The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

The Golden Age of detective fiction refers to both a historical time period (the interwar years) and a specific subgenre (the cozy). Loosely defined as soft-boiled detective fiction produced between the two world wars, Golden Age novels also continued to appear well into the 1950s. Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) is generally referred to as the first Golden Age novel.

The American hard-boiled mysteries that appeared in the twenties and thirties emerged as an alternative to Golden Age fiction (see my post on the hard-boiled novel). British writers did indeed dominate the Golden Age period, but American authors such as Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, and S. S. Van Dine also produced Golden Age cozy novels.

Stephen Knight prefers the term “clue-puzzle” since puzzle plots dominate the fiction (2004, 86), but the term “Golden Age” evokes pastoral associations, an essential feature of these mysteries. The most important British authors are Agatha Christie (the undisputed queen of the era), Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Anthony Berkeley. (See my posts on Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, and Allingham’s Mystery Mile). Josephine Tey straddles the end of the period. Detective novels by all these authors are still in print today and remain popular with readers.

The novels from this era are plot- and puzzle-driven. Golden Age writers focus on clever and intriguing storylines, often at the expense of character development. The crime is murder in these novels, and the plots include accessories such as floor plans, maps, and railway timetables. The appeal of Golden Age fiction is the challenge of the intellectual game.

Central to these novels is the idea that the reader plays detective and tries to solve the crime ahead of brilliant detectives like Hercules Poirot or Lord Wimsey (Knight 2004, 88-89). Solving the crime is a rational deductive process, a key characteristic of the Golden Age novel. In fact, the most striking features of this type of novel, “setting it clearly apart from its predecessors, are the multiple suspects and the rational analysis of determinedly circumstantial evidence” (Knight 2003, 79).

During the 1920s, authors proposed rules and guidelines for the game. S. S. Van Dine developed “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”; G. K Chesterton wrote “The Ideal Detective Story”; and mystery writer, Ronald Knox, created the “Detective Story Decalogue,” another set of strictures for the genre. Key to the Golden Age novel is the concept of “fair play” between author and reader. Authors must provide enough clues for the reader to solve the mystery. In 1928, the Detection Club was founded in Britain by the Golden Age writer, Anthony Berkeley. Members took the Detection Club Oath, swearing that they would adhere to the rules of fair play.

Do not expect to find psychologically complex characters in a Golden Age novel. Writers “tended to flatten out fictional personalities in order to enhance the motivic rationale of the puzzle element, frequently resorting to racial, ethnic, and class stereotypes” (Rzepka 2005, 156). Characters are frequently members of upper middle-class society; victims possess wealth and/or authority (Knight 2004, 86); and murderers are part of the same social class as the other suspects (Symons 1992, 106). Detectives are incredibly clever and observant; most are male; and the vast majority are amateurs.

Ross Macdonald observed that readers of Golden Age mysteries are attracted to the romanticized view of affluence depicted in the novels:
Nostalgia for a privileged society accounts for one of the prime attractions of the traditional English detective story and its innumerable American counterparts. Neither wars nor the dissolution of government and societies interrupt that long weekend in the country house which is often, with more or less unconscious symbolism, cut off by a failure in communications from the outside world. (1973, 14)
Events in a Golden Age novel usually take place in rural or village settings, landscapes that are self-contained and circumscribed rather than sprawling. These places bear little relation to the realities of a post-war world; most have an air of pastoral retreat about them. Two popular subsets of this genre are based on settings: the locked-room mystery and the country-house mystery (Scaggs 2005, 51).

The country house, argues Rowland, is a structure that opposes the social instabilities created by modern capitalism (2001, 44). What is valued in these mysteries is certainty and stability. At the end of a Golden Age novel, “all the mysteries will be explained, all the problems solved, and peace and order will return to the mythical village which, despite its above-average homicide rate, never really loses its tranquillity or its innocence” (James 2009, 75).

The Golden Age mystery novel was a perfect fit for the interwar era. During the aftermath of World War I and the period of the Great Depression, people wanted a return to order and happier times. The detective novel distracted them from present anxieties and provided a model of order and stability. Rzepka writes:
With its reliable evocation of order out of disorder, its respect for the rule of law in defence of life and property, and its faith that a rational intention informs even the most baffling acts of violence, the new genre of detection seemed tailor-made to allay the anxieties that lingered below the superficial complacency of British middle-class life. (2005, 153)
Not surprisingly, detective fiction tended to be conservative during this era, preserving the status quo. Despite their conventional leanings and lack of sophisticated characterization, some of the finest examples of skilful detective fiction emerged during this period.

James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

------. “The Golden Age.” The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 77-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Macdonald, Ross. “The Writer as Detective Hero.” In Crime Writing. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1973, 9-24.

Rowland, Susan. From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.