This formative period, as I’ve written earlier, ends in 1926 with another Christie novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This book, possibly the most famous detective story of all time and also one of the most controversial at the time of its publication because of the trick it played on readers, put its author definetely on the map. Perfecting the approach initiated in Styles six years earlier, Christie makes her novel a trap – her aim is not to demonstrate, to solve, but to deceive. Critics and colleagues alike faulted her for not playing fair – and this, too, was something new. Neither Van Dine (whose Benson Murder Case was published the same year) or Knox had yet written their « commandments » but the existence and necessity of rules was being increasingly accepted. Another period, the one most of us associate with « Golden Age », was about to begin.
This article is the first instalment in the Golden Age(s) series.
There are at least two reasons to choose 1920 as the beginning of Golden Age. The first and more obvious is that it saw the first published efforts of two of the giants of the period, namely Agatha Christie (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) and F.W. Crofts (The Cask) The second is that it follows one of the dreariest periods in the history of the genre. The Detective Story had been one of the unsung casualties of the Great War, all but disappearing from the literary landscape during the conflict. Not only does 1920 herald a new era but it also marks the rebirth of the genre, a new start – but not a start from scratch. Authors from the previous era were still there and picked up where they had left before the war while newcomers progressively rejuvenated a formula that had been mostly left unquestioned for the last forty years; the ancient merged into the modern. The first six years of the new era is a period of transition, which we’ll call « Early Golden Age » from now on, and it’s revealing of the stature of the First Lady of Crime that it opens and closes with a Christie book.
To a 2009 reader Styles looks astonishingly modern whereas The Cask is a thing of the past if an extremely enjoyable one, and he may find hard to believe they were published the same year. Styles’s elaborate architecture and misdirection are striking announcements of things to come; The Cask on the other hand harks back to pre-WW1, even pre-holmesian (Gaboriau’s influence is sensible throughout) detective fiction with its emphasis on detection rather than deception. Still, they are both transition works, at the crossroads of two eras. The Hercule Poirot of Styles, for instance, is not quite the one most readers are familiar with. He has the same appearance, most of the same personality traits, but he is a comparatively more « physical » sleuth and pays a greater attention to material clues, in line with detective mores of the time when the book was written (1916). Conversely, the complex criminal scheme and alibi-breaking of The Cask set it apart from its models’ simpler, more straightforward narratives. So none of these books is entirely modern, but none is entirely « primitive » either. It is a fair summary and assessment of the whole period.
Early detective fiction but for a few exceptions was short, relatively linear (expose of the problem – investigation – solution) and cared little for whodunit, placing the emphasis instead on the « how » and « why » of the case. Astonishing as it may seem to a modern reader, murder was not the capital offence it would later become; sleuths might just as well deal with thefts, disappearances, blackmail or any insolit chain of events. But the most striking difference from later mystery fiction was with regard to the place and role of the reader. Since detective stories were thought of as exercises in logic, the thrill of the game was to be found in the puzzle and the detective’s mental prowess; the reader was to be a spectator, not a player, let alone a partner. Fair-play was thus scant, and misdirection almost non-existent.
High Golden Age writing shares some of the previous era’s characteristics: whodunit was still regarded by most as a secondary issue and detectives were still expected to make spectacular deductions based on physical evidence or arcane knowledge. What changed is that authors set to write detective novels rather than stories, and longer works require meatier content: problems became more « spectacular » while plots got more complex and twistier. Detectives too « evolved », getting increasingly « ideosyncrastic » personalities. The genre as a whole shifted slowly away from the previous era’s nominal realism to a more avowedly « stylized » approach.
The relationship between the author and the reader underwent some changes as well. No longer was the latter expected to just sit and marvel, starry-eyed, at the master sleuth’s exploits. R. Austin Freeman insists in his Art of the Detective Story that he must be given the same chances as the detective to solve the case, and no clues must be hidden from him:
This failure of the reader to perceive the evidential value of facts is the foundation on which detective fiction is built. It may generally be taken that the author may exhibit his facts fearlessly provided only that he exhibits them separately and unconnected. And the more boldly he displays the data, the greater will be the intellectual interest of the story. For the tacit understanding of the author with the reader is that the problem is susceptible of solution by the latter by reasoning from the facts given; and such solution should be actually possible. Then the data should be produced as early in the story as is practicable. The reader should have a body of evidence to consider while the tale is telling. The production of a leading fact near the end of the book is unfair to the reader, while the introduction of capital evidence — such as that of an eye-witness — at the extreme end is radically bad technique, amounting to a breach of the implied covenant with the reader.
This is the stone on which the concept of « fair play », a cornerstone of Golden Age and later detective/mystery fiction, would be built. Freeman unlike Van Dine didn »t regard the genre as a simple mind-game and neither did he belittle « literary » endornments such as character or atmosphere. He believed, on the other hand, that detective stories must be somewhat « interactive ». Chesterton in the past had already expressed similar views, but they had remained a dead letter. Now those ideas were finally catching on, but old habits die hard. Most « Ancestors » as well as some newcomers kept using the good old tricks and would still do for a long time.