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What is the Golden Age of Detection

Page history last edited by PBworks 18 years, 6 months ago



According to the Greeks and Romans, it was the first age of the world when everybody prospered, had no troubles, and lived happy lives. That, of course, has never existed in human history (as Hobbes commented when he said primitive life was 'nasty, brutish, and short'). What is the Golden Age of Mystery Stories? Well, first of all there was a preceding Stone Age where you had anecdotal stuff in scriptures of various kinds about clever thievery, treachery, and murder; followed by a Bronze Age with the English Mystery plays (just kidding, because mystery then meant the unfathomable will of God) and some good scam stuff by Chaucer, Malory, and the rogue stories of Shakespeare's contemporaries Greene and others, for example, and plenty of 18th-century crime stories like Henry Fielding's "Jonathan Wild"; then by an Iron Age, where there were glimmers and precursors of the modern detective story -- Godwin, Hogg, Brown, Radcliffe, Collins, LeFanu, Gaboriau and many others often cited by aficionados -- and especially the progenitor Edgar Allan Poe. In the late Iron Age, transitional to the Golden, you had, of course Sherlock Holmes and all his rivals, who set the standards. The real Golden Age began (arbitrarily, I say) with the publication of Bentley's "Trent's Last Case" in 1913, a year after the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of Jacques Futrelle, the culminating author in the Holmes weird-detective school. Authors like Doyle, Chesterton, and Freeman of course overlapped this date at the beginning (and post-Futrelle weirdos continued to proliferate), as did Agatha Christie, Marsh and others who outlived it at the end. And has it ended? Yes, of course, although there is a fad now (Dickinson, Symons, Lovesey, Barnard, etc.) to write 'historical' novels in the golden-age vein. So when it ended I will arbitrarily assign to the year 1953 when Ian Fleming published his first James Bond novel "Casino Royale". (Go ahead, shoot me, but one landmark is as good as another when you are out to sea.)




The classic mystery novel has been criticized for years (e.g., by Raymond Chandler) for being unrealistic. Nobody who wrote them would ever say they were intended to be. This genre (sub-category, sub-species, whatever you want to call it) operates under rather strict rules, like the form of a sonnet or a limerick, a Racine/Molière or classic French play, an Aesop fable, a fairy tale with elves and ogres, princesses and heroes -- basically a fantasy story. One has to accept this or else go read something else. Modern versions have been updated of course to allow explicit sex, swearing, real gore and gruesome insanity, but the format remains the same. A good mystery is an escapist reading experience, not involving abdication of intelligence or critical viewpoint as with a Harlequin romance or a shoot-em-up of either the sadistic Mickey Spillane or comic-book superhero Doc Savage type, but a suspension of disbelief is required. What does this frame of mind involve and what are the basic rules?


  • First of all, there has to be a detective who is set apart from everybody else (including the reader) for eccentric habits/appearance (or by contrast total blandness), exceptional intelligence, the practice of making obscure statements instead of just revealing deductions and revelations as they occur. The detective is MEANT to frustrate you!


  • The official police (or if the detective is a policeman, his compatriates) must be bumblers -- even when they discover useful evidence, they should always miss the point. It helps when your detective has a smart rival -- cop, district attorney, etc. -- who is also clever, but not as clever -- to come up with alternate solutions. That increases tension and plot development, also amusement to the degree that that sub-detective usually ends up with the same solution the reader would have come up with.


  • Clues must be presented to the reader, even if they are cleverly disguised or phrased ambiguously. And the villain MUST be some character who has appeared or been mentioned fairly plainly in the story under some circumstance before the revelation. (Otherwise, how could that person ever be suspected? That would be cheating under these rules.)


  • The author must not tell a lie, either in the third person or through the mouth of a character who is pronounced unequivocally to be trustworthy or has no ulterior motive to lie. You can say something couldn't have happened, but not that it DID NOT then say it did after all. Do not aver it was pitch dark, then reveal later: 'except there was a full moon, forgot to mention that'.


  • Plan carefully and avoid even simple mistakes like switching from January to July on the same day, or calling Jane Joan having forgotten her name (a character can do this, but not the author). There have been major mistakes like this, and much more subtle, with careless authors -- but a careless author should not write a detective story. Know that the observant reader will spot such errors. Same with getting the effects of particular poisons wrong because of basic authorial ignorance (for example, if you get cyanide in your drink you just don't go 'arrgh' and drop dead instantly -- it takes several minutes -- and who these days instantly recognizes the smell of bitter almonds, whatever that is?).


  • That brings up the fundamental point that no matter how improbable the solution to the mystery, there should be accuracy as to the reality of physical (natural) laws, judicial proceedings, even the hierarchy of Constable/Sergeant/Inspector/Superintendent/Chief Constable etc. (I'm not so sure about NY police, where a lieutenant seems to rank above a captain, and an inspector is nobody special in a chain-of-command sense.) If there is a particular, even if imaginary-based-on-known-somewhere, setting, it must be geographically accurate. And the rendering of dialectical accents without knowledge of how they sound or should be transliterated is just plain irritating. This also includes stereotypical racial burlesques, although a lot of the old books contain elements that read that way to our minds.


  • An ancillary to the previous stricture is that the setting has to be done properly, including all the details. There is nothing more irritating than a 'touristic' book set in some place the reader knows personally where it becomes obvious the author just spent a week's vacation there doing 'background' research. That especially applies to would-be historical novelists trying to emulate GAD by setting their books back in the 1930s or whenever, and then proceed to mess everything up with dialogue and opinions that would never have been expressed that way at that time.


  • There must be a clear motivation for the crime, even if hidden as a 'clue'. No point in having the villain turn out to be a lunatic who just felt like killing at the time then went and sat down and had a cup of tea. Hannibal Lecter is a great villain, like Moriarty and Blofeld bracketing the Golden Age, but is not a proper 'perp' for a pure detective story.


  • The methodology of the crime should at least seem plausible even if impractical or based on an amalgamation of coincidental circumstance. (Whether it would ever work in real life is not the point, but do not claim that the villain actually flew through the air. The reader must be convinced that it COULD have happened.)


There are some older 'rules' written 1920-1950 or so (see Decalogue) that have been successfully violated, so that they are now obsolete, in case you would like to write your own 'golden-age' story. No matter how primitive by modern standards, a Ford Model-T worked; there is no reason now not to emulate it, viz. these pointers:


  • 'The Butler Did It' -- well why not? That is just old-fashioned snobbery that any mere servant or smaller-time employee is beneath suspicion or capability or motive. Having the killer turn out to be a child, however, is a modern cliché and should be avoided now. (It is also unpleasant, looking at real-life events proliferating these days. Make the villain as nasty as you want, but provide a motive other than gratuitous hell-raising or showing yourself to be a Hobbes/Swift misanthrope.)


  • 'The Detective or Narrator Did It' -- yes, indeed. An established trick if the author can get away with it. Likewise, a cop or postman. Again, no reason why not. Keep up with the literature, and avoid currently 'trendy' villains like secretaries or lawyers, who are also supposedly above suspicion. You just don't want your reader to say ah-ha! as soon as such a person is introduced.


  • 'An Unknown Poison' -- these days, with the big pharmaceutical companies and genetic research, who would ever know? Many new opportunities here. But to use this device, an author should at least be up on the subject. (An excellent example is ricin, from the castor bean, which has long been known as a poison with no antidote, but never that I know of used by a GAD writer. It made the news a quarter of a century ago when a Bulgarian assassin used it on a dissident by jabbing him with a poisoned umbrella tip, and just recently when a stash was found in a terrorist hang-out in England. Not undetectable as a poison, but so simple to administer anonymously.)


  • 'Secret Passages' -- tricky and usually a cop-out explanation, but if there is preparation in the narration (old house, whatever) there is no reason not to as long as it is not sprung out of the blue. That does not forbid hidden traps or mechanical gimmicks, however, as long as they are made convincing.


  • 'Gangsters' -- it's all right to involve professional criminals as long as they don't speak like Jimmy Cagney. If there is going to be a low-life in the story, at least his argot should be accurately rendered, yet he should not turn out to be the prime villain. Anarchists and terrorists fall into this category too. Same applies to a prostitute, unless she is now Lady Somewhat and has to hide her past. Purists say bank robbers and the like don't belong in GAD mysteries, but that is bunk.


  • 'Love Interest' -- well, it's all right to have side tracks in a GAD novel, especially if there is a love affair where one of the partners is in danger of being accused of the crime. But keep in mind that this is not a romance novel. One thing to avoid at all costs is to get the detective involved romantically with a suspect (that is OK sometimes if it serves the plot), or to clutter up the story with the detective's or Watson's private life, marital or familial problems with daughters, etc. And do not burden the reader with psychoanalitical problems of the detective, of all people -- under the first rule, we know he's screwed up to begin with and don't have to be diverted with the reason why, or else he is totally normal and we don't want to be diverted into his private feelings, which are totally irrelevant to the deductive process. Almost by definition, the detective must be outside normal human emotional and mental parameters, otherwise there is little to distinguish him/her from the other characters in the book.


  • 'There Must Be a Watson' -- bull! However, one doesn't want to read a story told in the first person by, or from the point of view of, the detective -- that's Private-Eye thriller stuff. Whatever narrative method is chosen, the operation of the detective's logic must be viewed rather than shared. A point-of-view character, or a narrative by a participant (or more than one, a là diary or requested accounts) after the fact, is the best; straight omniscient author is tolerable, but hard to pull off, since a good detective novel depends on perception by a supposed observer. Some Watsons are just flies on the wall who do nothing at all, but an omniscient author can see through ceilings and therefore it is hard for him/her to pull the wool over the reader's eye in any convincing way without being accused of withholding information. There is still the credibility problem of having either a Watson or point-of-view character present in all the scenes -- who is this 'bump-on-a-log' person and what is he doing in our private conferences and investigations? Best method is the retrospective memoir (just a personal opinion of mine).

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