Hard Times Befalling Survivors

My previous post was about the Fifties’s claim to be a Golden Age of crime fiction in their own right, despite not being part of the canonical one and in some ways a rejection of it. I mentioned in passing how the changes in fashion left the Old Masters ashore, though still active but the subject I think deserves closer examination. The Golden Age of Detection was admittedly over and the detective novel had lost its privileged status but the genre was still alive. The Old Masters, some of which weren’t that old by the way, remained household names and commanded a faithful audience. Even they, however, had to realize that the times had changed and that you couldn’t write a mystery in 1950 the same way that you did in 1930 – except if your name was Agatha Christie. So what did they do? How did they negotiate the new paradigm? It was basically a matter of character. Even back in the Golden Age, mystery writers could be divided into two camps: Those happy with the rules and Those not. This dichotomy survived in the new world and if anything became more apparent as some stuck to the old ways while the others embraced the « Revolution » they had secretly hoped for and in some cases even been supporters or active participants.

Ngaio Marsh and John Dickson Carr, as curiously matched as they seem, are prime examples of the former faction.

Marsh kept on writing Golden Age whodunits right until her death in 1982, actually becoming the last exponent of the genre in her final years. She never or rarely felt the need to alter her formula, and made only minimal concessions to the changing social reality and mores. How then did she not become irrelevant but survived and even thrived in a hostile milieu? Part of the answer lies in the fact that her novels were « novelistic » enough to be palatable to a readership that now cared as much for characterization and writing than it did for plot. Also and unlike most of her contemporaries she had actually some of her best books ahead of her and remained a writer to watch.

Carr on the other hand suffered a steep decline in the years following the war, brought on by poor health, declining enthusiasm and a general dissatisfaction with the « modern » world. As a result he became even more orthodox, even reactionary, in his conception of the detective novel and stubbornly refused the new rules of the game. Even then he found traditional mysteries increasingly hard to write and partially solved the problem by retreating in the past with a long series of historical mysteries in which the abundance of detail made up for the uneven plotting and plodding prose.

In the meanwhile those on the other side of the gap had tremendous fun. Those noted back in the Golden Age for their « literary » value became if possible even more « literary », whereas those known for their wild imagination let it flourish without any limit. Ellery Queen ditched the naturalism of the early Wrightsville books and embarked into baroque, heavily symbolic tales that tested  the limits of both logic and the reader’s credulity. Cyril Hare gave the country house mystery a first-class funeral with An English Murder. Helen McCloy, who had already flirted with psychological suspense on many occasions before it became a thing, embraced it openly and definitively and gave Dr. Basil Walling a long vacation. Patrick Quentin went the same road and bid the Duluths farewell. Margery Allingham while not parting ways with Albert Campion completely, modified both his personality and status considerably and ditched the puzzle element completely in what would become his most famous work, The Tiger in the Fog.

Still, for all the Old Masters’ sometimes successful attempts at getting (or not) with the times, there was no hiding the fact that they were in many ways survivors and by the look of things an endangered species. New blood was needed to make sure the genre wouldn’t die out with them. The Sixties would see to that, but that’s another story.




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