Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

This is the talk I gave at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival HULF Talk on 30th April 2022 on the topic of Crime, Thriller and Mystery Fiction. See for more information about that talk and future HULF Talks.

My favourite period is crime-writing is the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve been reading books from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction since my teens, and it has also given me role models for my own writing.

Although many of its authors continued writing well after the Second World War, the term The Golden Age of Detective Fiction  refers to the inter-war years, when society was still reeling from the impact of the First World War. Then in 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic killed more people than the whole of the war. Tragically, unlike Covid, this was a strain of flu which particularly affected young people with strong immune systems – the generation that had been so decimated in the trenches. The authors writing in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction had seen horror indeed, which influenced and informed their writing lifelong.

Famously Agatha Christie’s intimate knowledge of poisons was gained from her voluntary work as a nurse, then as an apothecary’s assistant in a hospital for those sent home wounded from the First World War battlefields. Hercule Poirot was inspired by seeing Belgian refugees sent to her hometown of Torquay.

In Dorothy L Sayers’ early novels, her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey has frequent flashbacks to the war. He suffers shell shock at times of crisis, (in an era when shell shock was only starting to be acknowledged and understood), from which he is rescued by his faithful manservant Bunter – the same batman who had saved his life during the First World War, rescuing him from a shelled dug-out in the trenches.

Perhaps one reason handguns seem to proliferate in these stories is that so many men seemed to hang on to their old service revolvers. There always seems to be one handy in the desk drawer of the country house study or wherever else the writer needs to find one for the murder of a victim or the suicide of a rumbled killer seeking to avoid the gallows.

That’s another dark feature of the detective fiction of this era. Although not all the stories are of murder, most of them involve the inevitable sentencing of convicted murderers to the death sentence by hanging – capital punishment was not abolished until 1953.

So although the phrase “Golden Age” suggests nostalgia for an idyll, it arose from a dark place. It was also in some respects pioneering and forward-looking, bringing to the public’s attention what were then ground–breaking and modern themes. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club mentions the influence of “glands” on behaviour, which had just been discovered. Also forensic pathology and the psychology of serial killers, before the term serial killers had been coined. For this reason, Sigmund Freud was a fan of Golden Age Detective Fiction.

But just like everyone else, the detective writers sought respite from tragedy in fun and frivolity. They wrote to the sounds of the Jazz Age with its freer, impulsive music. They wore less fettered fashions than before the Great War, allowing them freedom of movement. They embraced the motor car to give their heroes and villains independence and mobility – Dorothy L Sayers even rode a motorbike herself – even if they did seem to drive them off the road and into ditches with alarming frequency. Well, there was no “health and safety” in those days, and no law against drink-driving. Drinking alcohol around the clock was no deterrent to getting behind the wheel, and whisky and soda was a standard nightcap.

Of course, the detectives back then did not have the advantage of modern technology – no internet, no satellite tracking, no mobile phones – but it was a case of swings and roundabouts. With terrestrial telephony still in its infancy, they could arrange for any suspicious call to be traced at the exchange, because calls were still connected manually by human beings. In one mystery (I think a Margery Allingham Albert Campion novel?), the sleuth is able to trace a particular car in the middle of London because it is remembered by a traffic policeman on point duty.

Although  many popular Golden Age novels feature privileged people in Wodehousian settings, the authors came from various backgrounds, from the working class to the aristocracy and across the full political spectrum from hard left to far right. Many were free and original thinkers, defying the social conventions of their day. Some had difficult personal problems – Sayers secretly gave birth to a son and had him adopted by a cousin without even her parents or her employers knowing, and we may never know the truth behind Christie’s infamous eleven-day disappearance in 1926. Such secrets would be nigh impossible to hide in the 21st century and the age of the paparazzi.

What united this assorted bunch of authors was their approach to the detective story as an intellectual puzzle – almost like a parlour game, or that new and highly popular fad, the crossword puzzle, invented in 1913.

They imposed upon themselves a strict code of fair play, to give the observant reader a chance of solving the mystery alongside or even before the sleuth in the story. Wimsey’s mother likes his love interest, Harriet Vane, a detective writer, because it takes her longer than usual to guess the villain.

One of their number, Ronald Knox, whose day job was that of a Catholic priest, came up with ten commandments of detective fiction, which I’ll read you now:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. 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.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Although there are plenty of writers who break these rules and still come up with great tales – I’m sure there are plenty of Chinamen in Sherlock Holmes, for example – and the tone of these commandments is tongue-in-cheek, I reckon for the most part they’re a good rule of thumb even now.

The authors concurred and colluded in other ways. Nowhere is this clearer than in the formation of the Detection Club, founded with 26 author members, including some who are still household names – Agatha Christie, G K Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers – as well as many who though hugely popular in their time went out of fashion until revived by the British Library Crime Classics series a few years ago. Its membership included writers better remembered now for other kinds of fiction – Baroness Orczy of Scarlet Pimpernel fame, and Christiana Brand of the children’s Nurse Matilda series, and even A A Milne.

This was a private club which met regularly to talk shop, and they had a formal constitution and rules, including a guarantee of quality. To qualify, members generally had to write at least two novels of a certain literary standard (although they happily admitted A A Milne, who wrote just one, because – well, Winnie-the-Pooh!), and in which detection had to be the main interest.

Its current president is Martin Edwards, and he is also officially the Club’s archivist. If you’d like to know more about the extraordinary lives of the Club’s first members, I highly recommend his account, The Golden Age of Murder.

If you prefer to discover them through the pages of fiction, there’s a unique way to sample twelve of them in a single book, a novel, The Floating Admiral, a remarkable collaboration.  Each of the twelve authors wrote a chapter, without conferring with the others on the plot or the eventual outcome, adding more red herrings and twists as they went along, until Anthony Berkeley had the unenviable task of pulling them all together in the final chapter, which he entitled, “Clearing Up the Mess”. A fascinating appendix presents how each of the contributors would have solved the mystery, and their solutions and interpretations of the previous chapters to theirs are completely different.

The Detection Club is still going strong, although its reach has broadened. As Simon Brett, its president from 2000-2015, says, “Crime fiction is a much broader church now that it was in the 1920s and 1930s”. Which leads us neatly into our discussion of the thriller, with Valerie Keogh and A A Abbott…

photo of authors at the HULF Talk
Left to right: the authors who spoke at the HULF Talk in April 2022 – back row Lucienne Boyce and Debbie Young, front row Valerie Keogh and A A Abbott (Photo by Laura Young)

To read Lucienne Boyce’s talk about The Victorian Origins of Crime Writing, you can now do so on her blog here:

It has great illustrations too!

See for more information about future HULF Talks.

Posted in Reading, Writing

On Box Sets and Books in Boxes – to Mark the Launch of Sophie Sayers’ First Box Set

images of covers of first 3
Is it a box set? Is it a trilogy? Whatever you call it, it’s a bargain!


It’s perhaps an inevitable phenomenon of our digital TV-on-demand era, with voracious viewers binge-watching whole series of their favourite shows at a sitting, that the equivalent should happen in ebook publishing.

The digital book box set allows readers to stock up on a whole batch of books in a series by their favourite author, or in some cases a collection of books each by a different author in the same genre.

Box sets are usually priced significantly cheaper than it would cost to buy the books separately.

Catching the Box Set Omnibus

I confess I’m jumping on the box set bandwagon myself this week, with the launch of my first box set of the first three novels in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series. If you buy the box set, you effectively get the books as a 3-for-2 bargain, as the price is the equivalent to what you’d pay for books two and three if bought alone.

As these are ebooks, the box is of course only notional. Although I have to say I do loved physical boxed sets too – and single books that come in their own little slipcase, the sort that the Folio Society is so good at, not so much a box set as simply a book in a box.

There’s something very comforting about physical box sets of books. My mother’s gift to me of a P G Wodehouse collection of Jeeves novels twelve years ago was as much a cure for my pneumonia as prescription drugs…

P G Wodehouse box set

…and I only have to look at this box set of the complete Sherlock Holmes to feel better.

Sherlock Holmes Box Set

When I was little, I only had one box set of books, a beautiful Disney-themed collection for my ninth birthday and still treasured.

Disney box set

But I did have several omnibuses – a collection of single books in a single fat volume.

Mary Plain's Omnibus book cover

In fact, I was quite grown up before I realised that an omnibus was “long” for the word bus, despite the handly clue provided here by Teddy Robinson.

first page of Teddy Robinson's Omnibus book

Climb Aboard Sophie Sayers’ Omnibus

images of covers of first 3
The first three Sophie Sayers books are now available in a virtual box set – a single ebook

If you’re an ebook reader, and have not yet climbed aboard my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, I hope you’ll enjoy her first box set. And if you’ve already read these, and the following book 4, Murder by the Book, I’ve got something for you too: the fifth in the series, Springtime for Murder, will be launched in November. More news on that book coming soon…

  • If you’d like to be among the first to know when I’m about to publish a new book, and to keep up with other news about my writing life, just sign up here to join my free Readers’ Club. You’ll also receive a free short story. (Of course, your details won’t be shared with anyone else or used for any other purpose.)


Posted in Writing

Just What Dr Watson Ordered? – In Praise of the Original Sherlock Holmes and Comfort Reading

My column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of the March edition
Click the image to read the rest of this month’s Tetbury Advertiser

Worn down by a bleak and hostile environment filled with threats, this month I turned to an old friend for comfort. No, I’m not talking about our current political climate, but about the final episode of the television series Sherlock.

Holmes regenerates in different guises more frequently than Dr Who, with over 200 films listed by IMDB. Although I loved the earlier episodes of the Cumberbatch incarnation, the finale left me cold. It was as if the cast had taken a wrong turning and ended up on the set of a James Bond villain’s lair. I craved the cosy retreat that is the centre of the world for the original Holmes and Watson: 221b Baker Street.

221b or Not 221b?

Photo of front of museum
Outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum

What a stroke of genius it was for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to add the “b” to that address. With a single letter, he suggests the quirky subversiveness of a hero who makes up his own rules and isn’t afraid to stand up against the establishment – a true hero then and now.

These days the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street claims that door number as its own, but it’s actually just a plaque on the wall. The address is and always was fictitious, a Narnian wardrobe that many have sought but never found.

Comfort Reading

In times of trouble, whether personal, national or international, fictional characters and places can offer as much consolation as real ones, and often more.  Sinking recently into the opening pages of Holmes’ first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, which I’d nominated as the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club’s February Book of the Month, was like stepping into a hot bubble bath after running through a thunderstorm with neither raincoat nor umbrella. Elegant prose, cracking storytelling and engaging characters lured me into a world where there may still have been crime and hatred, but where there’s also the inevitability of resolution and the triumph of good over evil.

A Story for Our Times

badge saying "I am Sherlocked"Subtle moral lessons are woven in along the way. I’d forgotten that one of the themes of A Study in Scarlet is religious tolerance, the crime revolving around questionable acts by Mormons in nineteenth-century Utah. Over a century after publication, it’s a story still relevant to our times.

So if you’re troubled by the state of the world in 2017, Dr Watson would surely prescribe spending time in the company of the original “consulting detective”, Sherlock Holmes, as he first emerged from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Though you may feel, as I do, that if Benedict Cumberbatch appeared up on your doorstep, you wouldn’t turn him away. Alternative medicine, perhaps?

Photo of Debbie holding a box set of Sherlock Holmes books
That’s my comfort reading sorted (Photo by presenter Dominic Cotter in the studio of his BBC Radio Gloucestershire lunch time show)

What’s your favourite comfort reading? I’d love to know!

logo giving date of next Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest
Admission free and everyone welcome!

Find more comfort in books and reading when you come along to the FREE Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 22nd April 2017 in the delightful Cotswold village that I call home. I’m looking forward to unveiling my own mystery series there, Best Murder in Show. Come and join the fun!

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Halloween vs Guy Fawkes Night? – Sherlock Holmes Helps Me Decide

A quick ponder about the merits and demerits of the way we celebrate 31st October and 5th November


Policeman saluting outside Sherlock Holmes Museum
Sherlock Holmes, we salute you – outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street last week

As we were clearing away the debris of Halloween late last evening, blowing out the candles that lit trick-or-treaters to our front door, my thirteen-year-old daughter turned to me and said “So next up is Christmas, then”.

I was taken aback when I realised that 5th November, aka Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night in the UK, was completely off her radar, despite a regular community bonfire party in our village and a family fireworks party at my brother’s house.

My incredulity was compounded when, by chance watching the Sherlock episode in which some children pass Holmes with a guy* in a pushchair calling “Penny for the Guy“, she had to ask what that was.

Badge saying "I am Sherlocked)
Big fans in this house – still trying to convert my daughter to the Jeremy Brett series, though

A Different Era

The last time I felt such a disconnect was when, some years ago, in the PR office in which I worked at the time, I was complaining about something being difficult and said “This is as bad as decimalisation.” Cue a chorus from the pool of young secretaries in whose office I happened to be holding forth: “What’s decimalisation?”

For information, because even fewer people will remember it now, and for the benefit of my non-UK readers, decimalisation** was when British currency changed from the old system of pounds, shillings and pence (20 shillings to a pound, 12 pence to a shilling) to decimal currency (100 pence to a pound).

It makes me feel even older to recall that this was the office in which I first came across that weird new gadget, the computer mouse. I thought it would never catch on.)

A New Beginning

This was a timely wake-up call, because today I’m starting my third annual NaNoWriMo stint to draft 50K words in a month, and this year I’ll be using it to write the first draft of Trick or Murder, the second in my new Sophie Sayers Village Mystery.  This is set in October and November, and in it a new vicar comes to the village of Wendlebury Barrow and tries to ban Halloween and replace it with Guy Fawkes Night – something that most of the village children have never heard of. A vicar inciting parishioners to burn someone in effigy at the stake? As it turns out, all is not what it seems with this curious new addition to my colourful cast of characters.

NaNoWriMo logo
I’m not sure why the viking helmet is up there; it’s not part of my usual writer’s toolkit

But hang on, I hear you cry – if this is your third NaNoWriMo project, how come you haven’t yet published any novels? Watch this space! Early in 2017 I’ll be publishing the first in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Best Murder in Show, which was my 2015 NaNo project, and my 2014 NaNo has morphed into #6 in the series, Murder Your Darlings.

Yes, you’ve guessed it – it’s a cosy mystery series (or cozy to you, my American friends), and it’ll be packed with what Mari Howard, reviewing my short story collection Marry in Haste, “the Debbie Young brand of sly and wry humour”. More news to follow soon. If you’d like an advance preview, join my free Readers’ Club, as I’ll be sending out a free sample to my mailing list prior to publication. You’ll also receive a free short story to read in the meantime when you sign up.

But now you’ll have to excuse me – I’ve got to dash to write my first daily 1667 words …

Cover of the Ladybird book entitled James I and the Gunpowder Plot
Image: Amazon UK

*For the benefit of those who don’t know what a guy is in this context, it’s an effigy of Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Ever since, he has been burned on bonfires, amid celebrations with fireworks, on the anniversary of his gunpowder plot, 5th November. More information is inevitably to be found on Wikipedia here

**More about decimalisation here, but not from Wikipedia. Hurrah. 

*** More about NaNoWriMo here: