Debuts

2020 has been so eventful a year so far that it’s easy to forget it also marks the centennial of the period in crime fiction history known as The Golden Age. Most historians of the genre agree that the era began in 1920 with the almost simultaneous appearance of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles and F.W. Crofts’s The Cask. Both writers would go on to become major figures of the period and the former book introduced a character that would become one of the most popular fictional detectives ever, second only to Sherlock Holmes.

And yet in retrospect only Styles really announces the things to come. The Cask, while a great book in its own right, essentially harks back to the Edwardian era and might easily have been published before WW1. Styles on the other hand has all the trappings of a Golden Age detective novel, from the eccentric detective to the country house to the surprise murderer. Christie with her first published work almost single-handedly invented a new genre, though she herself needed some time to fully embrace it: most of the books she wrote in the following years were thrillers, with Poirot only appearing now and then. Christie didn’t think of Styles as the beginning of a series, let alone of a new way to write detective stories. Most of all, she didn’t think of Poirot as a series character, and it shows. The Poirot we meet in Styles is not quite the one we know. He certainly displays some of the personality traits and quirks we’re familiar with, but his behaviour and method betray strong Sherlockian influence. Poirot would later emphasize psychological over physical evidence but in Styles he pays greater attention to the latter; he is also much more active.

It is interesting to compare Styles to another major Golden Age debut, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body which would appear three years later. Unlike Christie, Sayers was very much aware that she was starting a series and thus spent more time thinking over her detective. As a result, Lord Peter Wimsey is fully formed when he makes his first appearance and while he would gain increasing psychological depth over the course of the books he’d basically remain the same person throughout. Sayers however was much less of a modernist when it came to plotting, and closer to Crofts than Christie in this department. If Styles is a Golden Age mystery with an Edwardian detective, Whose Body is an (excellent) Edwardian detective novel with a Golden Age sleuth – and Sayers unlike Christie would never be able (or willing?) to overcome that contradiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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