Mystery for Golden Age Fans from CWA Diamond Dagger Winner Martin Edwards
The CWA’s decision to award me the Diamond Dagger for 2020 is a huge honour. I’m so thrilled; I can still hardly believe it. Among other things, it’s a massive fillip to morale, and all writers benefit from having their confidence boosted. What they can’t do is rest on their laurels. So I’m writing as busily as ever – and with renewed gusto!
I’m delighted to celebrate the news about the Diamond Dagger with publication of my latest novel, Mortmain Hall. After all these years I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed writing a novel as much as this one.
Mortmain Hall is a follow-up to Gallows Court, but it stands on its own two feet. You don’t need to have read the earlier story. With all my series, I’m keen to make sure that you can read the books in any order.
While researching my non-fiction book, The Golden Age of Murder, I became fascinated by the Thirties. I love the mysteries of that era – but I’m ambitious as a writer and didn’t want simply to write a straightforward pastiche. So I set out to use familiar Golden Age tropes in a fresh way. Gallows Court was a twisty psychological thriller as well as a history-mystery, and it’s darker than typical Golden Age mysteries. Some commentators have described it as ‘Golden Age Gothic’, which captures the atmosphere well. Luckily for me, the book earned wonderful reviews and endorsements, and was nominated for two awards.
For Mortmain Hall, the challenge was different. I wanted to avoid repeating myself, and to write a story which contained the ingredients that pleased fans of Gallows Court while developing the main characters and experimenting with plot. My idea was to blend thriller elements with a classic whodunit puzzle. So Mortmain Hall is a country house mystery with a difference, boasting a denouement in the library, where suspects are gathered together in traditional manner and all is finally revealed.
The Golden Age
Like Gallows Court, the book is set in 1930, a landmark year in the evolution of Golden Age detective fiction. Ground-breaking novels appeared, such as Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit The Murder at the Vicarage, Anthony Berkeley’s blend of psychology and plot twists in The Second Shot, and Lord Peter Wimsey’s entanglement with Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, which set a new standard in terms of humanising Great Detectives and focusing on their relationships as well as their sleuthing. All these books have influenced my own writing.
And because I’ve done my utmost to give readers a fair chance to solve the complex mystery for themselves, there is even a ‘Cluefinder’ at the end of the book, highlighting all the clues to the solution and where they appear in the text!
This idea of ‘fair play’ was very important to Golden Age authors. The puzzle has to be one that the reader can figure out before the Great Detective reveals all. But the clues need to be planted subtly, so that readers aren’t quite sure which elements of the story point the way to the solution.
Some of the best Golden Age writers, including John Dickson Carr, Edmund Crispin, and Freeman Wills Crofts, took this idea to its logical conclusion by including formal Cluefinders in their books. Most Cluefinders appeared in the late Twenties and early Thirties and as far as I know no whodunit with a Cluefinder has been published for more than half a century. So I aimed to write a story that was sufficiently ingenious for a Cluefinder to be worthy of inclusion.
Because I didn’t want Mortmain Hall to be a conventional detective story, I decided to create a number of different plot strands, and then thread them together so that it wouldn’t (I hoped…) be too easy for the reader to figure out what was going on. But of course it’s vital not to irritate one’s readers by being obscure for the sake of it, or by creating synthetic mystification.
This meant that I wanted the crimes (and there are plenty of them!) in the story to be rooted in credible motivations and situations. They also needed to reflect the times –what was happening in Britain in those days.
Notions about perfect crimes and miscarriages of justice recur in Golden Age detection – think of And Then There Were None. I wanted to write a book that dealt with those issues, but as entertainingly as possible.
Although Gallows Court wasn’t a humorous book, I enjoy integrating humour into my storylines, and Mortmain Hall gave me a chance to do this. The contrast between the lead characters, and the way their relationship is developing, allowed me to include plenty of jokes to lighten some of the darkness of the storyline. And the storyline is dark – some aspects of it hark back further than the Golden Age, to the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
The story features several murder trials and my raw material was a number of real life crimes which inspired Golden Age writers. But those famous trials were only starting points for my imagination. The details of the crimes in this novel are very different.
The core events of the story take place at a country house – Mortmain Hall itself – but I wanted to build up to that by using a variety of settings. These included the London Necropolis Railway, a Soho night club, a private zoo. And in researching the locale for the fictitious village of Mortmain, I spent a weekend in a country house on the north Yorkshire coast. The weather was beautiful and the location a delight, but it was easy to imagine sinister events unfolding at this rather eerie clifftop location.
So, a diverse mix of ingredients. And, even more than with Gallows Court, I found with Mortmain Hall that I was aiming to reinvent the Golden Age mystery for the twenty-first century.
To read more about Martin Edwards and his books visit his Find an Author Profile.