The Case for the Fifties

While opinions vary as to the Golden Age’s exact dates and duration, virtually everyone agrees it was over by the early Fifties. Puzzle plots were no longer the norm, amateur detectives progressively went the way of dinosaurs, settings moved from country houses to suburban areas and the new fashion was not about locking rooms but instead opening them to finally see what was going inside. The Old Masters were still active, but for most their best work was already behind them, and no immediate successors were in sight.  And yet there is a strong claim for the Fifties admittedly not being part of the canonical Golden Age but being one in their own right, one that has been either forgotten or downplayed for several decades and is only now beginning to finally get its due.

The main reason why The Fifties are often not seen as a great decade for crime fiction is that they are often not seen as a great decade at all, based on their many political and social shortcomings. The received wisdow has it that the period was marked by uniform dullness, narrow-mindedness and that such a petrified society couldn’t produce anything significant on the cultural levels except on the margins. The problem is, the received wisdow is wrong as it so often is. The Fifties may have indeed been socially « petrified » but they were also home to a very ebullient and diverse culture, one that often pushed the envelope and/or openly questioned or challenged the era’s pieties. « Adulting » to use a modern barbarism was the thing, especially as far as popular culture was concerned. Movies became more ambitious, realistic, darker and were no longer afraid to deal with « adult » (i.e., sexual) material. Television introduced millions to high culture, dark humour and biting social comment under the guise of fantasy. Music too made its own revolution of which rock and roll was only a part, the period also seeing the birth and the rise of the concept album, the mambo craze and the ubiquitousness of jazz in its many guises from bebop to West-Coast to « cool ». The Fifties may have been the last time when being a grown-up was cool.

Crime fiction was not immune to this climate and made the most of it, especially as it was finally regaining a long-lost creative freedom. The Golden Age with its promotion of the puzzle plot and emphasis on rules had been heaven for the traditionally-minded but purgatory for everyone else, hence the slow-motion insurrection that started with the advent of the hardboiled school in the early Thirties and picked up speed in the following decade as both suspense and psychology made their entrance on the stage. By the early Fifties crime fiction was no longer one but many, and the only rule was that there wasn’t any. This is not to say that the fundamentals had been thrown away with the bathwater; most writers remained more or less loyal to the classic crime-investigation-solution triangle but they gave it a different treatment. The detective was no longer a supermind but a regular human being, be they a cop, a private eye, a lawyer or just a poor fellow who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The social status of the characters changed too; suddenly the genre rediscovered the existence of the lower and middle classes it had mostly ignored for years. Finally and in keeping with the trends at work in the Forties, characterization, not just of the main protagonist but of the whole cast, became as important as plot.

Some, however, thought it was possible and even necessary to go further. No one at the time including themselves used the dreadful « transcend the genre » words but that’s certainly what they did, in their own way. Let’s call them « progressive » crime writers, « progressive » being used here in its artistic rather than political sense. They tried to escape from fixed structures and genre conventions in favour of thematical and formal experimentation and even genre-crossing on occasion. Some of my readers might say it was no different from what today’s « literary » crime writers are doing but there is a difference. « Progressive » crime writers tried to conquer new frontiers – doing things that had never or rarely been done in the genre at the time. The « literary » on the other hand are only concerned with making crime fiction as close to literary fiction as possible, probably because that’s what they’d like to write instead.

While most – but not all – « progressive » crime writers were female, they didn’t form a school stricto sensu. Margaret Millar was not Patricia Highsmith who herself was not Jean Potts. Conversely, Stanley Ellin didn’t have much in common with Bill S. Ballinger. Neither did they stuck to one genre; they could be found across the whole spectrum of crime fiction from hardboiled to noir to, of course, psychological suspense which was almost designed from the start to give them shelter. Some « progressive » writers even ditched any genre categorization entirely and ventured into uncharted territory. Even by today’s standards it’s hard to put a label on Charlotte Armstrong’s A Dram of Poison or David Alexander’s The Madhouse in Washington Square, to name just two. « Progressive » crime writing often was sui generis.

It also often was a standalone, and this is probably what singles out the Fifties in the history of crime fiction. The period may be the only one where it was not only possible but routine for a crime writer to achieve stardom or at least critical recognition without the help of a series character. Sure the Fifties saw the birth or blossoming of many a beloved series from Lew Archer to the 87th District, but they also sheltered the likes of Julian Symons, Michael Gilbert, Bernice Carey or Celia Fremlin, none of which had any use for a recurring character.

If that is not a Golden Age, what is?

5 commentaires sur “The Case for the Fifties

  1. If you keep up with this incisive commentary, Xavier, sooner or later you’re going to have to collect it all into a book!

    « The Fifties may have been the last time when being a grown-up was cool. »

    So true. Prior to the Sixties, kids couldn’t wait to grow up. Now we have grown-ups who can’t wait to be kids. The infantilization of world culture is now in full swing.

    Aimé par 2 personnes

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