Warning: The following contains some opinion stated as fact, which doesn’t mean it isn’t open to reasonable discussion.
Further Warning: The following may be particularly offensive to my British readers and I apologize in advance for that – but I stand by every word. « Qui aime bien châtie bien » as the French proverb says.
One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at Golden Age and overall traditional detective stories is that they are boring, and its comparative lack of action and suspense may indeed have played a key part in the genre’s eventual critical and commercial downfall. Say what you will about psychological suspense, hardboiled or even noir but you can’t fault them for being devoid of interesting things happening.
The detective story of course is not bound to be boring or slow paced or uneventful but it often is and it pains the Anglophile that I am to admit that the Brits have a lot to answer for there. Don’t get me wrong: Not all British crime fiction is dull, far from it – but a large and significant share of the dullest crime fiction hails from the British Islands, giving a bad name to the whole local production.
Why is that so?
I wrote an article some time ago about how distinct and distinctive traditional British crime writing is and lamenting its loss in favour of a more Americanized approach. British crime fiction even back in the Golden Age has always been more muted, more low-key than its American counterpart and this is why the Humdrums originated there while the Tough Guys were born in America – both logical if extreme outcomes of their respective traditions. Avoiding fisticuffs and gunslinging doesn’t necessarily makes you dull, however – action in the end is less important than the appearance of action, and close reasoning in deft hands may make for as compelling reading as a car chase. The hard problem of boredom in British crime fiction is not a matter of talent or culture; it is a problem of treatment.
Any detective story regardless of the subgenre relies on the same trio of basic elements: Crime, Investigation, Solution. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Puzzle for Fools and The Big Sleep may have nothing more in common at first sight, but they’re all build along those same lines, and so have been all the detective stories ever written since Poe launched the genre one century and a half ago. The only reason why we never feel like we’re always reading the same story is that every writer handles the core elements in their own way. Ian Rankin and Dorothy L. Sayers basically do the same job, but their respective approaches to it couldn’t be more different.
Of the three basic elements listed above Investigation may be the most important from a narrative viewpoint as most of the story will deal with it. This is a detective story mind you, meaning that it’s about someone doing detection. The process of investigation however can be either enthralling or boring as watching paint dry depending on the way you handle it, and the standard British approach is remarkably prone to the latter. Lots of British traditional mysteries offer nothing other in the guise of story than a long series of interviews until the detective finally zeroes on the guilty party, after which the story ends. Since most of the time the Detective is the viewpoint character, we learn very little about the supporting cast which doesn’t appear to be very interesting anyway. What’s more, the Detective usually has all of their suspects at hand, meaning that they scarcely have to move, which makes the narrative even more linear. Most of the major British Golden Age writers were able to overcome the limitations of this structure by fleshing it out with subplots and/or making the Detective and characters appealing enough to be an attraction in themselves, but lots of their lesser colleagues never bothered themselves with such embellishments, giving British crime fiction a reputation for dullness that it never could quite escape.
Said dullness wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if those damn Yankees hadn’t come up with an alternative. One of the major if sometimes neglected achievements of the American Revolution was the invention of « Pinball Plotting ». The Detective is no longer a passive bystander calmly visiting one suspect after another in a shopping-list way; their investigation instead takes a more active and sometimes maze-like aspect as each person they encounter opens a potential new trail that in turn has to be explored and so on. The difference might be summarized by saying that the British Detective slowly but inexorably progresses towards the truth whereas the American Detective never quite knows where they’re going and what they’re going find – and neither does the reader. This approach which originated with the hardboiled school but quickly became the norm even for traditional mysteries made for faster, more complex and above all more compelling narratives, which accounts for its popularity with not only readers but a movie industry that had never been overly keen on the old-fashioned, British brand of detective fiction.
And yet the Brits clung on to their old ways, though making some surface changes. They were right to do so, as it produced a lot many more masterpieces – but also a remarkable number of duds that durably ruined their reputation as a model and a leading force in crime fiction. American mysteries became the universal idiom whereas the British became an acquired taste.