As I discussed in Part Three of this piece, in Worsley's Chapter 23, "Snobbery with Violence," Worsley, rehashing arguments made over four decades ago by Julian Symons and Colin Watson, emphasizes the social conservatism of the Golden Age detective novel. She refers sweepingly to "the less attractive aspects of these books: the stultifying, repetitive, hide-bound and reactionary world whose values were only reinforced by the solution of the crime." She declares that mystery writers "so often seemed to set their work in cosy English villages like St. Mary Mead."*
*(yet Miss Marple and St. Mary Mead itself only appeared in one novel and a book of short stories between the two world wars and probably could not have been identified by most Golden Age readers in 1940)
|Just how well known was this lady?|
I have previously argued that such portrayals as Worsley's hugely simplify the complexity of the period (for example, like P. D. James before her, Worsley does not even discuss the important work of Franics Iles), and I will leave readers to look at my blog or (better yet!) my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012). There are also excellent, academically informed studies from the last twenty years or so that take more nuanced views than does Worsley (though none of these studies are cited by Worsley, they are referenced in Masters).
This invariably orderly, rigidly stratified, Edwardian world of Golden Age English detective fiction that Worsley, Watson, Symons and James posit was destroyed, according to Worsley, by World War Two and "the horrors of the atom bomb and Auschwitz." It has always seemed a little inconsistent to me that the insanity of trench warfare and poison gas (World War One) created a desire for detective novels, while the madness of atomic warfare and death camps (World War Two) caused an aversion to detective novels, but this war-determinist view is one of long standing (see Julian Symons) and many people subscribe to it.
What replaced Golden Age detective fiction, ostensibly no longer tenable after World War Two? In her short Chapter 24, "The Dangerous Edge of Things," Worsley references psychological crime fiction, mentioning Graham Greene, and what she calls "the American-led thriller movement," by which she means hard-boiled detective fiction (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are invoked). She also throws in filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. However, it's all quite cursory, crying out for more detailed treatment (what about the impact of Eric Ambler, Georges Simenon, Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith, not to mention other names, and film noir?).
And I'm dubious about the whole end of Golden Age detective fiction stuff that Worsley touts. Concerning the decade of the 1940s, she writes at one point of "a final nail" being put "into the coffin of Mayhem Parva" and at another about how "the popularity of the detective story continued to wane."
Obviously at some point the Golden Age of detective fiction, defined as the period when so-called "fair play" detection was the dominant form in mystery genre fiction, ended, but both (1) puzzle-oriented detective fiction and (2) Golden Age "style" British detective fiction, with quaint villages and country houses (Worsley conflates Golden Age form and style) in fact lived on past the 1940s to make many more fictional murders.
|Complete with a new title and a|
country house illustration Lucy
Worsley's A Very British Murder
comes to America this fall
Post-WW2 paperback publishing was in fact a boon in general to more traditional Golden Age detective fiction authors (for example, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout), just as it was to the tough guys who wrote about hard-boiled crime. For every person who ever bought a Mickey Spillane there have been more who bought an Agatha Christie.
Further, the so-called "cozy" mystery that Worsley associates with the Golden Age of detective fiction became a true identified sub-genre only after the Second World War; and it is a hugely popular one today. Much original Golden Age work is being reprinted and over the many decades since the 1940s a goodly number of modern authors have continued to write puzzle-oriented detective fiction and/or to write in the Golden Age British country house/quaint village style (including cases of outright pastiche; see, for example, Jill Paton Walsh's Lord Peter Wimsey books and the upcoming Sophie Hannah Hercule Poirot mystery). It seems to me that the reports over the years of the death of Golden Age detective fiction (both in form and style) have been exaggerated.
What most disappoints about A Very British Murder is that while the book may join P. D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) as the primary go-to source for readers eager to learn the history of the detective fiction genre--it will be published in the United States this fall--in the main it simply repeats old arguments from the books of Julian Symons and Colin Watson (the major difference is that Worsley, like James, holds Dorothy L. Sayers in much greater esteem than do Symons and Watson).
Like James' book--which, incidentally, I would recommend over Worsley's--Worsley's work constitutes a lost golden opportunity to say something new about the Golden Age. There has been a lot of original, stimulating thinking about the Golden Age of detective fiction since the publication over forty years ago of the landmark books of Symons and Watson, and it would have been wonderful to see a high-profile book like A Very British Murder include some of those insights. Ah, well. Better luck next murder book!