--P. D. James, Introduction to The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
I quoted the above line from the late P. D. James in an essay I recently wrote for the January 2015 issue of CADS: Crime and Detective Stories, wherein I discuss the introductions to editions of Willie Collins's classic Victorian sensation novel The Moonstone that were written over the years by four detective novelists: Dorothy L. Sayers, the couple G. D. H. and Margaret Cole and P. D. James.
|Douglas G. Greene|
Up until very recently in mystery genre histories we have typically seen the Golden Age of detective fiction relatively dismissed as the period when "mere puzzles" reigned, in contrast with the modern age of the "crime novel," which, so the argument often runs, harkens back to the literary values and emotions of nineteenth-century novels like The Moonstone and has much greater artistic depth than its bright but spiritually shallow Golden Age predecessor, the puzzle-oriented detective story.
Some prominent critics for decades cast doubt on this claim. The late Jacques Barzun--author, with Wendell Hertig Taylor, of the mammoth tome A Catalogue of Crime--apotheosized the Golden Age and argued that the modern crime novel had foolishly shed its essence, entertainment, in a futile pursuit of higher literary values, while Douglas G. Greene, in a series of works, including his much-lauded biography of the great Golden Age detective novelist John Dickson Carr, has repeatedly and persuasively made the case for the admirable artistic integrity of the Golden Age puzzle mystery.
|Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)|
Yet most often this view was embraced in genre studies, not only by professional critics but by crime writers themselves. In his 2010 interview with P. D. James for Spinetingler Magazine, Jim Napier aptly summarized the prevailing attitude with this paean to the woman who up until her death last week was commonly regarded as one of the two modern queens of the English crime novel (the other being Ruth Rendell):
By moving crime fiction from traditional plot-driven tales with ingenious but often far-fetched puzzles at their heart to character-driven stories, about three-dimensional people with believable lives full of conflicting emotions and contradictory actions, you raised the genre of crime fiction to the level of serious and mainstream literature.
The previous year P. D. James herself had drawn this distinction in her short--a little over 40,000 words, I estimate--mystery genre history, Talking about Detective Fiction (2009), wherein she repeatedly downplayed "ingenuity"--apparently a somewhat tarnished Golden Age aesthetic value in her eyes--in favor of "credibility." On this matter James opined: "It is apparent that publishers and readers are continuing to look for well-written mysteries which can afford the expected satisfaction of a credible plot but can legitimately be enjoyed as serious novels."
James pronounced that "realism and credibility have supplanted ingenuity," adding that the latter value, ingenuity, is "one which we [modern crime writers] have largely outgrown." Continuing to speak on behalf of modern crime writers, James avowed, "We feel entitled to be judged as novelists, not as mere fabricators of mystery."
|P. D. James (1920-2014)|
no mere fabricator of mystery
Of course there is nothing wrong with crime novels that aim primarily at divining not the puzzle of murder but the riddle of life's higher meaning; yet surely the avid mystery reader occasionally wants simply to get a taste of the luscious meringue of ingenuity.
It certainly would not be fair to single out P. D. James for this view, however, for she merely provided one of the most recent iterations of it. In popular genre histories this attitude goes back over forty years now, to the early-Seventies genre studies of two crime writers of James's generation, Julian Symons (1912-1994) (Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, 1972) and Colin Watson (1920-1983) (Snobbery with Violence: English Crime Stories and Their Audience, 1971).
|Julian Symons (1912-1994)|
This view was echoed by academic scholars who in the 1970s had begun serious study of the crime novel. The English Golden Age, or "classical," detective novel largely was contrasted unfavorably on literary grounds with the American hard-boiled detective novel (American "classical" detective novels from the period received little academic notice).
In the last twenty years or so, academic scholars like Alison Light, Gill Plain and Merja Makinen began treating the novels of the Golden Age Crime Queens--including not just Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh but even Christie--with increasing respect. In popular mystery genre histories there similarly has been greater receptiveness to the idea that Sayers at least was a serious literary writer, even while these studies have remained somewhat disparaging of the Golden Age as a whole.
In her 2013 book A Very British Murder: The Story of a National Obsession, Lucy Worsley, not an academic but a PhD popular historian and BBC presenter, does not indicate broad familiarity or interest on her part with works of Golden Age mystery and does not take us much beyond Symons and Watson, on whom she often relies, but, unlike Symons, she heaped praise on Sayers's lengthy detective novel Gaudy Night (1935), which she considers one of the great novels of the twentieth century.
P. D. James similarly prized Gaudy Night, which she first read as a teenager in the 1930s, probably a year after it was originally published. In Talking about Detective Fiction, James wrote quite favorably not only of Sayers, but of Allingham and Marsh, tellingly declaring of the latter pair: "both women are novelists, not merely fabricators of ingenious puzzles" (James makes clear she believes this to be true of Sayers as well).
In my 2012 book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, about three Golden Age English detective novelists dubbed "Humdrums" by Julian Symons on account of their focus on the puzzle aspect of the mystery, I mounted a defense of the puzzle-oriented detective novel associated with the Golden Age of detective fiction (Masters was co-dedicated to Jacques Barzun and Doug Greene, as well as the great American crime writer and critic Bill Pronzini; see Mystery Scene review by Jon L. Breen here, review by Rich Westwood here and review by Martin Edwards here). But I also pointed out that already well underway in the 1930s was a substantial revolt against the strictures of the classical detective novel, a revolt that extended beyond the American hard-boiled school and the British "manners mysteries" of Sayers, Allingham and Marsh.
Earlier in 2011 I had already looked at this Thirties revolt in Was Corinne's Murder Clued: The Detection Club and Fair Play (see Jon L. Breen's review here and Martin Edwards's review here). I also discussed the matter in Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013), concerning an American Choctaw mystery writer and critic of the 1930s and 1940s whose books I was instrumental in helping to get reprinted (see Jon L. Breen review here).
Martin has his own study, The Golden Age of Murder, coming out next year. It is, as understand it, about the writers who were members of England's prestigious Detection Club--including those Humdrums--and how they "invented the modern English detective story."
I haven't seen the manuscript, but I suspect that Martin will seriously revise the long regnant Symons-Watson thesis and produce the best study of the genre in its Golden Age by a crime writer since Julian Symons's own Bloody Murder. Bloody good show, I say! Concerning this matter it's time that the critical tide turned. For a look at more evidence that this may be happening, check in again with this blog later this week.