The Detection Club
Some of the most famous names in British detective novel writing – Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers – met frequently to discuss their craft. They critiqued each other's work and shared tips on how to write perfect crime fiction.
The Detection Club Is Formed
Anthony Berkeley Cox was the guiding light behind the formation of the Detection Club. He was a prolific writer of crime fiction under several pseudonyms – Francis Iles, A. Monmouth Platts, and Anthony Berkeley.
He began organizing dinners with other crime authors and this led to the creation of the Detection Club in 1930.
The group started writing “round robin” books. Each member would create a chapter and pass the story on to the next contributor.
One of these creations, The Floating Admiral,was published in 1931 and Dorothy L. Sayers explained how it was written: “… each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having the slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind.”
Authors were required to write their chapters with a specific solution in mind. A dozen writers had a hand in the book and Anthony Berkeley Cox wrapped everything up with a final chapter entitled appropriately “Clearing up the Mess.” Finally, an appendix was added in which the writers described how they thought the plot would be resolved.
The book was a huge success and other “round robin” novels followed.
Becoming a Member
Crime fiction writer David Stuart Davies was invited to join the club in 2016. He described the induction ceremony: “The chairman wears the robe that was worn by G.K. Chesterton in the early days. There are four black candles and a skull. Initiates stroke the skull and swear a motto. I chose some lines from The Hound of the Baskervilles. Then you are a member.
“It sounds sinister but it’s all very tongue-in-cheek. Once you join you find that these famous people are very normal and friendly. Wine flows freely and everyone has a good time.”
New members are invited by secret ballot and have to swear an oath written by Ms. Sayers:
“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
The current president, Martin Edwards says the Detection Club “… is the oldest and most august society of crime writers in the world. Essentially a social and dining organisation, it currently holds three meetings each year.”
Murder Mystery Rules
The club issued ten rules that members had to abide by in penning whodunits. These were intended to give readers at least a sporting chance of figuring out the guilty party before the detective does. Club members who broke any of the rules risked being tossed out.
- The murderer must be introduced early in the story but cannot be someone whose thoughts the writer reveals.
- Supernatural and preternatural events cannot be used.
- Only one secret passage or room is allowed per book.
- Only commonly known poisons or murder weapons can be used.
- Chinese characters cannot be used because, in mysteries of low quality of the era, they were frequently introduced as a plot device and were always portrayed as devious.
- The detective cannot be aided by an accident nor can he rely on some sort of intuition.
- The detective cannot be the guilty party.
- The reader must be exposed to all clues at the same time as the detective.
- “The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.”
- In general, twins or doubles are not allowed.
The reader was to be treated fairly and given the same opportunity to solve the mystery as the fictional detective.
The Shadow of War
The British people had been traumatized by the meat grinder of the Great War and members of the Detection Club had also been affected.
Anthony Berkeley Cox had served in the war and had been gassed; something that affected his physical and mental health negatively. Christianna Brand, a Detection Club member, described him as “charming, urbane and … perhaps the cleverest of us all.” But later, he became “rude, overbearing, and really horrid.”
Agatha Christie worked as a nurse in a Red Cross hospital patching up wounded young men. He own brother, Monty, was badly wounded and died early.
The husband of Dorothy L. Sayers, Captain Oswald Fleming, was another war casualty who had bouts of ill health and who drank too much. He was resentful of his wife's success.
In that context, murder mysteries were written in a genteel style by today’s standards. The authors in the 1920s and ‘30s did not dwell on grisly violence with good reason; people did not want to be reminded of the ghastly mutilations that often attend a violent death. They had seen too much of that and it was still in front of them as men missing legs or arms hobbled about the streets of cities.
In the United States, grittier styles emerged from the pens of Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and others. Arriving almost at the end of the First World War, the American population had not been exposed to four years of carnage and loss.
For the British, the heyday of the cozy murder mystery lasted until the Second World War, although fans by the million still read them. Their continued popularity is attested to by frequent adaptations for film and television.
- Dorothy L. Sayers was President of the Detection Club from 1949 until 1957. She was followed by Agatha Christie who held the post until her death in 1976.
- In 1930, the BBC hired the Detection Club to write a radio series under the title Behind the Screen. It was a “round robin” and each writer read their chapter in a live broadcast. The text was then published in the broadcaster’s weekly magazine, The Listener. BBC History notes that “Audience members were invited to solve the mystery, but the puzzle was tricky, and nobody got the answer completely right.” It was wildly successful and was followed in 1931 by The Scoop.
- Anthony Berkeley’s 1932 novel Before the Fact was adapted into Alfred Hitchcock's psychological thriller Suspicion in 1941. The general impression of the armchair critics is that the book was much better than the movie.
- “Invisible Ink: No 150 - Anthony Berkeley Cox.” Christopher Fowler, The Independent, November 18, 2012.
- “Behind the Scenes at the Detection Club, the Writers’ Group With a Spooky Initiation Ceremony.” Andrew Hirst, The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, October 1, 2016.
- “The Detection Club.” Martin Edwards, undated.
- “The Golden Age of Murder: Agatha Christie and the Detection Club.” Martin Edwards, BBC History Magazine, June 11, 2015
© 2018 Rupert Taylor