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The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

From my teenage years my favourite 'comfort reading' was Agatha Christie books. Light-weight yet clever, they provided hours of effortless entertainment. But then I had read them all. In my thirties sufficient time (and memory) had passed to allow a second reading. But then I'd read them all again. And so the search was on for a replacement. 


I tried a number of modern mystery writers but found they were either:

a) horribly gruesome,

b) trying too hard to be 'cosy' and ending up trite

c) trying too hard to be funny and forgetting to include any really clever plot twists. 


Sigh! Then I started to dig into the works of Christie's contemporaries. In the first half of the 20th century, increased literacy rates and cheaper books created a boom in readership, and crime books in particular were enormously popular. In fact, they were such sure-fire sellers that several serious writers took to penning them (often under a pseudonym) as a way of supplementing their income. Many crime writers were already accomplished in other fields; academics, musicians, doctors and journalists took to knocking out detective stories as a sideline.


In 1930 Agatha Christie and others formed The Detection Club, which met regularly and published several very fun books, including The Floating Admiral, in which various members add a chapter in a sort of literary tag team challenge. The group had their own Ten Commandments, compiled by Ronald Knox (who was also a priest and radio broadcaster, responsible in 1926 for a radio hoax that inspired Orson Welles' War of the Worlds):

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover
  9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Detection Club dinner, 1932 (Source: Margaret Perry. Click photo for link)

Although Golden Age mysteries vary in their levels of violence, none come close to the gory details that are lavished about in modern forensic crime fiction. They rarely feature sadistic or psychopathic murders, or vicious sex crimes, making them better suited to pleasant escapism. Additionally they offer a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of the time, both the good (glamorous cocktail parties!) and the bad ("damn foreigners!").

 

Coming out of an era when the rules of grammar were drummed into every child's head, even the average writers could throw together a decent sentence. However the best of the Golden Age writers were truly excellent, creating books filled with deft and witty prose, penetrating insights into human nature, and astute observations of social issues.


Below is a rough guide to some of the best known Golden Age crime writers. Many are still in print, and there are plenty of second-hand and e-books floating around on the internet. Strictly speaking, the Golden Age generally refers to books written between WWI and WWII, but I have stretched this to cover roughly 1900 to 1950.


 

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie wrote over 60 crime novels, 33 featuring Hercule Poirot and 12 with Miss Marple. She is rightly famous for her tight plotting and ingenious twists; if they sometimes rely a little too heavily on unlikely coincidences they are none the less enjoyable for that. Her earlier works, set in the 1920s to 1940s, offer a fascinating insight into that era. The writing in her later books gets, dare I say it, a little sloppy, but I guess that by then she was such an institution that no editor would have dared challenge her. 

 
 


Ngaio Marsh

Born in New Zealand, she worked extensively in the theatre, which provides the setting for many of her books. Her detective Roderick Alleyn is the younger son of a aristocrat. Her books feature an abundance of colourful characters and funny dialogue. 

 
 

Dorothy L Sayers

Sayers graduated from Oxford with first class honours in modern languages and medieval literature, and wrote extensively on Christian theology. Her detective stories feature the witty and sophisticated Lord Peter Wimsey (the younger son of an aristocrat), and are filled with literary and cultural references. The romance between Wimsey and Harriet Vane is developed over four novels (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon), and is one of the most intelligently written romantic plots I have ever come across. Edward Petherbridge captures Wimsey gorgeously in the television series featuring Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane (see a summary of their scenes together here.)

 
 


Margery Allingham

Allingham's detective Albert Campion is the younger son of an aristocrat (are you noticing a pattern here?) He started as a bit of a spoof of Lord Wimsey, but as the novels progress he becomes a well- rounded character in his own right. 

 
 


Nicholas Blake

This was the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate, who wrote to supplement his income as a poet. His detective Nigel Strangeways was initially modelled on fellow poet WH Auden. 

 
 


Edmund Crispin

Crispin (real name Robert Bruce Montgomery) was a well-known choirmaster and composer of organ and vocal music. His witty crime novels, featuring eccentric Oxford don Gervase Fen, are some of the funniest of the Golden Age. 

 
 


Georgette Heyer

Although best known for her numerous Regency romances, Heyer churned out a dozen very entertaining mystery stories set in the early 20th century.

 
 

John Dickson Carr

Carr specialised in complicated puzzle-plots and locked room mysteries. In 1981 his book The Hollow Man was voted best locked-room mystery of all time by a panel of mystery writers and critics. He also wrote under the name Carter Dickson. 

 
 

Josephine Tey

In 1990 Tey's most famous novel, The Daughter of Time, was voted best mystery novel of all time by the British-based Crime Writers' Association. It features a detective who is laid up in a hospital bed using a range of genuine historical documents to investigate Richard III's supposed murder of his nephew's, the ill-fated 'princes in the tower'. 

 
 


Gladys Mitchell

Mitchell's detective is the colourful psychoanalyst Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. She wrote one book a year through her long career. Mitchell's books often feature a psychological, mystical or supernatural element.

 
 

Anthony Berkeley 

A founding member of the Detection Club, Berkeley wrote a number of books featuring his amateur detective, Roger Sheringham. His best-known work is The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Under the name of Francis Iles he also wrote another Golden Age classic, Malice Aforethought.

 
 


Freeman Wills Croft

Croft's background as an engineer shows through in his meticulous plotting and attention to detail. His speciality was the breaking of an 'unbreakable' alibi. 

 
 


Patricia Wentworth 

Born in India and educated in England, Wentworth was another prolific writer, penning over 60 books. Her best known detective, retired governess Miss Silver, features in 32 of these. Her books tend to be fairly conventional whodunnits in the 'cosy mystery' genre. 

 
 

Edgar Wallace

Wallace was extraordinarily prolific, sometimes dictating an entire novel in 2-3 days. In 1905 he offered a cash prize to any reader who could solve the mystery in The Four Just Men; he had clearly underestimated the intelligence of the public as rewarding all the correct entries sent him bankrupt. Many of his books tend to be thrillers rather than puzzle-mysteries, featuring super-villains and colourful criminal organisations.

 
 


Henry Wade

In real life he was Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet and a distinguished veteran of WWI and WWII. He wrote 20 crime novels and was a founding member of The Detection Club.

 
 


R Austin Freeman 

Freeman was also a doctor. His detective, medico-legal investigator Dr Thorndyke, was one of the first to use forensic approaches to solving a crime. Apparently Freeman tested all the experiments that appear in his books.

 
 

Leo Bruce

In contrast to the frequent use of clever, witty and sophisticated detectives, Bruce's hero is a very down-to-earth English bobby called Sergeant Beef. His locked-room mystery Case for Three Detectives spoofs three famous fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and GK Chesterton's Father Brown

 
 


Michael Innes

Innes was the pen name of JIM Stewart, an Oxford don and respected literary critic. His intellectual mysteries are full of literary references. His two detectives, Scotland Yard's Sir John Appleby and portrait painter Charles Honeybath meet in Appleby and Honeybath.

 

Have I missed any of your favourites? Please let me know so I can keep improving the list. 

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