The Problematic Forties

Here I am again playing this favourite game of mine, trying to work out a reasonable and coherent Golden Age chronology. I’m not disavowing the one I suggested ten years ago but as my knowledge progressed over the decade I have come to think some points need clarification and/or correction, one of them being the hard problem of when Golden Age actually ended.

The consensual theory has it being a strictly between-the-wars thing starting in the early Twenties and ending in 1939 with the double event that is World War II and Agatha Christie’s both recapitulative and rule-shattering And Then They Were None. Some heretics including yours truly have suggested on the other hand a longer Golden Age that would include the Forties and the early Fifties. I still think there is merit to this approach but now see how problematic it can be. Sure there were still many GA-style mysteries being written after 1939 and the whodunit genre remained dominant for most of the next decade, which supports the « long Golden Age » theory, but the mindset, ideology and ambitions of the genre changed significantly. Depending on your definition of what « Golden Age » is (A genre? A style? An ethos? A period?) things get pretty messy – and it’s all the Forties’ fault.

All theories of Golden Age agree that it was over by the early Fifties. The latter decade, while a Golden Age in itself, is a completely different world and arguably the beginning of the modern era. Both periods have attracted a lot of scholarly attention of late. The Forties, not so much. Being sandwiched between two high points in the history of a genre is hardly the best way to raise one’s profile. The decade is certainly not one to be dismissed but it lacks a distinctive identity. The most accurate way to describe it is as a transitional period that sees the end of the dominance of one genre (whodunit) and the rise of its successors (hardboiled, noir and suspense)

This transition can be seen in the books themselves. The Forties is the decade of the « none of the above » mysteries, a curious subgenre that originated in the end of the previous decade and incorporate elements of classic detection, hardboiled and suspense. It also sees established or up-and-coming « traditional » writers slowly abandoning the tradition to embrace a more « modern » attitude. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of such an « evolution » is Margaret Millar who began the decade with a trio of orthodox mysteries featuring psychiatrist Paul Prye and ended it a full-fledged suspense writer. This is the logical outcome of the dissatisfaction with the « rules » openly expressed by several leading writers in the Thirties – while they merely complained about bath water temperature, their successors went a step further and threw the baby out too.

And yet the Queens and Kings of the Golden Age were still writing, with some being at the height of their powers. A sizeable number of books and stories we now associate with Golden Age were actually written during the Forties, but is it enough to make the period a part of it? And if it is not, what is it exactly?

I’ll have to think it over. I’m not done with the Golden Age, which means that neither are you. 🙂

4 commentaires sur “The Problematic Forties

  1. I think you point out the problem clearly:

    “Depending on your definition of what « Golden Age » is (A genre? A style? An ethos? A period?) things get pretty messy.”

    It’s not the fault of the Forties— it’s just that the Forties made the problem apparent.

    Aimé par 3 personnes

  2. Food for thought:

    Were spy novels the true inheritor of the complex Golden Age plot at the start of the war? The Confidential Agent and the Mask of Dimitrios were both published in 1939.

    American writers always had a more tenuous relationship to classic GAD. When the pulp industry collapsed on the eve of WW2 writers either left the field or turned to novels, so the market was flooded with men with non-GAD pulp backgrounds. Maybe Golden Age fiction didn’t dissipate, it just got lost in the flood.

    Are there lessons to be learned from how other people define analogous media? The golden age of Hollywood lasted from sound (1927) to the Paramount Decree (1948)–technological and legal bookends that shaped the industry and thus the art. The golden age of comics went from the birth of Superman in 1938 to 1949 or 1950, when the medium lost popularity; it stayed in the doldrums until the Silver Age started in 1956 with a revival of superheroes. This 1950-1956 period seems similar to the 1940’s in mystery fiction. The Golden Age of science fiction (1938-46) seems close to GAD in that it was thematically consistent; it ended with the atom bombs and the mainstreaming of science for the space race.

    Aimé par 1 personne

  3. The consensual theory has it being a strictly between-the-wars thing starting in the early Twenties…

    No idea if this is of any help, but I place the Golden Age between the period that the traditional detective story rose to dominance and declined (1920-1959).

    1920-29: the Golden Age’s childhood
    1930-39: the Golden Age’s energetic adolescence
    1940-49: the Golden Age matured into adulthood
    1950-59: the Golden Age’s twilight years

    You can probably make a case that the 1910s was the birth of the Golden Age with writers like Bentley and Chesterton bridging the gap between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age. So, yeah, I basically see the Golden Age as a life cycle instead of one specific period.

    Aimé par 1 personne

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