Dan Andriacco is author of the Sebastian McCabe – Jeff Cody mystery series. His most “Golden Age” plot is The Disappearance of Mr. James Phillimore. Read his blog, “Dan Andriacco’s Baker Street Beat,” at www.danandriacco.com.
During dinner with some fellow mystery writers and fans at a mystery conference, I casually mentioned that I like mysteries from the Golden Age of detective fiction. One of the other writers said something along the lines of “What Golden Age?”
I think she knew that I was referring to the period from 1920 to 1940. What she meant was, was it really that golden? One could fairly argue that, from a strictly literary point of view, the works of today’s best mystery writers are far better than those produced between the world wars. They generally have deeper characterization and richer thematic development.
But that misses the point. “The Golden Age” has long been seen as an appropriate label for a heady time of great popularity and inventiveness for the genre. Mystery writers had their pictures on the cover of Time magazine. Critics proposed rules (Willard Huntington Wright) and even commandments (Monsignor Ronald A. Knox) for writing the detective story, and people debated them seriously.
Golden Age writers included such well remembered and still-read giants as Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Ngaio Marsh as well as lesser lights all but forgotten today.
In an introduction to the two “Golden Age” volumes of the Masterpieces of Mystery anthology series (Davis Publications, 1977), Queen summed up the characteristics of Golden Age novels as:
• ingenuity of plot,
• originality of concept, including the locked room, the miracle problem, and the impossible crime,
• subtle and legitimate misdirection of clues – poetic license – but always with complete fairness to the reader,
• and often a stunning surprise solution,
• in a phrase (R. Austin Freeman’s), “an exhibition of mental gymnastics.”
The Golden Age mystery was a generally a puzzle in words, with characterization and believability sacrificed to ingenuity. The least likely person “done it,” and an amateur sleuth usually outwitted the police. It was a game; not literature. Later, some Golden Age writers became more interested in character and motivation as the detective novel evolved toward the more complex and literary form that it is today. (See the later Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellery Queen.)
The clever, complex, but ultimately implausible plot that requires the reader to suspend disbelief (Agatha Christie, call your office) still has its fans, but hardly any practitioners – at least in novels. I was startled recently to realize that the BBC “Sherlock” TV series, widely seen as one of the most innovative on the small screen when it was launched, actually echoes the Golden Age of detective fiction.
The clever clues and the multiple plot twists of this series inspire more admiration than belief. We aren’t expected to believe it; we’re expected to enjoy it. And we do.
In “The Empty Hearse,” for example, both the false and the real explanations of how Sherlock faked his death are as brilliant as they are implausible. The same could be said, with great appreciation, for several other plot elements and other episodes.
Although its main characters are better developed than in most Golden Age novels, I think that Ellery Queen himself would praise the amazing “exhibition of mental gymnastics” in the “Sherlock” series. The Golden Age is dead. Long live the Golden Age!