Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Myths of the Golden Age I: Aesthetic Change in Mystery Fiction during the Turbulent Thirties

With Martin Edwards' book The Golden Age of Murder coming out in another week and increasing interest in reprinting "forgotten" Golden Age mysteries (besides the British Library, other presses involved in this recovery effort include Arcturus, Bello, Coachwhip, Dean Street Press, Open Road/Mysterious Press, and Thomas & Mercer), it appears the publishing world finally may be more receptive to views of the Golden Age of detective fiction--traditionally understood as the period from roughly 1920 to 1939, when the puzzle-oriented tale of detection ostensibly was the dominant form of crime fiction--that revise the common understanding of the period advanced over the last forty years in the popular works of Julian Symons, Colin Watson, P. D. James, Lucy Worsley.


The truth is, our convenient and tidily framed Golden Age construct has been ripe for challenge.  Just look at some of the most common beliefs about Golden Age detective fiction:

1. Golden Age detective fiction was written primarily by British authors.
2. Golden Age detective fiction was written primarily by women.
3. Throughout the Golden Age detective fiction was hostile to innovation, as typified by the "rules" for the genre laid down by such people as Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine.

Neither of the first two beliefs is true, and the third needs considerable revision.  Of the popular studies by Symons, Watson, James and Worsley, Symons' Bloody Murder remains the best, not only because it is the most informed by knowledge of the genre (Watson's book gives over a great deal of space to the thriller, while the James and Worsley books have huge gaps), but because Symons at least recognizes that change was occurring in the 1930s--though he mostly credits change coming not from "classical" detective novelists themselves but the American hard-boiled school (the "American Revolution").  In this construct, reactionary classical detective fiction, ultimately unable to reform itself (despite some efforts), had to be toppled by revolutionary aesthetic insurrectionists opposed to everything for which the classicists stood.

In writing Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (2012), I looked at the careers of three once-popular "Humdrum" novelists (so dubbed by Julian Symons, because of their focus on puzzle at the expense of literary graces). In the first chapter I charted their rise and fall in popularity and critical esteem, which followed the fortunes of the puzzle-oriented mystery.

I had already concluded that by the 1930s the supremacy of the puzzle in the detective novel was undergoing great challenge from a host of sources, including people who were seen themselves as "traditional" detective novelists.

I discussed this point in a 20,000 word essay, published in 2011, a year before Masters, under the title Was Corinne's Murder Clued: The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953 (I am planning on republishing this essay as the lead piece in a new book; you can see reviews of the essay by Jon L. Breen and Martin Edwards here and here).  "During this decade [the Thirties]," I write

members of the Detection Club, old and new, devoted and casual, were themselves testing the boundaries of the detective fiction genre, despite the Club's reputation as a bastion of puzzle orthodoxy. To no small extent, the revolution against the primacy of the puzzle in British detective fiction came from within.  Perhaps the most important Detection Club revolutionaries in this regard were, among the original members, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Milward Kennedy and Henry Wade and, among later members, E. R. Punshon, Anthony Gilbert, Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham and Nicholas Blake.  None of these authors ever totally abandoned the puzzle in their genre writing, but all of them in their works de-emphasized puzzles relative to other, purely literary, elements.

I then scrutinize the Thirties writings of these authors, along with some traditionalists who were changing in some ways as well, like John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street.  "By the time World War Two erupted in 1939," I conclude, the Detection Club "had demonstrated that its membership was not a hopelessly reactionary, backward-looking group determined to maintain the supremacy of the pure puzzle novel at the cost of characterization and literary style."

In short, the literary landscape of mystery fiction saw great change between 1929 and 1939, from numerous sources.  The purportedly halcyon Golden Age was in fact an era of aesthetic flux.  It is exciting that the publishing world may be more broadly recognizing this, and that the Golden Age's iron paradigms finally may be breaking.

More discussion of Golden Age myth-breaking to come.

14 comments:

  1. Excellent points, Curt. And what a pleasure it is to see so many new, small publishers willing to bring back a lot of unjustly forgotten authors (all right, a few justly forgotten ones, too - but how would we know if we couldn't read them now?).

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    1. Long live the small presses! Though it looks like the bigger presses may be getting into the came again too, finally.

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  2. The rise of electronic publishing has been a tremendous boon to readers like myself by enabling us to purchase works by GAD authors who were previously unobtainable due either to cost or simply the inability to find their work due to rarity. Since I live in a small town where book choices are limited even the rise of online shopping did not truly solve the problem, when shipping charges can be twenty dollars on a five dollar book.
    Now I have been able to buy Gladys Mitchell rarities for as little as two dollars on my ereader. I have read enough of both current and GAD mystery fiction to appreciate the strengths of each.
    I don't believe either one is inherently superior to the other, they simply emphasise different aspects of the art, for writing is an art, and like all art, either it continues to develop in new directions or it will ossify.
    We who appreciate the classics are now simply more easily enabled to note the changes and therefore more easily see and appreciate the ongoing development of the mystery field. Scholarship too is ever changing and requires periodic reappraisals of what has gone before. We can't know where we're headed if we don't know where we came from.

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    1. Ron, I think it's an exciting time, because the sudden availability of these books on the market allows everyone to get in on reassessing the Golden Age. Used to be if you wanted to read, say, Gladys Mitchell's Groaning Spinney, you had to hope a copy might someday come up for, oh, around 100 or 200 dollars. Now you can get it for a few dollars as an eBook! Amazing. I just hope the same thing happens today with John Street.

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  3. I am fascinated by your posting. As a reader of so-called "Golden Age" mysteries, I think your corrective "definitions" and analysis are long overdue. And as a new blogger focusing on crime-detective-mystery fiction, I look forward to stopping by your blog for more interesting postings. In the meantime, please feel free to drop by my new venture -- Crimes in the Library -- and share your thoughts in response to my first posting's questions. Hey, the door is always open, the chairs are comfortable, and the coffee is hot in the Library. Drop by at anytime.

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  4. So much of the foci of the GAD stories were on the upper or upper middle class. The perpetrator might be a working class bloke, but the victims were usually in country or town houses.I wonder why? Aspirations of the typical reader perhaps?

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    1. Well, there was some move to greater social realism in the 1930s, even within the Golden Age British detective novel, although I think clearly this is an aspect that has advanced since then. Carolyn Wells, very popular back then, used to say people only wanted to read about murder in "nice" surroundings. But there was some movement away from country houses and quaint villages. Freeeman Crofts even set one of his among rival cement manufacturing companies!

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  5. Moving away from the puzzle mysteries writers in the thirties has been well demonstrated by LeRoy Panek (Panek 1979) in 1st chapter Backgrounds and Approaches.
    Panek, L.L. 1979. Watteau's Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain, 1914-1940.


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  6. Jbilski, I agree Panek emphasizes mysteries that deviated from the puzzle but where I would disagree with him is in his dismissiveness of the so-called "pure puzzle" itself. As I discuss in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I think he goes too far in the other direction, in terms of dismissing the significance of puzzle during the Golden Age and condemning the "Humdrum" writers to outer darkness.

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    1. Also, I should add that the deviations from the pure puzzle mystery in the 1930s, when they took place, went considerably beyond the manners mystery.

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  7. Well, there was some move to greater social realism in the 1930s, even within the Golden Age British detective novel

    It has to be remembered that these books were written for entertainment. Setting them among the upper and upper middle classes added a touch of glamour, thus enhancing the entertainment value. If you're a shop assistant or a lowly clerk or a factory worker it's simply more fun to read about murder among the rich and glamorous, rather than murder among shop assistants, clerks and factory workers.

    There's also more scope for motive. The average shop assistant probably doesn't have a rich uncle worth murdering for his inheritance.

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  8. Or you might prefer reading about the mean streets.

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  9. Or you might prefer reading about the mean streets.

    I used to read a lot of hard-boiled fiction and I think I overdosed on mean streets!

    On the whole though I don't mind too much either way. A good detective story is a good detective story whether it takes place in back alleys or in the vicarage.

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