Golden Age of Detective Fiction
The Golden Age of Detective Fiction was an era of classic murder mystery novels produced by various authors, all following similar patterns and style.
Mademoiselle de Scudéri, by E.T.A. Hoffmann 1819, in which Mlle de Scudery, a kind of 19th-century Miss Marple, establishes the innocence of the police's prime suspect in the murder of a jeweller, is sometimes cited as the first detective story and a direct influence on Edgar Allan Poe's later 1841 short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", featuring the literary sleuth C. Auguste Dupin. Some years later, in 1868, Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone. The culminating achievement of the early school of detective fiction was the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, which formed the model for the Golden Age in general.
The Golden Age
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. In his history of the detective story, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, the author Julian Symons heads two chapters devoted to the Golden Age as "the Twenties" and "the Thirties". Symons 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."
Many 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), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957), Josephine Tey (1896–1952), Anne Hocking (1890–1966), and many more. Ngaio Marsh (1895–1982) was from New Zealand, but her detective Roderick Alleyn was British. Georges Simenon was from Belgium and wrote in French. Some of them, such as John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and S. S. Van Dine, were American but had similar styles. Others, such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, had a more hard-boiled, 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.
- "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."
Knox's "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 "sidekick" 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. They are commonly referred to as Van Dine's Commandments.
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.[original research?] "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. Television series that emulate the style include Murder, She Wrote and Midsomer Murders.
Many support groups exist for fans of Golden Age Detective Fiction, including a Golden Age of Detective Fiction Wiki and Yahoo Group.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, not a few mystery writers who were influenced by the Golden Age style made their debut one after another in Japan. They are referred to as "new traditionalists" (新本格ミステリ作家 shin honkaku misuteri sakka?, lit. new authentic mystery writers or new orthodox mystery writers) or "new orthodox school" (新本格派 shin honkaku ha?).
- Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Continuum, 2004, page 507. ISBN 978-0-8264-5209-2. See Google Books.
- Stern, Philip Van Doren. "The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley", Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 17, 1941, pp 227-236. Reprinted in Haycraft, Howard, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, Revised edition, New York: Biblio and Tannen, 1976.
- Symons, Julian, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History. London: Faber and Faber, 1972 (with revisions in Penguin Books, 1974). ISBN 0-14-003794-2. Page 149 (Penguin edition).
- From the Introduction to The Best Detective Stories of 1928-29. Reprinted in Haycraft, Howard, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, Revised edition, New York: Biblio and Tannen, 1976.
- Van Dine's Commandments (Retrieved 2009-05-03.)
- Wilson, Edmund. “Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” The New Yorker. June 20, 1945.
- Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder,” The Atlantic Monthly”. December 1944.
- Lehman, David. “The Mysterious Romance of Murder.” Boston Review, Feb/Mar 2000
- Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2004, page 28
- ZOOM JAPON, June 1, 2010, pp 4-7 (French)
- Silver, Mark; Herbert, Rosemary (1999). Crime and mystery writing in Japan. In The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford University Press. (English)