Golden Age of Mystery and Detective Fiction Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The so-called Golden Age of mystery novels is generally regarded as the period between World Wars I and II, which encompassed all of the 1920’s and 1930’s. During that period that the conventions of the mystery genre were established. At first, the Golden Age was dominated by British writers. Three British women and one New Zealander woman, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh—were so influential that they became known as the “Queens of Crime.” American writers of what are sometimes called “classical” mysteries, works that bowed to these conventions, emerged during the mid-1920’s. American writers, however, soon found themselves in competition with writers from the realistic, “hard-boiled” school of mystery writing. Although the hard-boiled mystery was popular in the United States, especially among male readers, works of that kind were not read in Great Britain in any significant numbers until the late 1930’s, and even then they did not capture the interest of the reading public as soon as they had in America.

It is often pointed out that the Golden Age of the mystery novel was preceded by a golden age of the mystery short story, which began with Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes in 1887. According to critic Julian Symons, the short-story genre continued to flourish during the 1920’s and the 1930’s, dying out only as magazines became less interested in publishing short stories,...

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The Clue-Puzzle

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Clue-puzzles are mysteries in which both detectives and readers are provided with the same clues at the same time, enabling the readers to follow the sleuths’ investigations step by step, assessing clues and arriving at solutions to the crimes as quickly as the investigators do. That is the theory. However, in practice, readers are seldom so fully informed. Nevertheless, as with difficult Sunday crossword puzzles, the challenge of the clue-puzzle format brings readers back again and again.

The primary appeal of clue-puzzles is intellectual, not emotional. Therefore, when writers introduce romance into their novels, as Dorothy L. Sayers does in her series showing the developing relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, they minimize sentimental scenes and emphasize the progress of the plot. Well-written clue-puzzles may have clearly drawn settings, perhaps even atmosphere, and they should contain interesting, believable characters. However, what they must have is flawless plots. Blackmail and embezzlement may be discovered in clue-puzzles, but the central crimes should always be murder—sometimes one murder, sometimes more than one. Permissible clues include circumstantial evidence, such as the placement of a dead body; blood at the scene; weapons, present or absent; letters and papers; and statements by the characters. These statements may include information on where the informants were at a particular time, what they saw, what they heard, and what they know about the victim and other characters.

Other types of clues have to do with motives. By ascertaining who benefits from a murder, a detective can often narrow the list of suspects, as Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot does in The A.B.C. Murders (1935). At the end of that novel, as in many other Golden Age mysteries, the sleuth assembles all the suspects and, with a policeman friend in attendance, makes a speech retracing all the steps in his investigation. At the conclusion of the speech, the detective identifies the criminal, who is promptly carted off by the police. The novel does not include a description of the culprit’s time in prison or of the execution that, it is assumed, will follow. Once the puzzle is solved, the story is over. Because a clue-puzzle mystery ends with the identification of the murderer, it is often called a “whodunit.”

Clues and the Reader

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Agatha Christie, who is credited with doing the most to invent the clue-puzzle, did not believe that writers should make the task of detection easy for readers. Most of the clues she supplies turn out to be irrelevant. Moreover, she often uses detectives’ sidekicks to mislead readers by having them misinterpret clues and jump to erroneous conclusions. When Hercule Poirot’s friend Captain Arthur Hastings picks up the wrong clues and reaches the wrong conclusions, Christie does not always have Poirot correct his friend immediately. Instead, she often has him say that they will discuss the matter later or has him simply remain silent, smiling secretively, leaving readers as much in the dark as Hastings.

Christie’s approach is somewhat different in books in which her sleuth is Miss Jane Marple. Marple does not take initiatives in interviewing suspects, even informally. She generally picks up clues by watching others and listening to them. As she tells the vicar in the first book in which she appears, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), she has a hobby, the study of human nature. In pursuit of that lofty goal, she feels it is her duty to know everything that is going on in her little village, St. Mary Mead. Moreover, Marple is not overly hampered by scruples. In St. Mary Mead, she uses binoculars to keep an eye on her neighbors. She also listens to gossip, which is the primary diversion in her village. Some verbal clues that aid her in her investigations come from friends at the tea table; others are the overheard gossip of servants. Marple is broad-minded where eavesdropping is concerned; in one of her last books, At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), she is delighted to discover a high-backed chair facing the fireplace in which one can sit unobserved while other people in the room carry on revealing conversations. Her skill in knitting clues into finished garments is illustrated in The Thirteen Problems (1932; also known as The Tuesday Club Murders). In that book, she explains how, simply by observing small details, she solved twelve criminal cases and also prevented a young girl from ruining her life.

Rules of the Game

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Recognizing that the clue-puzzle had become the standard form for a mystery novel by the mid-1920’s, writers and critics began to analyze the new genre. In a 1924 essay titled “The Art of the Detective Story,” R. Austin Freeman stressed that the form appealed primarily to the readers’ intellects. In 1928, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote an introduction to an anthology in which she recognized the genre as a clue-puzzle, while suggesting that it move toward a broader definition, perhaps as a comedy of manners. Meanwhile, in 1926, E. M. Wrong had insisted on the need for “fair play” in authors’ treatment of their readers. In 1928, the American author Willard Huntington Wright, who wrote mysteries under the pseudonym of S. S. Van Dine, included both the concept of the puzzle form and the idea of fair play in an essay entitled “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.”

Wrong and Wright were not the only critics who were concerned about fair play in clue-puzzles. Critics and writers agreed that detectives should not conceal clues from readers. There was a consensus that solutions to crimes should not come as the result of unexpected revelations of past histories, introduction of new characters, use of the supernatural, or reliance on coincidences. These strictures were included in ten rules, known as the “Detective Story Decalogue,” that Ronald A. Knox, a British detective writer himself and a Roman Catholic priest, listed in his preface to The Best Detective Stories of 1928-1929 (1929).

When the Detection Club was formed in 1929 by twenty-six mystery writers, including Knox, Sayers, and Christie, its members swore to an oath based on Knox’s rules. Undoubtedly, the Detection Club and the rules of fair play helped to discourage the writing of some novels that were labeled mysteries but in fact were not. Among these were the books the satirical poet Ogden Nash called “had-I-but-known” novels, in which romantic heroines straight out of gothic novels describe series of hairbreadth escapes. Since it is obvious that the heroines have survived to tell their stories, there are no mysteries to be solved.

Theory and Practice

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although everyone in the Detection Club recognized that though it was important to adhere to the clue-puzzle form as closely as possible, they recognized that creative imaginations could not and should not be stifled. Even before the club set down its rules, Agatha Christie broke the rule that the thoughts of the detective’s friend must not be concealed from the reader. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), Dr. James Sheppard is called in to examine a widow who has been found dead, apparently a suicide. Roger Ackroyd, a friend of the doctor, guesses at her motive. Ackroyd tells Sheppard that he had been planning to marry the widow but that she had broken off her engagement because she was being blackmailed for a crime that she had committed, the murder of her abusive husband. Then Ackroyd is killed, and his niece Flora consults Hercule Poirot, who happens to be staying nearby. Dr. Sheppard becomes Poirot’s friend and confidant. Because the doctor is also the book’s narrator, it is only natural for readers to assume that he is dutifully reporting Poirot’s ideas, as well as his own thoughts. However, the doctor-narrator himself turns out to be the murderer. After the formation of the Detection Club, there were reportedly some heated discussions about Christie’s novel. Finally, however, it was agreed that her use of a ruse in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was justified. In his seminal work Bloody Murder (1972), Julian Symons uses this...

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The Red Herring

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

“Red herring” is a term used in discussions of mystery fiction that originated in the blood sport of foxhunting, in which red herrings were sometimes dragged across trails to throw hounds off the track. In both logic and in politics, the term has long been used to describe attempts at diversion. In mystery fiction, a red herring is a clue or suspect that is introduced to divert the attention of readers. In a sense, a writer who introduces a red herring is like a magician performing a sleight-of-hand trick, but without admitting it to readers. Early twentieth century writers and critics agreed that using red herrings in stories was not a violation of the fair-play rule. Agatha Christie’s first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), used several red herrings, intriguing clues that turned out to be irrelevant.

Dorothy L. Sayers recognized the plot device by titling one of her novels The Five Red Herrings (1931). That book is set among a community of artists in the Scottish Highlands. When a painter is found dead at the foot of a cliff, it is assumed that while stepping back to look at his work, he simply took one step too many and fell off the cliff. Because his general lack of consideration and deliberate rudeness antagonized all his fellow artists, his absence does not unduly distress them. In fact, the other artists simply breathe a collective sigh of relief and go back to their own work. However, Lord Peter Wimsey, who happens to be in the area, does not believe that the man’s death was an accident. He alerts the police to his suspicions and then begins his own investigation. He discovers that six people in the community had strong reasons to kill the dead man. Wimsey’s strategy is to eliminate five of these suspects, the “five red herrings” of the title. He then identifies the one remaining as the murderer.

Victims and Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Theoretically, since clue-puzzles were essentially intellectual exercises, it was thought inappropriate for authors to encourage readers to indulge their emotions. Readers were thus not expected to empathize with any of the stories’ characters, not even the victims. One way to prevent developing sympathy for victim was to get the murders out of the way as soon as possible, thereby not giving readers time to become attached to the victims before they die.

It was also considered important that detectives have no emotional ties to the victims. Ngaio Marsh typically begins one of her books by setting the scene, briefly introducing a few characters, then proceeding to the discovery of a victim. At that point she switches...

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Villains and Suspects

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Members of the Detection Club also agreed on what kinds of murderers are acceptable in mystery novels. For example, they thought that master villains belong in thrillers, not in mysteries. Moreover, they wanted every murder to be committed by a single person; it was not appropriate to have a murder committed by a gang. Moreover, murderers should be seemingly respectable members of respectable social groups. Thus, there would be multiple suspects, each seemingly as unlikely as another. Sometimes the basic philosophy of Golden Age writers is stated in terms of a social equilibrium: If a society shares a moral code, the detective’s task is to discover which member of the group has violated that code so that the culprit can be...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Closed-World Settings and Closed Societies

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A typical Golden Age mystery has a closed-world setting, that is, it takes place in a place where a small number of characters, all of whom know one another, are brought together in a limited area. After a murder occurs, everyone remains in place until the murderer is identified. This kind of setting has a number of advantages. Both the author and the detective can systematically map the characters’ activities and check their alibis. Sometimes a map is be included in the book, so readers can follow the characters’ movements. Closed-world settings make it possible to limit the numbers of suspects. For example, in a country-house murder, the only suspects are usually the people who live in the house and a relatively small number...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

John Dickson Carr and Locked-Room Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although the four “Queens of Crime” are regarded as having ruled unchallenged during the Golden Age, a number of British and American men also wrote excellent mysteries during that period. One was John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn. A Pennsylvanian by birth, Carr moved to England in 1930, when he was twenty-four. Under his own name, he wrote twenty-three novels about the hugely overweight, eccentric Dr. Gideon Fell, a lexicographer and the consultant to whom Scotland Yard turns in seemingly hopeless cases. In both his appearance and the high quality of his intellect, Fell was said to resemble the writer G. K. Chesterton. As Carter Dickson, Carr published an additional...

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The American Golden Age

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Carr was not the only American to write mysteries that followed, at least to some degree, the conventions established in the British Golden Age. Ironically, one of the earliest of these other American writers, Earl Derr Biggers defied one of Knox’s rules by making his detective-hero Chinese. Biggers’s Sergeant Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police first appeared in The House Without a Key in 1925 and immediately attained great popularity. Although Biggers’s mysteries differed in setting and ambiance from those being produced in Great Britain, Biggers did attempt to utilize the clue-puzzle format, and to some extent he succeeded.

S. S. Van Dine was an American writer who helped formulate the rules by which...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

The Classical Tradition

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1930’s, a number of other American authors wrote mysteries in what is now often called the classical tradition. However, although they flourished during that decade, almost all of them are now forgotten. The most successful new writers to appear during the decade combined the older clue-puzzle techniques with some of the elements of the new hard-boiled detective story. One of the best known of these writers was Erle Stanley Gardner, who introduced the lawyer Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933). In what became an extremely popular series, Mason, his secretary Della Street, and Paul Drake, a private detective, eventually appeared in eighty-six novels. The courtroom scenes, in which Mason...

(The entire section is 364 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Delamater, Jerome H., and Ruth Prigozy, eds. Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Contains essays titled “Theoretical Approaches to the Genre” and “Agatha Christie and British Detective Fiction.” Index.

Dubose, Martha Hailey. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, with Additional Essays by Margaret Caldwell Thomas. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2000. A section on the Golden Age subtitled “the Genteel Puzzlers,” includes studies of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, and Josephine Tey. Bibliography...

(The entire section is 442 words.)