Golden Age of Detective Fiction
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Golden Age of Detective Fiction was an era of classic murder mystery novels produced by various authors, all following similar patterns and style.
The classic detective story originates from 1841, when the American writer Edgar Allan Poe published his masterpiece, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", featuring the first ever literary sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin; another example is Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone" in 1868. The culminating achievement of the early school was of course the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, which formed the model for the Golden Age in general.
The Golden Age proper is in practice usually taken to refer to a type of fiction which was predominant in the 1920s and 1930s but had been written since at least 1911 and is still being written -- though in much smaller numbers -- today. The critic Julian Symons, in his history of the detective story, titles two chapters devoted to the Golden Age as "the Twenties" and "the Thirties"; he notes that Philip Van Doren Stern's article, "The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley" (1941) "could serve ... as an obituary for the Golden Age."
Most of the authors of the Golden Age were British: Margery Allingham (1904 - 1966), Anthony Berkeley (aka Francis Iles) (1893 - 1971), Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976), Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957), R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943), Michael Innes (1906–1993), Philip MacDonald (1900–1980), Ngaio Marsh (1895 - 1982), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 - 1957), Josephine Tey (1896 - 1952), and many more. Some of them, such as John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and S. S. Van Dine, were American but had a similar style (others such as Raymond Chandler had a more "American" style).
Description of the genre
Certain conventions and clichés were established that limited any surprises on the part of the reader to the details of the plot and, primarily, to the identity of the murderer. The majority of novels of that era were "whodunits", and several authors excelled, after misleading their readers successfully, in revealing the least likely suspect convincingly as the villain. There was also a predilection for certain casts of characters and certain settings, with the secluded English country house and its upper-class inhabitants being very common.
The rules of the game – and Golden Age mysteries were considered games – were codified during 1929 by Ronald Knox. According to Knox, a detective story
- "must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end."
His "Ten Commandments" (or "Decalogue") are as follows:
- The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story.
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- The detective himself must not commit the crime.
- The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
A similar but more detailed list of prerequisites was prepared by S. S. Van Dine in an article entitled Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories which appeared in the American Magazine in September 1928.
Decline and fall
The outbreak of the Second World War is often taken as a beginning of the end for the light-hearted, straightforward "whodunnit" of the Golden Age. But as Ian Ousby writes (The Crime and Mystery Book, 1997), the Golden Age
- "was a long time a-dying. Indeed, one could argue that it still is not dead, since its mannerisms have proved stubbornly persistent in writers one might have expected to abandon them altogether as dated, or worse. Yet the Second World War marked a significant close, just as the First World War had marked a significant beginning.
Only during the inter-war years, and particularly in the 1920s, did Golden Age fiction have the happy innocence, the purity and confidence of purpose, which was its true hallmark.
- Even by the 1930s its assumptions were being challenged. [...] Where it had once been commonplace to view the Golden Age as a high watermark of achievement, it became equally the fashion to denounce it. It had, so the indictment ran, followed rules which trivialized its subject. It had preferred settings which expressed a narrow, if not deliberately elitist, vision of society. And for heroes it had created detectives at best two-dimensional, at worst tiresome."
Despite beginning his career as an author of several successful collections of Golden Age stories, the influential critic Julian Symons became highly dismissive of the classical detective story and probably did as much to kill it as anyone, extolling in its place 'psychological' stories like those of Francis Iles, usually based in suburbia and involving allegedly 'realistic' lower-middle-class characters. "If we consider the crime story only as a puzzle, nothing written in the last twenty years (before 1972) comes within trailing distance of the best Golden Age work, although it should be said that little attempts to do so. ... " Other attacks have been made by Edmund Wilson (Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?) and Raymond Chandler (The Simple Art of Murder). But in sheer number of sales -- particularly those of Agatha Christie, its leading light -- modern detective fiction has never approached the popularity of Golden Age writing.
- "Every so often somebody reprises Edmund Wilson's famous put-down of detective novels, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Wilson regarded the genre as terminally subliterary, either an addiction or a harmless vice on a par with crossword puzzles. But the truth is that for every Edmund Wilson who resists the genre there are dozens of intellectuals who have embraced it wholeheartedly. The enduring highbrow appeal of the detective novel ... is one of the literary marvels of the century."
Current writing influenced by the Golden Age style is often referred to as "cosy" mystery writing, as distinct from the "hardboiled" style popular in America. Recent writers working in this style include Sarah Caudwell, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Peter Lovesey and Simon Brett.
Many support groups exist for fans of Golden Age Detective Fiction, including a Golden Age of Detective Fiction Wiki and Yahoo Group.