A complaint often made about Golden Age and overall traditional mysteries is that they trivialize violent death, making murder a mere pretext for a parlour game and/or cheap thrills. One might argue that modern crime fiction with its much more graphic and often gratuitous violence doesn’t fare that better for all its pretence of greater depth and seriousness – but this is not the issue here. This post is about something else: the relationship between murder and crime fiction which over two centuries went from one-off to almost exclusive, and its ethics or lack of.
The official first detective story, Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, bears as the title indicates on two murders that also happen to be among the most gruesome in the history of the genre, and its first sequel, The Mystery of Mary Roget, also deals with a murder. The Dupin trilogy however ends with a story, The Purloined Letter, that is devoid of any murderous element – and the same can be said for two of the Dupin-less « ratiocination tales », The Gold Bug and The Oblong Box which are respectively about solving a cipher and finding out what’s in the eponymous box. It seems like Poe despite his predilection for the gruesome and the grotesque didn’t see murder as the only kind of mystery worthy of investigation.
Neither did his nineteenth and early twentieth century followers. While most – but not all – of the better-known novels and short stories of the period deal with homicide, a (by our standards) surprisingly large share of the contemporary crime fiction is murder-free, instead concerning itself with theft, missing persons or bizarre events which may or may not turn out to be of a criminal nature. The Sherlock Holmes stories are a case in point, none of which has « murder » in their title as Julian Symons pointed out. Holmes does investigate several violent deaths in the course of his career but they are by no means his only or even favourite « game » – what he relishes above all is a nice problem, whatever its nature. The « First Golden Age » as modern scholars call it was a time when literally everything could be fodder for a detective story, with murder being but one of many possible subjects.
Things changed after WW1, possibly because the horrors of the war had made people more jaded, which made stronger concoctions necessary if the genre was to survive. Another factor was the novel superseding the short story as the genre’s primary medium, making it harder to sustain reader’s interest with (apparent) trifles or « minor » crimes. Bodies became ubiquitous and murder methods ever more baroque and complex – it was no longer enough to have someone dying, said death had to be « interesting » but not « unsettling » which accounts for the relative restraint in the handling and depiction of violence which the public (mistakenly) sees as the main feature of the period. Most writers intended their books to be entertainment, which meant that the unsavoury aspects and often painful consequences of murder were politely glossed over. Thus was born the notion of Golden Age mysteries as literary games with everything sorted out in the end and everyone living happily ever after. A reductive stereotype for sure, but with some truth to it, and that was bound to be met with fierce criticism.
Contemporary and later Golden Age critics took the period and its stars to task for being too light-hearted about something – murder – that is anything but entertaining in real life. Violent death was a serious matter, and should be treated as such. Those critical voices often being writers themselves practiced what they preached and post-WW2 crime fiction as a result displayed overall a more « serious » and realistic approach to what remained for better or worse the genre’s number one sale argument, for readers still wanted their crime fiction to be about people killing each other. Nothing has changed ever since.
Murder was not initially an essential feature of the genre but it became increasingly so as crime fiction matured. It is still theoretically possible to write a story or even a novel with a body count of zero, but it’s dubious whether publishers and/or readers would be interested – and this I think is a mighty loss. Call it crime or mystery fiction, the genre doesn’t need violent death – there are many other crimes to be investigated, and mysteries to be unravelled. Just to be clear: I’m not advocating for a ban on murder in crime fiction. I think however that a greater diversity of offences would be welcome, provided of course that they are handled well.