« From the first page to the last, this story is pervaded by the atmosphere of horror and suspense that invariably marks the work of Mignon G. Eberhart. A murder, to her, is something more than a mere crime puzzle to be worked out for the entertainment of the reader. It is a tragic event which deeply affects the destinies of those who are in any way involved. »
This is the New York Times on Mignon G. Eberhart’s 1933 novel Death in the Fog and is probably one of the earliest iterations of the paradigm change that would give us modern crime fiction. We tend to think of the Golden Age as a rather monolithic period in which amateur detectives and locked rooms reigned supreme with no serious challenge but this quote is evidence that the prevailing consensus had its discontents and that the seeds of subversion were planted long before WW2 exploded. Whoever wrote this did so long before Raymond Chandler’s famous Venetian vase quip and at a time when Julian Symons was still in his teens, and the writer they praised was not some tough guy or early crime novelist but one of the leading representatives of the then extremely popular HIBK school and no one’s idea of a revolutionary. The assault on the traditional detective novel didn’t come from one but many sides, including the most unlikely ones. World War or not, it’s hard to imagine that the Golden Age could have lasted longer than it did, at least as we know it – and perhaps it was better that way.
No, no, I have not changed gears and converted to the post-Symons narrative of the Golden Age as an artistic dead end from which the genre was to escape to regain its integrity. The Golden Age, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the high points in the history of crime fiction and certainly one of the most interesting and worth studying. This doesn’t mean however that it was sustainable and could last forever – Golden Ages of any sort are always brief and fondly remembered for that reason.
The chink in the Golden Age’s armour was not that it would have run out of ideas or its alleged refusal to engage with the reality of crime. The former argument implies that there is only a limited number of ways to slaughter your neighbour, which is blatantly false on the evidence of the history of mankind; the latter on the other hand is an exaggeration and was beginning to be addressed in the final years of the era. What killed the Golden Age was not a lack of imagination or its artificiality but its focus on rules. Writers regardless of time and genre all have something in common: they hate being told what to write about and how. To insist that the only legitimate form of crime fiction was the whodunit, and then insist that said whodunit had to follow a rigid model was bound to generate a backlash almost from the start, and it did. Readers also have to factor in the equation; while it is often said that the public wants to be surprised by the already familiar, it may easily turn against it when it becomes, well, too familiar. The success of the hardboiled school probably had less to do with its (dubious) realism than with the fact that it was something new after years and years of sherlockian rip-offs.
The Golden Age was far more diverse than people thought at the time and still do today; as I pointed out long ago, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain or Georges Simenon were Golden Age writers too. The problem was, the detective novel was so big in terms of prestige, visibility and sales that it pushed all other forms of crime fiction to the margins and pressured writers into conformity whether they liked it or not. That writers as different as Geoffrey Homes, Margaret Millar or Dorothy B. Hughes turned away from « straight » mystery writing as soon as changing tastes afforded them the opportunity to do so says a lot about how it felt to be a crime writer with personalities or priorities clashing with the « party’s line ».
So in some way Symons and company are right that the Golden Age had to end for the genre to flourish; where I part ways with them is that I don’t think it should have ended that way, that is, with a more or less complete repudiation and the detective novel being banished from the mainstream. Besides, our time is no more equalitarian in its treatment of the many subgenres of crime fiction and we know same causes produce same effects. I wonder what the next revolution will look like.