Friday Classics: The Golden Age of Mystery

Before we settle into Friday Classics featuring the Golden Age of Mystery fiction, it might be a good idea to define the boundaries. The questions of when, where, and what kind of mystery might pop into a reader’s mind. Are they cozies? Are they hard-boiled or over easy? Amateur or detective? British country house or the mean streets of LA?

What the heck are you talking about, lady?

This post is a short bit of background on mystery’s golden age. Here are a few FAQ’s:

What is the Golden Age of Mystery?

The term ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ was coined in The Saturday Review on January 7, 1939. Author John Strachey argued that the best stories written in the 1920’s and 1930’s were thrilling, original, and restored order to a world in chaos. Since then, the terms ‘detective fiction’, ‘crime novels’, and ‘mysteries’ have been used interchangeably. That’s why sometimes you’ll hear about ‘The Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ or ‘The Golden Age of Mystery’. It’s all the same.

When was the Golden Age of Mystery?

The time period generally accepted is the years between the world wars of the early 20th century. Some mysteries fall a little earlier giving a general time frame of 1913 to 1939. While writers such as Agatha Christie wrote well after the Second World War, their stories continued in the Golden Age style.

When looking at Golden Age mysteries, it helps to remember that the years between the wars were chaotic and the changes in society were immense. Detective fiction filled a need for calm and the knowledge that everything will be put right in the end.

What are the characteristics of a Golden Age mystery?

Above all, Golden Age mysteries are puzzles. While readers may form attachments to a detective in a series (case in point, Hercule Poirot and the charm of his ‘little gray cells’), these aren’t character-driven stories. The murder (and it is always murder) is solved through a series of clues that alone may mean nothing, but when put together they become a flashing neon arrow pointing to the killer.

And what about that detective? He is usually a man (thank goodness for the likes of Miss Marple and Harriet Vane) and often an amateur. Quirky? Absolutely. Poirot is fastidious about his mustache, Nero Wolf dotes on his orchids, Philo Vance sports his monocle and out-sized ego. But the detectives in these mysteries are also brilliant and amazingly observant, noting small clues that others (reader included) might miss.

Speaking of those clues, the reader must be given the same clues as the detective and have the same opportunity to solve the crime, hopefully before the Big Reveal when the murderer is unmasked. Whether or not the clues are picked up relies on the reader’s powers of observation. These are all part of the rules of ‘fair play’ (more on that in a later post).

Usually the victim and the murderer are of the same social order, usually the upper class. After World War I, the lines between classes began to blur and detective fiction embraced a romanticized view of privilege. No getting down and dirty with the gardener or the cook, no sir. Solving the murder of a genteel man (or woman) required a genteel mind.

The settings in these stories are also romanticized and limited. Because the number of suspects needs to be kept at a manageable number, a village, small town, or secluded English manor ensures that almost everyone in the general area is a suspect. In other words, no matter how many bodies drop in St. Mary Meade, it’s a lovely place to live.

Who wrote Golden Age mysteries?

This list of writers is not only long and distinguished, but also varied. For every Agatha Christie whose works are avidly read today, there are other authors who were household names once but have since fallen into obscurity.

Top of the heap are the Queens of Crime, the four British authors most identified with the Golden Age:

Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries), Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries), Margery Allingham (Albert Campion mysteries), and Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn mysteries).

In their time, these ladies were the rock stars of the genre.

Also popular in Britain were:

G.K. Chesterton (Father Brown mysteries), H.C. Bailey (Reggie Fortune mysteries), Leslie Charteris (Simon Templer/The Saint mysteries), Georgette Heyer (yep, she wrote mysteries, although most readers know her as the Queen of Regency Romance), A.A. Milne (the Winnie the Pooh author wrote only one mystery, The Red House Mystery, but it was a hit), and Sax Rohmer (Dr. Fu Manchu mysteries).

Not to be outdone, the Americans had their own pantheon of mystery writers:

Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe mysteries), Ellery Queen (pen name for Brooklyn cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee), John Dickson Carr (master of the locked room mystery), and S.S. van Dine (Philo Vance mysteries).

What does all this have to do with cozy mysteries?

The cozy mysteries that are popular today owe so much to the writers who came before. Many of the guidelines followed in the 1920’s and 30’s live on in modern cozies. These authors were the trailblazers of the genre.

The result? A little murderous light reading fit for a comfy chair and a hot cup of tea. Delightful.

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