Considering how long it lasted, how devasting it was and how deep and lasting were its political and social effects, one may find it odd that the Great War featured so little in Golden Age mysteries. This is relatively understandable in the case of the American school as the conflict was soon sidelined, if not forgotten, in the United States probably because it entered the conflict late and experienced fewer losses than European nations. What about the Brits and the French, though? The former for the most part only alluded to it now and then whereas the latter observed a nearly complete blackout. This silence is all the more surprising as « literary fiction » on the other hand soon tackled the subject both in consensual and more confrontational ways, and gives fuel to the claim that Golden Age fiction was all about cloud cuckoo land fantasy. The problem is, even the more « realistic » hardboiled wing stayed mum about it even though it may/should have felt affinities with the subject. Also, that blind spot lasted well after another war struck and it’s only and perhaps tellingly when survivors became fewer and the events became more distant that crime fiction finally decided to take up the subject, almost to the point that the genre has literally never talked as much about it than now.
One reason may be that crime fiction’s World War I silence began right when the events took place. Crime fiction all but disappeared during the conflict as authors when not gone fighting abandoned « mere » crime for international intrigue. The only major detective novel published during the war, The Valley of Fear, is set thirty years before and makes thus no mention of the ongoing conflict. Doyle later referenced the war in the short story His Last Bow but despite Holmes’s last-minute appearance it is more of a spy than detective story. Another reason may be that crime fiction is, or rather was, popular fiction and popular fiction at the time was not supposed to discuss « difficult » subjects, especially those that everyone would rather forget. That’s entertainment, folks! Fine but why then did crime writers not feel the same way about the next conflict? « World War I in comtemporary crime fiction » would at best be a leaflet whereas the same book dealing with World War II would be a doorstop. The answers may ultimately be more sociological and political than literary – it so happened that crime writers for some reason didn’t want to discuss one war but were open to talk about the other.
All this doesn’t mean that the War had no influence at all on the development of the genre. It is most probably responsible for what can be called the « Golden Age mindset » which can be summarized as the passion for reason and order and the obsessive need for them to prevail. The War had proved Civilization to be mortal, as French intellectual Paul Valéry famously put it and its gatekeepers were thus lionized, be them politicians, scientists, soldiers, policemen or… Great Detectives. The Golden Age mystery is often described as conservative, but it actually was conservationist – seeking to defend Civilization from the forces of Chaos lurking outside. Not everyone thought Civilization as it stood was worth defending though, and some even thought Chaos was already and had always been there. Those cynical and in some cases openly anti-Establisment views went initially lurking as the decade following the War seemed to prove that everything was okay again, but the Great Depression was a brutal wake-up call which many received as Enough being Enough. Not for nothing did the twin brothers Hardboiled and Noir (re-)emerge in the Thirties to become major forces. There had been many economic crises before without eliciting such radical response, but an economic crisis coming so soon after a massive butchery couldn’t stay unanswered, even by crime fiction. The War had finally caught up with the genre that had done the most to escape it.