The Golden Age Detective Fiction Renaissance

From Crime Reads:

Not so long ago, Golden Age detective fiction was hopelessly out of fashion. Yes, Agatha Christie continued to sell, and her books were regularly televised and filmed. But she is a literary phenomenon, an exception who breaks every rule. Fans of the other Crime Queens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham, kept the flame burning, while several good writers came and went who worked essentially in the Golden Age tradition; examples include Patricia Moyes, Dominic Devine, and Sarah Caudwell. But hundreds of writers who made their name in the Golden Age were out of print. And so far as readers and critics were concerned, it was a case of out of sight, out of mind.

My enthusiasm for Golden Age stories dates back to my discovery of Christie when I was eight years old. The joy I took in her detective puzzles made me resolve—even at that tender age—to become a crime writer one day. As I got older, I went to great lengths to track down other writers from the Golden Age, and haunted second hand bookshops. What I found impressed me. Quite apart from Christie and Sayers (two very, very different writers, by the way), there were dozens of others who wrote well and enjoyably. The names of Anthony Berkeley, Richard Hull, and J.J. Connington were forgotten, but their stories entertained me, and gave me insight into the fascinating, long-vanished world of between-the-wars Britain.

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It seems to me that the Golden Age of detective fiction, properly understood, reflects a particular era. The “play fever” which marked a reaction to the carnage of the First World War prompted writers such as Christie to challenge the reader to a battle of wits: can you solve the mystery before the Great Detective? Moving into the 1930s, economic depression and international tensions darkened the mood. Even the puzzle-makers began to explore criminal psychology, and books such as Murder on the Orient Express and Anthony Berkeley’s Trial and Error wrestle with questions that resonated with the times: how can one achieve justice, if it is denied us by the conventional legal system?

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There is, of course, a timelessness about the classic tropes of Golden Age fiction: dying message clues, locked rooms, red herrings, closed circles of suspects, least likely culprits, and all the rest. They cropped up before the Golden Age, and have recurred ever since.

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As the Golden Age’s old guard died off, their books disappeared from the shops, and then from the library shelves. Were they gone forever? Did anyone miss them? Certainly, as a fan of Golden Age mysteries, I felt for years as though I were a voice crying in the wilderness.

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I’d started writing a blog and when I featured forgotten books of the past, I suddenly found myself being contacted by fellow enthusiasts from around the world. This motivated me to finish my book, which I called The Golden Age of Murder. By now it was 2013, and at this point I had a chance conversation with Rob Davies, recently arrived in the British Library’s Publications department. He told me that the Library had reissued three Golden Age mysteries by the highly obscure Mavis Doriel Hay. They hadn’t set the world alight, but he planned to bring out two more unsung books from the 1930s, this time by John Bude. He’d decided to try a new look with the paperback covers, using vintage British railway poster artwork.

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To my delight, Harper Collins—publishers of Agatha Christie!—accepted The Golden Age of Murder, and then news came that sales for the John Bude novels had been startlingly good. I’d like to think this was attributable to the elegance and erudition of the introductions, but there is no doubt that the lovely new cover artwork style had a lot to do with attracting the attention of booksellers. But even more importantly—readers found themselves not only buying the books, often on impulse, but enjoying the stories.

The bandwagon began to roll. The British Library’s Christmas title that year, Mystery in White by the long-neglected J. Jefferson Farjeon, became a number one bestseller for the Waterstone’s bookstore chain, outselling Gone Girl. Nobody could believe it; certainly not my friends in the British Library (who had now appointed me as Series Consultant to the Crime Classics) and certainly not me.

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What accounts for this revival of interest? Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a part, but isn’t, as far as I can tell from talking to readers in several different countries, the key issue. There is, perhaps, a parallel between the uncertain world in which we live today and the 1930s, often characterised as “an age of uncertainty”. But again I’m not wholly convinced that the fundamental reason for the renaissance is a yearning for that restoration of order that is supposedly supplied by Golden Age novels. Actually, there are a good many traditional mysteries where the culprit gets away with murder. A well-known example is Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and there are many others.

To my mind, there is a broader explanation for the Golden Age boom that goes beyond the mere turning of the wheel of fortune. When present day readers are given the chance to read these books, they find that there was much more diversity in Golden Age fiction than the critics admitted. Even Christie set only a minority of her mysteries in picturesque English villages. The works of writers such as Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day-Lewis, who became Poet Laureate), Raymond Postgate (a Marxist who founded the Good Food Guide), Anthony Gilbert (who was actually a woman who also wrote as Anne Meredith), and Anthony Berkeley (who wrote superb novels of psychological suspense as Francis Iles) are exceptionally varied. To stereotype them all as cosy is simply wrong. Francis Iles’ Before the Fact, and even Christie’s And Then There Were None are as dark and chilling as any masterpiece of Scandi-noir.

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