We sometimes hear or read this term, ‘so-and-so was a Golden Age author’ or ‘in the Golden Age style’. But what was the Golden Age? When was it, what did it mean, who were the exponents of the Golden Age, and is it still relevant today? Here is a (necessarily VERY brief) overview of the term and its legacy.
When was it? Well, according to some sources I’ve studied, (Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William DeAndrea, Google and Wikipedia, obviously 🙂 Twentieth Century Crime Fiction by Lee Horsley and The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble) there is a general consensus that The Golden Age of mystery/detective fiction began in 1920 and ended in 1939 at the outbreak of World War ll.
What was it, and why was it new or different? Although there had been notable forays into detective fiction in the nineteenth century eg Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins to name just a couple, a lot of fiction had been in the form of short stories, usually with an ‘improving’ moral or message, or as novella-length, often rather highbrow, works. Essays and poetry, philosophy and criticism had been popular for decades. But the growth of a literate public, the rise of libraries and more disposable income, led to a desire for lighter, more accessible works of a purely entertaining nature. Mysteries became socially acceptable too, and were enjoyed by the well-to-do and well-educated, as well as by working class men and women.
Mass market fiction or pulp fiction was no longer a thing to be scorned, but became more generously regarded. The detective element of the story transformed it into an intellectual exercise. I would perhaps suggest that, following the trauma of World War l, detective stories provided a means of sanitising violence and putting danger at arm’s length, and keeping it under control. The genre required that good would triumph and order be restored at the end of the story.
Detective fiction of this time became all about the puzzle. Readers were very sophisticated and demanding, requiring more and more complex riddles to entertain them. This cerebral pastime acquired a kind of moral kudos, described by Phillip Guedalla, a well-known British writer and barrister of the time, as ‘the natural recreation of the noble mind’. Others said that it had become ‘feminised’, doing away with the macho, aggressive ‘male’ approach of might and power, with both readers and writers exhibiting the traditionally female qualities of intuition, insight, and I might add, craftiness. Perhaps that is why so many of the most successful authors of the era were women.
So in these works, the emphasis was on cerebral/intellectual puzzle rather than physical action and strength. Gore and violence was contained, and mainly ‘off-stage’; there was a defined resolution; and the reader expected to read a story peppered with clues and red herrings that she or he could solve alongside the detective. The emphasis was on the pursuit of Justice and Truth, and doing what was Right. There was a moral high-ground to be held. As Dorothy L Sayers detective, Lord Peter Wimsey says, ‘…in detective stories, virtue is always triumphant, they’re the purest form of literature we have.’ (quoted, 20th century crime, p52)
Who were these Golden Age authors? Many of them came, flourished briefly and went again, but some of the biggest sellers in crime fiction today are authors from that era. Here are just a few:
Agatha Christie – often considered the foremost leader of the genre, she both established and contravened the definition of the classic mystery. She was often accused of ‘not playing fair’ with the reader, never more so than in the (grudgingly admiring) outcry following the release of her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. She famously began writing detective fiction as a bet with her sister. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was her first published novel in 1920, and featured Hercule Poirot who became arguably the most recognisable sleuth in detective fiction, on paper, and on the TV and film screen.
Ngaio Marsh – New Zealand born, she famously wrote her first murder mystery out of boredom. In 1934 the release of A Man Lay Dead led to 30+ other novels, all featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The books were turned into a popular TV series. Marsh was also renowned for her work in the theatre. She was a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America, and new books continued to be published until the 1980s.
Nicholas Blake – pen name of Cecil Day Lewis; wrote poetry, criticism and essays, as well as twenty detective mysteries towards the end of the Golden Age era, 16 of which feature Nigel Strangeways, a consulting detective who helps both police and government as required. First of these A Question of Proof 1935.
Anthony Berkley – a writer and the founder of the Detection Club in 1928 whose aim was to preserve and promote the classic detective story. Wrote as A B Cox, Anthony Berkley and Francis Iles. As Francis Iles he wrote some of his best known works, Malice Aforethought in 1931, and in 1932 Before The Fact which was filmed as Suspicion with Alfred Hitchcock as the director.
Freeman Willis Crofts – born and raised in Ireland, author of The Cask 1920 which was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies. He was one of the first authors to focus on police procedure and not merely the enthusiastic amateur detective. This was the same year as AC’s Mysterious Affair Styles and is taken as the landmark year to commence the era. He wrote other books, collaborating with the authors of the detection club and also a book of short stories.
Other well-known authors of the era included: G K Chesterton, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, and many more. In the United States, there were also authors writing in the genre, although here the ‘hard-boiled’ mystery quickly became popular. Here are just a few of those authors:
S S Van Dine – he is mainly remembered for his detective Philo Vance, but there were other works. Van Dine was embarrassed by his authorship of popular fiction as he had higher aspirations, and he used his pen name to conceal his identity for a number of years. The first mystery novel to feature Philo Vance was The Benson Murder Case in 1926, followed by more works within a year or two, making him one of the USA’s top selling authors at that time, and his works were turned into films.
John Dickson Carr famously termed detective fiction as “the grandest game in the world”.
In 1935 his novel The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins in the US) was published and it is still considered his finest work. He was a master of the locked room puzzle. he often used English settings and even characters, for example his best known detectives were Brits named Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but there are others, and books set in other nations. He also wrote stand-alone novels: such as The Burning Court which appeared in 1937, in all he produced over sixty mystery and historic novels, in addition to short stories and plays under the name John Dickson Carr and as Carter Dickson.
Ellery Queen – Was actually two men, writing under the pseudonyms of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Their first book was The Roman Hat Mystery published in 1929; subsequent books shared the title style, being all ‘The something something mystery’, which in many ways is still the standard form of title today. There were over thirty books in all, plus other series eg Drury Lane series etc, and other pen names. And notably, the hugely successful TV series, and the magazine.
What is the legacy of the Golden Age of detective fiction? Currently Crime, Thrillers and Mystery makes up one of the largest categories in fiction, apart from possibly romance. You can see endless variations on the detective theme from crime noir to cosy, with subgenres in legal, hard-boiled, gay and lesbian, spy, medical, political, police procedural, and even paranormal mystery. If the parameters have changed in regard to content and character types, if attitudes have changed, and settings have become exotic, or even practically a character in itself, we are still as in love with the puzzles presented by murder mysteries as those readers of the 1920s and 30s. We love to curl up in an armchair and lose ourselves in a mystery where the Reader is in fact the main detective.
2 thoughts on “What was the ‘Golden Age’ of British mystery writing?”
Oh fab – and I didn’t know that about Agatha Christie (the bet). Beautiful pictures too.
What an interesting article, Caron, and thank you! These things are subjective of course – their greatest benefit is to set off debate and generally remind every crime fiction reader of all the wonderful stuff there is out there to enjoy. (Including your own, of course.)
The choice of an end date is interesting. I’ve never given any thought at all to the social history of crime fiction but the end date, 1939, exactly matches the appearance of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. After then it all becomes a bit more hard-boiled, and the working classes get a shot at being the clever kids in the story, too.