Tue 27 Feb 2007
In June 2001 I founded the Golden Age of Detective Fiction mailing list at Yahoo. At that time I had already spent several years reading and contributing to Usenet newsgroups on the Internet, and had become frustrated at their persistently modern focus. My aim was to provide a forum where I could discuss with others the kind of detective stories that I liked; typically those written from the 1920s through to the 1950s, with a focus on investigation rather than – as was the vogue then – cats, dogs, recipes and plucky forensic scientists.
I advertised the new mailing list on several of these groups, as well as the existing groups for fans of such writers as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, and was lucky to attract many other people who shared my interest. Like all mailing lists, the membership is rather like an iceberg: for every one member who contributes regularly we have another nine or so who merely lurk underwater, perhaps surfacing once a year with a question or comment about a particular favourite author. The list has grown steadily, and our members now include distinguished mystery authors, critics, editors, publishers and anthologists, as well as just plain fans like me.
Discussions on the list cover a wide range of topics, but from the very beginning there have always been reviews of the books that members have read, and descriptions of authors’ lives and works. Many writers have been profiled in this way, and I hope that their sales figures have shown a corresponding jump! By 2003 it was becoming clear that the mailing list archives were accumulating a good deal of knowledge about books and writers. Unfortunately Yahoo archives are relatively difficult to search and there was no guarantee that the material would be retained. I began looking for another medium which would provide a more permanent and easier-to-search home for the group’s accumulated wisdom.
My first attempt was a blog, which I set up in 2003. I brought the existing reviews across to the blog and added more as they came up in the list. Other members were encouraged to use the blog to post their own reviews directly, but as time went on it became clear that this was not working well. The blog was nearly as hard to search as the mailing list, and the need to register before posting tended to discourage people from joining the blog.
Early in 2005 I started to become aware of Wikis. (In fact we have a family connection to Wikipedia: my brother-in-law is credited with making the oldest surviving Wikipedia edit in 2001.) I began by suggesting that members post their wisdom to Wikipedia, but this didn’t draw much of a reaction, so in December 2005 I took advantage of the free PBWiki hosting service to set up a specialised Wiki about Golden Age works of detection.
It was a strange time for me because shortly before that I had been diagnosed with a serious illness, and had cancelled most of my work commitments in order to deal with it. As it turned out the diagnosis was wrong, so I was left feeling relieved, but rather shattered and with lots of spare time to fill in. The Wiki was an ideal project to occupy my mind for a couple of months. It helped to keep me sane.
I began by putting in the reviews that we already had, and trying to include some information about every author. This involved a lot of web searching, reading back-cover blurbs, and digging through my own small collection of reference books. Each author’s entry includes a Bibliography. Other members have been able to check and add to these details as time goes by.
I am trained in information science – I am an indexer and database consultant and my wife is an indexer and librarian – so it came naturally to me to set up a structured system. The main entry point to the Wiki is via a list of authors’ names. Unlike Wikipedia I chose to invert the names – ‘Christie, Agatha’, not ‘Agatha Christie’. I’m not sure that I could defend the decision but it seemed more natural and comfortable to me to look up Margery Allingham under ‘A’ rather than ‘M’. And first names can vary – is Ms Ferrars ‘Elizabeth’ or ‘E.X.’? Not having Wikipedia’s workforce to set up cross-references and disambiguation pages, it seemed best to keep it as simple as possible.
Choosing an author’s name takes you to a page about that author. Sometimes a lot is known about the author and the page can extend to thousands of words. Mike Grost in particular has contributed a great deal to the author profiles, due to the extensive material he allowed me to bring across from his website. At other times little or nothing is known – for instance, about James R. Langham, an American author and screenwriter – and all we can do is hope that a descendant or fan will come along and add to our knowledge later. For at least one author, A. Fielding, we know less than nothing, since the facts we thought we had – taken from reputable sources – have been cast into doubt by other equally reputable sources. But the advantage of a Wiki is that it is always open to change and improvement. Currently we have about 830 authors listed, but I know that there are many more to come.
The author’s page, as I said, includes a Bibliography. This is supposed to list only their works of detective fiction, but in practice – and especially with obscure authors – it isn’t always easy to pick which is which. When in doubt I’ve tended to include rather than exclude. This list in turn links to entries for each book.
At the moment we have about 7000 books listed and only about 500 reviews, so most of our slots are empty. Some authors are well-covered; John Dickson Carr, for instance, has reviews for most of his books. Others are entirely blank, waiting for some enthusiast to come and fill them in. We add about three or four reviews a week, so we have many years’ work ahead of us.
I’ve included pictures for many of the authors where these are available, and for some books. We only have a limited space, though, so I’ve been sparing with these.
In addition to ‘regular’ detective authors there is a section for ‘one-offs’; people who are known or believed to have written only one work of detective fiction. There are quite a few of these, featuring some distinguished names: CP Snow and AA Milne among others. We also have some of the classic commentaries on detective fiction, including the Haycraft-Queen Hundred and Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments.
Any Wiki like this, covering a single subject, is going to require making decisions. My working definition of a Golden Age author is someone who produced a book of detective fiction between 1920 and 1960. This means that Conan Doyle just squeaks in with The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes at one end and HRF Keating with Death and the Visiting Fireman at the other. But I have included writers like Edgar Allan Poe who are part of the history of detective fiction.
And what constitutes ‘detective fiction’? I have my own views but in general I have gone along with the experts on this; if someone’s name appears in a book or website about detective stories then I tend to assume they are eligible. A borderline case for me would be Peter Cheyney, currently not in the list, who wrote a great deal about criminals and police, but never – as far as I know – constructed a puzzle plot. Leslie Charteris, on the other hand, is in on the strength of a couple of detection-based novellas. But if someone wanted to add a Cheyney page I wouldn’t object.
A third problem: what to do when two books have the same name? We have a couple of examples of this already, and I’ve simply taken the coward’s way out and listed them both on the same page.
Up to now I’ve done at least 50% of the work on the Wiki. As it becomes more widely known I would like to see others – GAD mailing list members and members of the public – begin to take more of the initiative. Some have made Herculean efforts already; some are still hanging back. A lot of the books mentioned on the Wiki are very rare, and may be in the hands of only a few people; we’d like to bring these to light and revive interest in some of the books and authors that have been unfairly neglected. On the other hand, if someone wants to write a review saying ‘Don’t read this, it’s rubbish’, that’s fine too. It’s all useful information.
One problem with setting up a collaborative system like this is, how much to let go? I want the Wiki to be as easy to use as possible, and this to me means working within a consistent and fairly rigid structure. But GAD fans don’t all have the technical skills to use the codes and other options available within the Wiki. I’ve posted ‘Rules’ that I hope are helpful, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from sharing their knowledge. I suspect that there will always be a certain amount of tidying up to do after the other contributors if the Wiki is to retain its current structure.
The host, PBWiki, has been very supportive. One early problem was solved with a quick email back and forth, and from then on it’s been smooth sailing. We were one of their first customers, and so they’ve grown and developed alongside us, adding features as we were adding pages. It’s quick and easy to obtain a complete backup, which is important, and their search system allows users to locate pages relatively quickly. They’ve recently added a new editing system which should also make it easier for people to contribute.
I don’t see the Wiki as standing in isolation. On the contrary, it wouldn’t have been possible without contributions and material from all over the Internet. Ten years ago it looked as though classic detective fiction was doomed to wither away as authors died and the books became increasingly hard to get. But thanks largely to the Internet, the people who do value these writings can get together and share their knowledge and skills. I’ve learned a great deal in the process and I hope that others have too.
Many of the earlier books are now available online, and despite the current growth in restrictive copyright laws I hope that ultimately they all will be. When that happens people all over the world will need a place to go where they can find out more about these wonderful works, and the Golden Age Wiki will be there for them.
To join the Golden Age of Detection Mailing list go to: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/GAdetection/
To view the Golden Age of Detection Wiki go to: http://gadetection.pbwiki.com.
Contributors can log in with their email address and password: ‘goldenage’. Please read the Rules first!
>> This is Steve. Jon submitted this at my request, and what he says goes the same for me.