangely obscure novel (never reprinted, so far as I know) boasts a highly unusual murder motive and is an English village mystery with a sting in the tail.
Birthday Party – C.H.B. Kitchin. Kitchin was an accomplished literary novelist whose occasional forays into detective fiction, with amateur detective Malcolm Warren, are all worth reading. This book, although reprinted recently, is less familiar. Kitchin makes use of multiple viewpoints (but in a very different way from The Documents in the Case) to tell a well-characterised story about a crime. Highly readable.
Martin Edwards’ latest novel, Gallows Court, was nominated for both the 2019 eDunnit award for best crime novel and the CWA Historical Dagger. He was recently honoured with the CWA Dagger in the Library for his body of work and has received the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Poirot awards, two Macavity awards, the CWA Margery Allingham Short Story Prize, and the CWA Short Story Dagger. He is consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics, a former chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, and current President of the Detection Club. He has published eighteen novels including the Harry Devlin series and the Lake District Mysteries, nine non-fiction books and sixty short stories, and edited forty anthologies.