The Golden Age of What?

The question asked in the title of this article may seem either bizarre or provocative but it is nevertheless one that needs being asked. People (including me) have been talking about the Golden Age for so long that the concept seems no longer need an explanation. The only debate is about how long the period laster and whether later books written in the same tradition do qualify as « Golden Age mysteries » but only the last few remaining Chandler and Symons supporters deny that a Golden Age occurred in the years between the wars. Don’t be afraid, I’m not disputing this either. My problem with the concept lies elsewhere, in the fact that the standard rationale for it is often contradictory or relies on erroneous notions.

The Golden Age, we are told by the experts, is a period between the wars that saw the rise and triumph of the detective novel, more casually known as the « whodunit », with the genre reaching a level of sophistication and ingenuity never seen before and rarely encountered since. Agatha Christie was probably the most representative and influential writer of the period. World War II put an end to these halcyon days, with newer forms of crime fiction progressively replacing the whodunit as the dominant genre.

There is some truth to this definition, but also a lot of misconceptions. The Golden Age certainly saw the detective novel reigning supreme over the whole field of crime fiction, but the whodunit was only one side of it. Agatha Christie, towering figure that she was and remains to this day, represented only herself. Also it is debatable whether WWII actually ended the Golden Age, as the war years were more of a transitional period than one of outright rupture.

It may seem odd to say that the detective novel and the whodunit are two separate things, but this is a nuance that can’t be stressed enough. Detective novels are about an investigation but the nature, objective and results of said investigation are not written in stone. Most writers indeed tend to make the « Who » the prime focus of their stories but it is by no means a requirement. It has been clear ever since the appearance of R. Austin Freeman’s landmark The Singing Bone that a detective story can function perfectly well in the absence of any whodunit element. True, some – most? – of the cleverest whodunits were written during the Golden Age, but not all writers displayed the same interest in the question. Some of them, continuing the Edwardian tradition, focused instead on the « How » and the « Why » and emphasized coherence over pyrotechnics. This is for instance the reason why so many whodunit-focused readers find Dorothy L. Sayers so frustrating and boring – her books, or at least most of them, are not whodunits. The same is true of those writers long dismissed as « humdrums » such as F.W. Crofts, Cecil Street or the Coles. While the culprit in their books is most often hidden from the reader, they are usually not hard to figure out and the book’s raison d’être is how the detective will catch them. Some writers went even further and ditched the whodunit element entirely. The inverted detective story too is very much a Golden Age specialty, not to mention the burgeoning crime or suspense novel. As counterintuitive as it may seem, Francis Iles, James M. Cain, Richard Hull, Cornell Woolrich or Ethel Lina White are Golden Agers too and none of them wrote whodunits – or detective novels for that matter.

The link between Golden Age and whodunit is the result of a mistake I’ve already commented upon on this blog: taking Agatha Christie as the standard bearer of the period, which she was not. Her genius and stature are not in dispute, and she is undoubtedly and deservingly the most famous Golden Age writer, but her extreme focus on the whodunit element as well as her virtuoso handling of it make her stand apart from her contemporaries, none of which compares – or even tried. The cliché of Golden Age fiction being all about country houses, cosy villages and least likely suspects comes straight from Christie – though like all clichés, it isn’t supported by a serious reading of her work.

Where does it all leave us? Not much further than where we started. While the whodunit was not the domineering force it is often claimed to be, it certainly reached an apex in the Golden Age and in that sense the expression is warranted. Still, there is something a little too narrow to this interpretation. I’ll have to think it over.

Un commentaire sur “The Golden Age of What?

  1. As you point out in your last paragraph … There is no logical inconsistency between (a) the Golden Age being the golden age of the whodunit, i.e., the period when this specific style reached its apex in popularity and perhaps also quality, and (b) other styles existing and being popular during the Golden Age (as you document).

    Ruling out the latter because one believes the former is a logical fallacy. I am not sure there is much more to it.


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