Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Golden Age in Modern Memory: Historians of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

"A crime novel, however ingenious and exciting the plot, can only succeed if we care primarily about the people."

                               --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
Both Sayers and James deemed The Moonstone a true detective novel, but a superior one that, unlike purely puzzle-oriented detective novels of the Golden Age of detective fiction (usually delimited as the period between the two world wars), attained the status of True Literature (the Coles, incidentally, did not see The Moonstone as a true detective novel; see the essay).

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
There is a bit of an eat-your-vegetables mindset at work here, it seems to me. You may get just a bit  of the sweet, a smidgen of rice pudding say, in the form of a strictly "credible" mystery, but don't expect any decadently rich ingenuity on your plate. Forget astonishment, you're going to get improvement!

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)
Watson is credited with coining the term "Mayhem Parva," which he used to describe the highly socially stratified villages where most English Golden Age mysteries supposedly took place. Symons, though he rather less grudgingly than James admitted to genuine enjoyment of the ingenious Golden Age puzzles of John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, S. S. Van Dine and others (he was not as enthusiastic about Dorothy L. Sayers), argued in Bloody Murder that the Golden Age detective novel was an entertaining but ultimately frivolous and dead-ending bypath that diverged from the main literary highway of the serious crime novel.

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 ObsessionLucy 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.

Lucy Worsley

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 Edwards
There are bloggers around the net who are doing a lot of new thinking about the Golden Age (many of them linked at The Passing Tramp), both in praise of the traditional detective novel but also to point out that there was more going on in the supposedly artistically static Golden Age than often is appreciated. One of these bloggers is the English crime writer Martin Edwards, a contributor to a recently published book I edited, Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014).

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.


  1. Curt - This post would make a fine introduction to some longer work since it hits the high - and low - spots of current academic criticism vis-a-vis the Golden Age. One thing, though: Shouldn't the sentence "Sayers wrote quite favorably not only of Sayers, but of Allingham and Marsh ..." read "James wrote quite favorably ..."?

    1. Mike, thanks, and yeah, typo! I spotted two others myself, sigh!

  2. Very much looking forward to Martin's book. I will say, though I hope not too controversially, that I agree both with you and the Symons / Watson points of view - if we say some books deserve to be treated more seriously because they are better than has been claimed, that is also to agree that some are superior and some inferior. Symon's point was that one has to agree about critical standards as otherwise there is barometer for comaparison / critique / debate. The only fallacy it seems to me is to skew the argument so that it is reduced to either / or: there are books that are better written and speak more universally than others. I may enjoiy Carr as much as Faulkner, but I cannot engage with them in the same way and I would be doing each a disservice, surely, to apply my expactions of one to the other. Some books and authors are more ambitious than others but that is no guarantee of succeeding of your own terms either ...

    1. I wonder how many mysteries or crime novels, however, measure up to Faulkner? I feel like you could take Carr out of that statement and substitute, well, P. D. James, for example. Do we do most crime novelists favors when we set them up for such comparisons? Even Symons, who had high ambitions for the crime novel as serious literary art, finally recanted, as I recollect, concerning his claims for Dostoyevsky as a crime novelist.

      There's no question, I think, that James is a more "serious" novelist than someone like John Dickson Carr (though Carr did make some efforts at more serious novels, some successful, in my view). But is she a compelling enough novelist to make up for the loss of ingenuity in her later books? Not for me personally, although obviously a lot of people will differ with me, I'm sure, and I do have a high opinion of some of her earlier novels, which have insight into character, good sense of place and puzzle plots that have something more going for them than credibility. I think personally that one could argue that exceptionally ingenious mystery writers like Carr and Christie had rarer literary talents than a lot of "crime novelists," even if ingenuity is viewed as a lesser talent.

      Which isn't to say I don't like crime novels or admire good writing, characterization, etc., in mysteries. I very much enjoyed the book I most recently reviewed, Whispering Tongues, which is most definitely a crime, not a detective, novel. But, guess what, it was published in the 1930s! That's another exciting thing about the new mystery criticism, I think--that we are finally starting to look more beyond conventional opinion and seeing how diverse that period actually was in crime writing. It had it's limits, yes, but there was quite a bit more going on than I think is appreciated in a lot of quarters, where people immediately write dismissively of country houses surrounded by snow (hmm. sounds like a Carr novel!).

    2. It's all very well for these writers to want to be regarded as Serious Writers who write True Literature. But does the True Literature crowd actually take them seriously? I mean, do they actually win Booker Prizes and so forth?

  3. Quite a neat precis of the critical and reference books of the genre. I especially like your food analogy. "The luscious meringue of ingenuity." Excellent!

    I read another overview of mystery fiction written by film theory professor and cinema historian David Bordwell just today. (Link here) He talks about mystery fiction being the only genre that is first and foremost about structure and that it cannot exist without the writer manipulating plot structure or narrative threads. I have always pointed this out and feel it is the primary facet one must address before anything else can be discussed in any crime novel be it a traditional detective novel, a suspense thriller or any other subgenre. What continues to draw me to all forms of crime fiction is this basic tenet - How does the writer present a story about a crime and give it a new angle? James may discount ingenuity and stress crime fiction as the new genre for the novel of character, but I am always looking for innovation. They are not at all the same thing. Assiduous reading will turn up hundreds of examples of innovative narrative techniques in all the subgenres of crime fiction from the early Edwardian era through the early 1950s. And it continues to this day. The problem comes when one type of innovation is seen as marketable and suddenly we are inundated with a new subgenre and countless imitations that fail to deliver. I wonder why there are so few critical works that pay considerable attention to narrative construction as well as all the other givens of imaginative writing (character and setting, dialogue, overall style). Perhaps there are a few out there, but I can't think of any. To my mind there is no point in discussing mystery fiction if this obvious element that makes it so unique and appealing is discounted if not utterly dismissed.

    1. Glad you liked, John, And we all need meringue in our lives, surely. ;)

      It is interesting that the nineteenth-century novel so took over as the model for so much modern English mystery. Of course T. S. Eliot, who actually was rather catholic, small "c", in his mystery fiction tastes, himself highlighted The Moonstone as the basis of the English, as opposed to American, mystery writing tradition.

      But I really think that a lot of what was genuinely exciting and innovative about mystery fiction got rather lost with Sayers and much later James' and Rendell's elevation of one particular style. But maybe it's being recovered now. Actually, I think there always was a readership for the classic mystery fiction associated with the Golden Age that went beyond Agatha Christie, it's just that the cultural elites forgot this to a large extent.

  4. I remember reading an article that David Langford wrote about Anthony Boucher. He claimed that the self-consciously clever puzzle plot fell out of fashion because:-

    "Everyday life is practically devoid of plot. Good books ought to reflect everyday life. Books with intricate plotting, elaborately prepared fireworks in the final chapter, and other flashy evidences of the author's manipulating hand, are pretty damned unrespectable" (I must say at this point that Langford is a big fan of the Golden Age).

    A lot of modern 'serious' novels shy away from the idea that plotting, which is one of the reasons that I ultimately moved away from them. It's like doing away with tune and harmony in music because tunes and harmony are artificial constructs. I like to be entertained, and one of the things that entertains me is clever plotting, which is why I like the best Golden Age books, and those modern ones that still stick to the outdated idea that books should be fun.

    1. P. D. James, for example, who seems to have been rather a delightfully humorous woman, going be her public appearances, hardly allowed humor, or, as you say, fun, into her books at all.

      Of course I would imagine she would say, well, murder isn't fun, isn't it? Yet the people in her books do seem to come across as rather relentlessly gloomy, And that's fine, that was her creative vision and she did very well by it, but I don't see why all mystery fiction has be like that, why every crime writer should want to be taken as a "serious novelist," as she says. I would hope some would be content with being good entertainers, able tellers of tales. That's no mean thing,.

  5. I should have written "from the idea that plotting is important". Oooops!

  6. I find some of the arguments put forward by the Crime Fiction as Serious Literature crowd to be truly jaw-dropping. "Three-dimensional people with believable lives." "Realism and credibility." This sounds astonishingly like an argument in favour of naturalism, except that it's being put forward more than a hundred years too late. It means ignoring the entire history of literary modernism. I consider myself to be an arch-reactionary but even I don't go that far!

    In fact the defence of The Moonstone sounds like an argument against new-fangled innovations like the detective novel, and a return to the rules of the 19th century novel. Back to the future! Let's return to the 50s. Not the 1950s, but the 1850s.

    1. It does seem like a lot of critics and writers came not to appreciate what were, I think, the interesting modern innovations represented by Golden Age detective fiction. The Moonstone is a great work, but I don't feel every crime writer need try to be another Collins.

  7. On the subject of Gaudy Night, this is a book that seems to have a tremendous following among women. This actually seems to apply to Sayers in general. Women are besotted by her. Men seem distinctly less impressed by her books.

    I hate to find myself agreeing with Julian Symons but his merciless demolition of her reputation in Bloody Murder seems to me to be spot on. Lord Peter Wimsey is simply a less funny version of Bertie Wooster.

    The adulation with which women regard Sayers must have something to do with Harriet Vane, although Vane appears to me to be as thin a character as Lord Peter. To see Sayers as a writer of character-driven books is pretty absurd. Compared to a complex character like Sherlock Holmes Lord Peter and Harriet Vane are merely cardboard cut-outs. In fact Bertie Wooster has more complexity.

    1. Well, to be fair on this matter, the male Jacques Barzun, for example, loved Gaudy Night. I think a lot of readers have found Sayers' treatment of college life in that book quite pleasing.

      I think historically that English manners mystery did attract more women to detective fiction. Before then it was generally assumed that "detective fiction" appealed more to men. I think the added "human interest" was considered to make it more interesting to women readers.

      But we have to careful here how far we go with gender assumptions. I certainly know women who enjoy "Humdrum" mystery writers. I know men who adore Sayers and James. I myself have become a fan of Mary Roberts Rinehart and a lot of HIBK mystery, which often is considered to appeal primarily to women readers.

    2. I even like Lord Peter and Harriet, I should add--although not quite so intensely as some fans, I'll admit!

    3. I don't think it's a good thing or a bad thing that men and women have different tastes in literature (and just about everything else). It makes life more interesting. But I do think the differences are real, and female critics often seem to overlook this. But of course there's a lot of overlap. I like a lot of movies that generally appeal more to women (I dote on Garbo and Joan Crawford movies). The gender differences are real, but they're fuzzy.

      I'm just not sure that people like Worsley appreciate the extent to which their tastes are characteristically feminine. I also sometimes get the impression that at least some female critics are strongly prejudiced in favour of female writers.

    4. And the criticism has been leveled constantly at male critics and readers, that they prefer reading men and that they undervalue women writers. There was just a Goodreads study that claimed that men read primarily men and women read primarily women. This has never been the case with me, after my adolescent years, when I read primarily male writers, although a major exception there was Agatha Christie!

    5. I doubt if it's ever been true that male critics and readers undervalue women writers. Gaining recognition has never been difficult for women writers with real talent. Germaine Greer in fact put forward the interesting theory that the biggest problem facing women writers in the past is that they were over-praised by male critics, which often prevented them from developing their talents properly because they got too easy a run from critics.

      I suspect that's even more the case today - that male academics are so terrified of being accused of sexism that they play safe and praise even mediocre women writers, while some female academics ignore the existence of male writers altogether!

      I'll give anyone a go, regardless of gender. Writers are either worth reading or they aren't.

    6. "I doubt if it's ever been true that male critics and readers undervalue women writers."

      And I would disagree with you. The whole smug HIBK construct, which I was once rather taken in by myself, suggests otherwise.

      I've read a past male critic praise a woman writer for writing "like a man." Well, now, I ask you!

  8. First of all, great post Curtis!
    Well, I probably know what you mean when you write "James is a more "serious" novelist than someone like John Dickson Carr". I also agree with Sergio about the comparison between Carr and Faulkner. But my expectations are also different when I read Borges or Chandler.
    I think the Crime Novel is serious literary art, and the Mystery too. I wonder why Hammett is deemed one of the best writers of the 20th century and Carr is not (or Queen). Because Carr "had nothing to say" (Joshi)?
    Literary fiction is a combination of ingenuity and style. You will never find a true masterpiece without ingenuity or genius. Why a great writer must necessarily have a significant or profound view of the world? For every Boccaccio there is a Luigi Pulci. And Pulci was a great Master!

    1. Stefano, hi, great to hear from you on the blog for the first time, I believe.

      By "serious" I think what I mean is how James was very consciously trying to *be* serious in her writing, to write as a serious novelist, conveying serious messages about life and death. Carr, I think, would have disclaimed such intent, although in fact I think one can clearly find serious messages in He Who Whispers, or The Devil in Velvet, or The Emperor's Snuff-box or She Died a Lady, for example, just as one can in Christie's The Hollow, Five Little Pigs, And Then There None, etc., and even Humdrum mysteries like Crofts' Antidote to Venom and John Rhode's Death at the Helm, say. The idea that all Golden Age mysteries are devoid of message (Gaudy Night miraculously excepted) simply isn't true in my view.

      But beyond that Carr had very rare gifts as a writer, with, yes, his ingenuity and his sense of narrative style. These, in my view, make him a more unique literary talent than someone like P. D. James, which isn't to say that I don't hold a high opinion of some of James' work, because I do. But when I read James I don't feel like I'm reading "Great Literature." I feel like I'm reading well-written (in a very formal English style) mysteries that in later years became prolix and repetitious.

      I'm reading The Private Patient and I just don't find that it has the great insights to merit the 500 pages. Among modern crime novels I've felt that some Barbara Vine comes closer to that standard, but, even there, when you take the clever mystery elements out, I'm not certain there's enough left to justify its elevation to such. It feels to me that James came to feel that she needn't maintain more than a formal commitment to the mystery plot structure, providing, as she put it, a "credible," but not especially clever, mystery, concentrating on "serious novel" writing. And I just don't feel the purely literary elements are strong enough to make up for the difference. There's some good formal writing, especially descriptive, but I don't find either the characters or insights especially remarkable. We've seen it all before, many times, in James' earlier work.

    2. I get irritated when the proponents of Crime Fiction as Serious Literature crowd want to be taken seriously as writers of Great Literature without actually having to produce the goods. There's a bit of a "my books are Real Literature because I say they are" attitude.

  9. Interesting discussion; Until I read the above I thought I read a healthy mix of writers of both genders, but when I thought about it, of the twenty or so writers i have read most often since the obligatory christie childhood, only two were female- margery allingham and patricia moyes. And both of them primarily write about a male detective!

    I still think my greatest find was John Dickson Carr though, about twenty years ago. Realism be damned! The theatricality of him is such an important part of his style, and no-one in my opinion holds a candle to him when it comes to building a suspenseful atmosphere or of setting a scene. I have just finished reading 'The Skeleton in the Clock' and his description of the location where the first murder takes place was so vivid it meant he could get away with not including a diagram! I settle down with a carr in the same way i enjoy an RKO horror film- schlock in a way, but because it was never of its time it can never properly go out of date.

    1. I'll have to make a list of my favorite mystery writers sometime, see how it breaks down in gender terms.

      Sounds like we had a very similar experience. When I discovered Carr 25 years ago, I felt I had to get my hands on everything he ever wrote. I was like, how had I never heard of this guy before?!

      It was like when I was a kid, a dozen years earlier, reading Agatha Christie; but, I agree with you, in Carr's case sheer panache had a lot to do with the appeal, besides, of course, his tremendous ingenuity.

    2. Thank you!
      I absolutely agree with you, Curtis, about James, Carr and the messages in the Golden Age novels.
      In briefly, In my opinion, the words "credibility" or "realism" are not the right criterions to judge a fiction novel.
      However, I have to say I loved your introduction of The Masters: "MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS AGO, in the spring of 1989, Chinese students protested tyranny in Tiananmen Square and I encountered John Dickson Carr in the mystery section of a basement Chicago bookstore."
      Simply splendid.

  10. "In briefly, In my opinion, the words "credibility" or "realism" are not the right criterions to judge a fiction novel."

    Amen to that, my friend!

    And I'm glad you liked those words. Carr was my absolute favorite mystery writer in the 1990s,. I devoured those books, as they say.