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.
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
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.