Sleight of Hand

While I’m not the exclusive GAD reader that some people think me to be, the period is certainly the one that interests me more in scholarly terms: I never tire of examining, dissecting and questioning it, never to come up with conclusive answers and that’s what makes the game so addictive.


My latest outburst was on the Facebook Golden Age group, prompted by a seemingly innocent question I asked to other members: Is E.C. Bentley an early or GAD mystery writer? There are solid arguments for both positions but a strong consensus emerged that Bentley, having been a decisive influence on the period and having written the major part of his output during it, indeed belonged to the Golden Age. The can of worms had been opened however and the discussion turned to one of the group’s most enduring debates: When did GAD begin and what sets it apart from the previous, « early », period? Italian critic Igor Longo and I gave the canonic answer that Golden Age began or at least took wings when the genre started to focus on misdirection rather than demonstration and when the solution became as important as the detective. To which Scott K. Ratner objected that the line was not so easy to draw as stories that fulfill these requirements were written before the official beginning of the Golden Age.

He is right.

Misdirection didn’t suddenly appear with Agatha Christie and al. It has been part and parcel of the genre from the beginning. Poe uses it in The Murders in the Rue Morgue when he uses the testimonies of the neighbours to imply the murderer is a foreigner. Gaboriau was aware of it too, even saying that it was all the crime writer’s job was about – the first part of The Mystery of Orcival is a textbook exercise in leading the reader down the wrong path. Another notable pre-GAD display of misdirection is Richard Harding Davis’s episodic novel In the Fog which may be the earliest example of fiction exclusively aimed at fooling readers. 

Shockingly brilliant solutions are not a GAD novelty either. When reading early detective fiction we often do so with our modern, jaded eyes, forgetting how the stories were received at the time. The solutions to The Murders in the Rue Morgue or most Sherlock Holmes stories don’t impress us anymore, but they were certainly as much of a shock to readers of the time than the final revelation of Roger Ackroyd was decades later. Why then are we making a difference, drawing a line? Well, first because the best GAD solutions still have the power to amaze – but most importantly because they’re not the exception but the rule, or at least the expected rule. Early mystery writers sometimes came up with stunning, clever solutions but it wasn’t the point of their craft. The point was to amaze the reader, not to bamboozle them. The detective story to them was about logic, whereas their successors would make it about magic. 

If you find this explanation insufficient or frustrating, well, you’re not the only one – it’s judging works by the intent rather than the result, which is always a mistake when it comes to art. It leaves some questions open, most notably that of what to do with GA-style mysteries written before the Golden Age. Is, say, The Big Bow Mystery an accident, a precursor or a full-fledged member of the family? Did Golden Age begin earlier than usually admitted? And, while we’re at it, when did it end? A can of worms indeed. 

2 commentaires sur “Sleight of Hand

  1. Good of you to say about Scott Rattner, « He is right, » and to do so emphatically by means of a three-word paragraph.

    To my knowledge, hardly any stylistic and cultural period like GAD, the Renaissance, or « the consumer society » has distinct, clear-cut start and end points.

    J’aime

  2. I found a case of Fergus Hume detective novel from the Victorian era being attacked for not being « fair play. » The concept existed before the Golden Age; it just became high orthodoxy-briefly-during the Golden Age.

    J’aime

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