Who Killed the Golden Age Mystery?

Yesterday’s post documented the striking parallels between the respective demises of two long-established and still creative art forms, traditional pop on the one hand and the traditional mystery on the other. Both follow the same basic pattern, but there is also some differences that I omitted or underestimated, the main one being the role of the establishment in both cases.

It’s safe to say that while it was an immediate hit with audiences, rock and roll didn’t have an easy ride with the powers that be, from politicians and clerics that deemed it immoral and a threat to civilization as they knew it to the music establishment that pointed to its poor musical value. The latter were the hardest ones to convince – the Grammys for instance pointedly ignored rock and roll for almost a decade and when they finally condescended to give it recognition they chose one of the most atypical rock albums ever made. Also, traditional pop maintained a devoted following in the Academy long after mainstream audiences had abandoned it – Frank Sinatra kept scoring nominations well into his old age and so did Tony Bennett who even managed to scoop the Album of the Year award as late as 1995!

Things went a lot swifter and easier on the « crime fiction » side. While Ole England was initially and remained for a long time skeptical of the « American Revolution », the rest of the world embraced it almost immediately, starting of course with the United States. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine welcomed hardboiled and noir stories from the beginning, which was roughly the equivalent of Jazz Hot hosting articles on Chuck Berry. Early histories of the genre such as Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure were enthusiastic about the new direction it took, seeing it as a corrective, a liberation and a path to literary respectability (plus ça change…) Even as GA-friendly a critic as Anthony Boucher waxed lyrical about Chandler, MacDonald (Ross) and the suspensers Margaret Millar and the two Charlottes, arguing that they wrote « real » novels, that is, novels of character.

The Edgars, then the only mystery awards in the world, reflected that by focusing on « crime novels » and ignoring traditional mysteries from the start. While Golden Age masters are often said to have entered a long decline after the war, the truth is that many of them still produced valuable, award-worthy work in their later years – and yet no competitive award ever came their way. As to newcomers working in the same tradition, they were bypassed too in favour of more « edgy », « modern » writers. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that Ruth Rendell won three Edgars and countless Gold Daggers while the best P.D. James could ever achieve was being the runner-up? Even today it seems impossible for anything looking like a whodunit to win a major crime fiction award; even big sellers like J.K. Rowling, Louise Penny and Anthony Horowitz couldn’t break the curse. As far as the critics and professionals are concerned the Mass has been ended for a long time, the traditional mystery is toast and they’re the ones that openly and proudly did it in.

The problem is, it isn’t – and that’s another difference with traditional pop. The latter became more and more niche over the years as the fandom got older and failed to renew itself. While Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Dean Martin still have fans, they’re no longer as popular and widely recognized as they were in their lifetimes. The genre now is basically Tony Bennett and Michael Bublé and – well… Traditional mysteries on the other hand have never stopped being written, and arguably are more popular than ever. The Great Masters are still or back in print, new talents regularly emerge and despite all the (critical) hype about Nordic Noir MC Beaton probably sells more books than Jo Nesbo. Even better, the traditional mystery is crime fiction in the eyes of most lay readers – if you ask the guy next door to name a mystery writer, he is more likely to answer Agatha Christie than Dashiell Hammett. And yet awards, editors, critics but also movie and television executives keep pushing on us the hardboiled, the noir, the edgy even though they appeal to a minority – a sizeable, fashionable and influent one, but a minority nonetheless. This makes no sense from a market point of view, but everyone knows or should know now that ideology never concerns itself with such trivial matters.

This leads us back to the question asked in the present article’s title. Did the Golden Age die of natural causes, as has often been insisted upon by historians of the genre, or did it fall victim to a cabal? Was its demise some unavoidable event written in the stars or was it an artificial fashion change orchestrated by hostile parties? Did actual readers, as opposed to critics and scholars, really prefer Raymond Chandler over John Dickson Carr?



4 commentaires sur “Who Killed the Golden Age Mystery?

  1. I wonder the extent to which the flavour of the Golden Age plot simply ran out — people had seen genius amateurs solving crimes, and seen ploddingly professional policemen solving crimes, and seen the obscure clue, the dazzling (and sometimes spurious) chain of logic, and the least likely suspect…and they just hankered for something different.

    In the same way, many of us are bored of pornographically sadistic serial killers, or gruesome « taunt the police » plots, or the sudden descent into thriller territory that a lot of crime novels seem to undergo these days. I feel like everything moves in cycles, and the GAD cycle ran its course. And, of course, the scope for ingenuity became narrower and narrower with each brilliant plot, scheme, and trick: look at how many novels are simply recycling tricks from old books, and how little originality most detection authors are able to drum up these days.

    I mean, I’d love a return to rigorous, clue-based narratives, but if all there is is simply the reheating of stuff already served up over the last 70 or so years then, well, I’m quite happy for it not to return!

    Aimé par 2 personnes

    1. It feels like I’ll have to do a third article on the subject. 🙂

      Novelty certainly played a part in the public embrace of the new model. Not for nothing is the traditional mystery named that way, it has been around, mostly unchanged, for more than a century! Also we shouldn’t forget that there was always a large segment of the public craving less cerebral, more action-driven stuff; people often forget that Edgar Wallace initially sold more books than Christie! So it isn’t entirely surprising that readers flocked to narratives that were faster, more violent and often sexier – the murderer in Dead Man’s Knock is a prime example of such a reader (and it’s telling that Carr portrays him/her as a not very bright person) Guts always prevail!

      The establishment’s reaction, on the other hand, is much harder to explain. Not only did they embrace swiftly the new model, but they violently turned against the old one even though it still had life to it. The traditional mystery went suddenly and directly from the Capitol to the Tarpeian Rock, being deemed to be artificial, reactionary and devoid of any literary merit, and its critical standing never fully recovered. Igor Longo is probably right to see Chandler’s nefarious influence behind it, but the fact that rebuttals to The Simple Art of Murder were few and far between and often came from outside the crime fiction establishment (Barzun) suggest he spoke for the silent majority. It seems a lot of people inside the « community » were fed up with the traditional mystery, or even frankly hostile to it, and seized the first occasion coming their way to get rid of it.


      1. Maybe it was the « new broom sweeps clean » effect: once something changed, scorn was poured on what came before to the extent that it was never considered seriously by people who didn;t know better but alas found themselves in positions of responsibility or influence.

        To partly borrow from your analogy about pop music from the other day, I feel the same things happened with music from the 80s: sure, some synth stuff is enjoying a renaissance, but there’s very much a sneering « Oh, the 1980s was just cheap bubblegum pop like Kylie and Jason, or iroincally-enjoyable stuff like Bon Jovi » attitude when you try to talk about it. The consciousness that’s been allowed to prosper — mainly, I’d argue, through lazy attitudes — ignores the influence of post-punk and New Wave stuff, and the richness and brilliance of so many bands from that decade.

        The difference is that so many of those bands — The Chameleons, Sad Lovers and Giants, The Sound, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Soft boys, The Teardrop Explodes, etc, etc — have been available to buy and listen to the whole time. At least any snobbery around detective fiction is partly understandable because so much of it became so hard to find (so an external issue), and so anyone wishing to examine how true the attitude taken towards it was found themselves hampered by not being able to find the books for sensible money.

        Wow, I feel like we could extrapolate like this for a long time yet!

        Aimé par 1 personne

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