This article is the second instalment in the Golden Age(s) series.
To most people, the period I am now about to discuss is the one and only Golden Age. A time of eccentric detectives and baffling mysteries when the genre reached unparallelled heights of virtuosity and ingeniosity. A time when locked-room murders and dying messages were business as usual and the police would routinely turn to gifted and wealthy amateurs to solve the most complicated cases. A time when the game element of the genre was emphasized with many books including challenges to the reader and rules being set out to prohibit cheap tricks. And yet a closer look at the period paints a more complex picture, one that is rife with contradiction and dissension; it also helps to correct some enduring misconceptions.
Middle Golden Age for the most part continued, amplified and institutionalized the changes initiated in the previous period; it also added a major one of its own. Early proponents of fair-play valued it on both aesthetical and ethical grounds; to hide major clues from the reader ruined the story’s overall effect and was an appalling thing to do. Their successors, on the other hand, objected to not playing fair because it was cheating. The detective story, in short, had become a game, a « recreation of noble minds » and games need rules. Mgr. Knox in Britain and S.S. Van Dine in America were happy to oblige. While the former was chiefly concerned with purging the genre of antediluvian clichés that still showed up now and then, the latter’s commandments amounted to a bill of divorce from standard fiction.
Practice differed sensibly from theory, however. Middle Age detective fiction for all its challenges to the reader and assertions of fair-play was actually more akin to prestidigitation than cluedo. The author presented the reader with a baffling problem and – ideally – gave him all of the clues, yet at the same time used his best smoke and mirrors to make sure he couldn’t make sense of the evidence, revealing in the end the unsuspected truth to general bafflement then thunderous applause including from the defeated reader. Pace Van Dine, the closer equivalent to a detective story was not a ball game or a cross-word puzzle but a magician pulling a rabbit off his hat.
One might think – and it has often been told – that this conception of the detective story as well as the existence of a firm corpus of « laws » resulted into standardization – authors writing much like the other, books so alike that reading one spared one reading the rest. Another frequent criticism is that by focusing on the plot and viewing their books as mere games, authors ignored or at least neglected characterization, « realism » and social comment. Both criticisms are correct to an extent, and wrong on the whole. The period admittedly had its share of formulaic writing of no more literary merit than a sudoku problem but it was not the end of the story. Contrary to popular wisdom, playing « the grandest game in the world » was not contradictory with literary ambition (Sayers, Wade) genre-bending (Carr) parody (Innes) or wild imagination (Mitchell) Also contrary to accepted wisdom, whodunit is not the only genre thriving in the period. Middle Golden Age also sees the dawn of hardboiled (Hammett) and noir (Cain) fiction as well as of the crime novel (Francis Iles, Richard Hull, Mrs. Belloc Lowndes) whereas the transmutation of HIBK into suspense is underway with Ethel Lina White in Britain and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding in the US.
At the core of Middle Golden Age writing was the triumphalist notion that crime was only a temporary disruption in the immutable order of things and that reason would always prevail. This notion suffered repeated blows in the Thirties as totalitarian regimes took hold of Europe and war became increasingly probable. Detective fiction by the end of the period is more prosperous and fertile than ever, but the seeds of doubt have been sown with Berkeley and Sayers defecting and newcomers displaying a more skeptical attitude to the rules of the genre as well as its ethos.
As with the former period, Middle Golden Age closes with a Christie book, this time And Then They Were None which fittingly appeared in 1939. This book, one of its author’s masterpieces, combines the extreme cleverness in plotting which is typical of the genre and the era with a gloomy worldview that is much less so: No one on Indian Island is innocent and there is no Poirot, Holmes or Wimsey in sight to rescue the inhabitants from their fate and restore order in the end. The jolly days of Mayhem Parva were gone; now detective fiction must deal with the sound and fury of a definetely disordered world. How it would an whether it could is what we’ll see in the next and final instalment in this series.