THE GOLDEN AGE
by Gladys Mitchell
Gladys Mitchell wrote the following introduction specifically for the Post Mortem Books Catalogue of Crime in 1981. Laurence Worms of Ash Rare Books initially brought the article to my attention. The text of "The Golden Age" is reproduced here with kind permission from Ralph Spurrier of Post Mortem Books, who is the copyright holder.
By 1933 the Detection Club had 31 members. I know this because, later on, I became Secretary for a year and had to send out all the notices. We took turns, then, in accepting this chore, and the Secretary was also responsible for fixing a date with a restaurant or hotel for the club dinners. In those days we were a dining club and met, on average, every second month, although we acquired premises later. Membership was by invitation. Some member put forward a name and was then obliged to lay at least two books by his nominee "on the table" for the other members, or at least the committee, to read. Not all the names put forward were acceptable, for the Club rules were strict and no mere thriller-writer could get in. I was lucky in that my nomination was unopposed. I was invited to attend the Annual Dinner and I was sponsored by Anthony Berkeley and Helen Simpson and had the honour of being made a member by G.K. Chesterton, for at that time the great (in every sense) man was our President.
At the induction ceremony an oath was taken which, for all its occasional witty flippancy, was serious in its intentions. The most important part of it was that we should conceal no vital clue from the reader and that we should never steal other writers' plots, whether revealed to us under the influence of drink or otherwise. Anthough we had 31 members, the average attendance at what I may call the ordinary dinners was fourteen. We held these "members only" dinners at a little French restaurant in Soho called L'Escargot Bienvenu and the cost never varied. It was eleven shillings and broke down into five shillings for the food, five shillings for an excellent half-bottle of wine (we had very few T.T. members) and one shilling for the waiter. We were given an upstairs room to ourselves and the food was simple but delicious and very satisfying.
Our most frequent attenders at these dinners were Dorothy L. Sayers, who made it a point of honour, as a co-founder (with Anthony Berkeley) of the Club, to attend each one, Anthony himself, Freeman Wills Crofts, E.C. Bentley, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Anthony Gilbert (a woman and a cousin to the actor Miles Malleson), E.R. Punshon, Margaret Cole, Ianthe Jerrold, Henry Wade, quite often, but not always, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr who was living in England at the time and so qualified for membership, Lord Gorell, sometimes Margery Allingham and once, as I remember, Father Ronald Knox. He was responsible for most of the dialogue, including the more outrageous bits, in the initiation ceremony such as the promise we made not to eat peas with a knife or to put our feet upon the dining table.
G.K. Chesterton did not attend these informal dinners, but took the chair at the two annual dinners before his death in 1936 and was the best after-dinner speaker I have ever heard, with the possible exception of Sir Patrick Hastings. This brilliant man very kindly provided us with what he claimed to be a cast-iron defence if we were ever called to answer a case of murder. To all awkward questions the answer should be: I don't know; I can't remember; or, I was too upset to notice. Conversation at the informal dinners was, so far as I remember, remarkably free from "shop." Nobody mentioned royalties, the misdemeanours or downright niggardliness of publishers, the dastardly behaviour of printers in the matters of punctuation, spelling and of leaving out a whole line in the middle of a paragraph, and this, I think, was because very few of us depended solely on our detective stories to earn us a living. Conversation, therefore, was on general subjects, but was always dominated by the strident tones of Miss Sayers, then really beginning to come into her own, not only as a good writer of detective stories, but, what was far better, as a good writer of English.
Once a year at, not the Annual Dinner, but at one of the guest dinners which were a very popular feature in those early days of the Club and perhaps still are, we used to meet that delightful old lady the Baroness Orczy. She was a full member on the strength of such stories as The Old Man in the Corner, but she could only get over here once a year. She was very small, very Continental and a darling. We had some Associate members who were authors but not primarily writers of detective stories, although it was essential that they should have written at least one. Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane were two, and so were A.A. Milne and Hugh Walpole. The last two I met only once and Clemence Dame I met only at a cocktail party and that was nothing to do with the Detection Club. Our other Associate Member was Sir Norman Kendal, the Police Commissioner. We found him very useful on one occasion, I recall. I think it was when we were to make Dorothy L. Sayers President of the Club and therefore it was particularly important that everything should be absolutely right.
Unfortunately (panic stations, please!) it was discovered, after everybody had gathered in the hotel for the Annual Dinner, that a vital bit of the regalia had been left in the Club rooms. We had acquired a couple of rooms in Gerrard Street by that time and the various bits and pieces, including the skull (stolen from one of the teaching hospitals by Helen Simpson's husband) were kept on the premises. Incidentally, when we went back to the Club rooms after one of the ordinary dinners, we women had to assert over the Gerrard Street ladies who had attached themselves to the coat-sleeves of our highly respectable men colleagues, but that is by the way. Which bit of regalia had been left at the Club rooms I do not remember, but we had to ring up a taxi and four of us got into it, including a very reluctant Sir Norman Kendal, and we pressed him into service for a very good reason. Nobody had thought that there would be any need to visit the Club rooms on the night of the Annual Dinner, for any number of guests had been invited, far more than the two small rooms could accomadate, and the proceedings, in any case, with after-dinner speeches, last drinks and people loth to go home after a festive evening, always finished late.
In short, frantic questioning of members resulted in the dreadful discovery that nobody--positively nobody--had brought along his or her key to the rooms. This meant that we had to break in and this meant that Sir Norman's presence at the scene of the crime was essential in case any inquisitive copper came along at the wrong time and asked the unanswerable question: "What's all this, then?"
We felt he could hardly arrest an Assistant Commissioner.
The following is an extract from "The Uncommon Order of Initiation of New Members of the Detection Club":
"Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the Crimes presented to them, using their wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance upon nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?"
"Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a Vital Clue from the Reader?"
"Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics, and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?"
If you fail to keep your promises, may other Writers anticipate your Plots, may your Publishers do you down in your Contracts, may Total Strangers sue you for Libel, may your Pages swarm with Misprints and your Sales continually Diminish. Amen.
The skull, affectionately known as Eric, was borne in on a black cushion and all prospective members had to answer the above declamations with their hand resting on its cranium. Two red bulbs glowed in its eye sockets.