The definition of the Golden Age and how long it lasted are issues I’ve been pondering for years. I first outlined my thoughts in a well-received series in which I tried to distinguish between the different stratas of the period but while I still think there is merit to this approach I also think it needs to be revised and completed. My thinking has evolved over the years as my reading broadened and my knowledge expanded and rather than providing answers it left me with more questions.
The main one is how accurate it is to see the Golden Age as a single period, one size fitting all so to speak. It is widely accepted that the period lasted from roughly 1920 to roughly 1939, with two books by Agatha Christie bookending it, and that it applies everywhere – I myself even did a piece about the French Golden Age some years ago. The problem is, I’m not so sure that it is true, or entirely so. I can think of several countries, some for obvious reasons, in which the period was relatively or frankly unproductive as pertains to crime fiction. « Golden Age » in the end seems to apply only to four countries: Britain, France, Japan and the United States. In other words, it is a pretty local phenomenon. What’s more, a closer look shows that each country’s Golden Age doesn’t quite overlap with the others. The standard definition above applies quite well to Britain (for good reason – they’re the ones that coined it!) but less so to France and America (I don’t know enough about Japanese crime fiction to make pronouncements)
The French version is arguably the shortest-living, being limited to the 1930s, the only decade when local detective fiction can be said to achieve truly Golden Age brilliance with the likes of Aveline, Boca, Boileau, Simenon, Steeman, Véry or Vindry. The War put an abrupt and definitive end to the halcyon days and it is telling that very few of the period’s leading men survived it creatively speaking.
This is America that offers the biggest challenge to the orthodox understanding of the Golden Age, however. Like France, its own Golden Age began later than the British one. As I noted before, local detective fiction prior to the advent of S.S. Van Dine mostly was of the negligible kind – pre-WW1 promises hadn’t been kept. Whatever one thinks of Van Dine’s merits as a mystery writer, he was the one responsible for definitively launching a distinctly and uniquely American school that soon became the most fertile, innovative and influential of the lot. Like in France again but also Britain, the 1930s saw the apex of the American detective novel, be it traditional or hardboiled but a crucial difference lies in the fact that, this time unlike what happened in Britain and France, the American Golden Age didn’t end with the onset of WW2. The first half of the 1940s, while seeing increasing challenge from other forms of crime fiction, doesn’t show any slowing down or drop of quality in the local production, quite the contrary. While veterans like Ellery Queen or Patrick Quentin gave their work new direction and wrote some of their best books, a slew of new writers of note, many of them female, did appear and produced some amazing stuff too. The 1940s are a vital period in the history of American crime fiction whereas it mostly and understandably was a « lost decade » on the other side of the Atlantic, and it seems legit to include it when we discuss the local « Golden Age ».
Which leads us back to the tricky question of what THE Golden Age is when it’s apparent it means different things in different contexts. Should we accept that every country has its own version, narrow the whole peirod down to the sole 1930s, the only time when the different schools sang in tune? Should we drop the concept entirely – admittedly a radical step? Yes, a tricky question, and one I’m not finished thinking about.