Okay, here goes nothing…
In a recent post about Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) I made an off-hand reference to something I’ve come to hold as a sort of metric in my detective fiction reading, calling 1937 the “most Golden Age year”. Some of you have asked me to expand on this, and what follows shall be my attempt to explain my having said as much.
Let’s be clear about one thing to begin with: I did not say and do not believe that 1937 was the best year for Golden Age Detection (GAD) fiction. I’m not even sure it would be possible to pick a single best year, given the width and breadth of authors, styles, personal tastes, and subjective nature of the term ‘best’, and so I have no desire to get into discussions along the lines of “How can 1937 be the best year when you’ve said The Problem of the Green Capsule is the pinnacle of the form (it is) and that wasn’t published until two years later (incidentally, the same year as And Then There Were None, which is also a masterpiece)?”. I’m not backing away from anything, but I phrased it very deliberately when I said it because I meant it in a specific way. If you chose to misinterpret that, well, you need to go and have a long, hard look at yourself, don’t you?
It’s fine, I’ll wait.
As with every year in the vast spread of opinions that incorporates the Golden Age — we’ll get to that — some wonderful books were published in 1937: Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Rupert Penny’s Policeman’s Holiday and Policeman in Armour, The Dead Are Blind by Max Afford, and doubtless many others. The fact that it is seen as a ‘golden age’ is usually taken to be a reference to the embarras de richesses that was produced in that time, and the nature of favourites or discussions about style is what leads to such disputed cut-offs for the era. Martin Edwards, who wrote a prize-winning book on the subject, typically defines it as between the world wars, making it approximately 1919 to 1939; elsewhere I’ve seen it argued that Agatha Christie’s first novel really marks the start of the Golden Age — so it actually begins in 1920 — and if anyone cares what Julian Symons thinks, he said that an obituary for the Golden Age was published in 1941, so it was definitely done by then, says him.
The difficulties really start when we begin considering styles of writing, though. Christianna Brand was undoubtedly a practitioner in the Golden Age style, and was publishing books in that style into the late 1950s…now, of course, if she’s the only one then that idea of embarras de richesses no longer applies and it’s no longer a golden era, but if you exclude her work purely on a dates basis, you’re going to come up against opposition — not least from me — that Death of Jezebel absolutely has to be included in such discussions even though it didn’t see the light until 1948. And, really, the idea of cutt-offs based purely on dates is the wrong way to look at it: yes, there was undoubtedly a key period (more than likely between the two world wars) that gave birth to a huge upswell in the quality, complexity, and prevalence of detective fiction, but it’s probably fair to say that people are more interested in style than precise dates when discussing GAD fiction (wow, watch that blow up in the comments…).
Because, above anything else, GAD fiction utilises a type of storytelling that includes certain cachets that have become misdiagnosed as tropes. These tropes do not include:
An all-action, chase-to-the-death finale
Glorying in violent acts
Explicit sexual content
Once some, more, or all of these are employed, the narrative we’re reading begins to move away from what is typically understood by the term ‘Golden Age’; which is not to say that a book cannot contain some of these elements and come from the Golden Age, or that there aren’t plenty of GAD novels that contain some or more of the above, but those elements when included unquestionably dilute the experience and you start to see phrases like “more into thriller territory”, “the hard-boiled school”, and “not what you’d expect in a novel of detection” cropping up in discussion. There is an idea of GAD fiction that is far more powerful than any limit you’d care to impose by the rising of the sun on a particular day, and the notion of GAD fiction is strongest when these ideas are represented in their greatest density.
Right, that’s the preamble out of the way.
M’lud, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, and all those here present, I wish to propose the following: the greatest concentration of GAD elements is typically found in works published in the detective fiction school 1937. As you move away from this year, both forwards and backwards in time, the prevalence of other schools begins to dilute the concentration of these ideas, and as such the most Golden Age experience is, on the whole — don’t start citing individual works at me, I’ll ignore you as explained above — found to be greater the closer one is to 1937.
What I propose — and, seriously, guys, this is just a general truism that I abide by, not some rigorous piece of peer-checked research — is that as 1937 was approached, the ideas around GAD fiction coalesced and mingled with other schools until they reached peak accommodation with and understanding of those ideas, and were able to adopt and reject as fitted the GAD purpose. This came in large part out of the rise of parlour games around and First World War, but as popular fiction became increasingly taken with the rise of the pulps through the 1920s, the two shared enough common ground that they can’t easily be separated at first, and then once the ideas began to work in different tropes and conceits of their own, a bifurcation between the two occurred and separate paths were followed.
The easiest and clearest example to draw here is Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920 and bearing so faint an imprint of the pulp racketeering going on around it as to feel like an evolutionary bound. This is in part why the argument holds for Christie being seen as the starting point — it’s a very different book, born from a very different cloth to what wold becomes the prevailing literary style on the other side of the Atlantic, where Dashiell Hammett was a mere 18 months away from diving in with his pencil raised to drag reflection on crime and punishment in an entirely different direction. And, yes, you can cite your Anna Katherine Green or your Wilkie Collins or even your Arthur Conan Doyle as precursors of Christie, but undeniably they resorted to far heavier dependency on the HIBK, lady in danger, and sensation forms — A Study in Scarlet is 40% Western, for pity’s sake, and The Hound of the Baskervilles is almost pure thriller given how little Holmes actually appears in it — than did Christie at Styles.
And let’s take a brief tour through the company Christie did keep once we find ourselves in this transpontine age where things were lining up in the right direction. Anthony Berkeley was a contemporary and early experimenter with the form, but his overturning of the core tropes — the Gentleman Sleuth who’s never correct, the inverted mystery, the uncertainty over how to handle fair-play disclosures — feel much more like someone breaking in a new set of ideas than someone actually conforming to the concepts that define the idea under discussion; G.K. Chesterton confined himself to short stories that take huge liberties with conveyance of information and deduction, and his sole novel-length effort is much more a thriller than a piece of GAD ratiocination; Dorothy L. Sayers was, to her credit, much more interested in ethics and the position of women in society than outright detection at first (I mean, c’mon — The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) is only resolved because Wimsey, with no idea what the solution is, overhears two people discussing it in a public bar). Yes — as I keep saying — individual books did crop up, but the general mood at the start of this enterprise was one of using the background of crime and detection to explore something else, far more in keeping with the modern crime novel than what we understand by classic era detective fiction.
Wherever the fire started, at first people simply gathered around it for heat and to admire its pretty colours, and then they started to hold their own branch to the flame and run off to cultivate their own inferno. The amateur sleuth, the closed circle of suspects, the revelation of all information the detective has to the reader, the reliance on clever word play or homonyms (there’s a great story that hinges on the difference between rowed, as in a boat, and rode, as on a horse), then the realisation that readers were wise to these ideas and so the collective raising of a game that saw the prevalence of impossible crimes, of no stratum of society being off-limits to pluck ones murderer from, of a brief and contained divergence into Professional Crime Fiction with a reliance on chemicals and forensic evidence (whereof most of the early 1990s crime fiction was born), and from there the introduction of legal loopholes, and so professional detectives, and so back to policemen as the main sleuth, with the addition of a genius amateur to explain away the knowledge or skills or access the typical bobby may not possess…gradually it built and built, and eventually reached peak density in (I maintain) 1937.
And after that? Well, in much the same way that the pulps gave way to crime comics which got overtaken in turn by superhero comics, other ideas began to permeate. The societal isolationism of the detective novel began to pall, I’d imagine, due in no small part to an international situation that started to creep into most if not all other forms of media, and so — see Christie’s N or M? (1941) — began to turn more towards the thriller, the spy, the Nazi-hunter, from which gradual movement, developed in the same way, names like Ambler, Deighton, Ludlum, and le Carre would emerge. As I feel I cannot say too much, yes works in the GAD style were still being written, but increasingly the form of detection was being diluted with more popular thriller elements — it’s simply a matter of what people were wanting to read and, increasingly, watch, after all — and the direct off-shoots of the detective novel were now being themselves off-shot(?) into the psychological suspense of George Simeon, Margaret Millar, and their cohorts, or the restrained realism of George V. Higgins, Ed McBain, and others (I’m a little short on names, I freely admit — it’s not really my area).
So, just as it built, it tailed away. Some of the practitioners hung around for many years yet, some of the finest books this school ever produced came after this peak; hell, some of its best writers didn’t get started until after 1937, but they would have found themselves in increasingly sparse company and so their efforts herein were perhaps rather shorter lived than we would have liked (Helen McCloy, Hake Talbot, Anthony Boucher…we’ll all have our favourites who fit this description). Arguably given focus and purpose in the 1920s, there can be little argument that the GAD school tailed off over the course of the 1940s, and was all but moribund by the end of the 1950s. Most of the people discussed as genre greats since then — P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George — aren’t even close to writing in the same style or with the same purpose behind it. That’s no criticism of them, far from it, but evidence of the glut from 80 years ago is expectedly thin on the ground now, and the era in which we find ourselves makes that precise type of novel firstly very difficult to write and secondly — given the wealth of brilliance produced back then — difficult to justify returning to, as there’s really nothing to add. That’s an entirely separate point, however, so I’ll leave that there.
Back to 1937. I could quote titles at you — Hamlet Revenge!, The Burning Court, The Crooked Hinge, Trial and Error, Mystery in White, Busman’s Honeymoon, The Red Box, Vintage Murder — but the acknowledged fact of so much quality in this year and others means this wouldn’t really prove anything. Generally, these 2,000 words are here to explain a simple truth that I casually hold to: when trying an author about whom I am uncertain, I usually pitch in as close to 1937 as I can and trust that such a course will give me as strong a concentration of the elements I seek as I’m going to find in their work. You may have your own system, and I’d be delighted to hear of it if so.
As for me, I think I’m done here. I bet you’re sorry you asked now, aren’t you?