#210: The Golden Age of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction…


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 publishing careers of seven classic GAD authors — guess who, and spot the Golden Age!

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:

  • Foul language

  • Gangsters

  • An all-action, chase-to-the-death finale

  • Glorying in violent acts

  • Forensic psychology

  • Explicit sexual content

  • etc, etc…

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.


Be convinced by my scientific graph…

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.


Films released in 1937 (top) and more classics in 1938 (bottom) as tastes change…

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?

22 thoughts on “#210: The Golden Age of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction…

  1. Thought provoking piece JJ, You’ve certainly risen to the challenge and with lots of lovely colourful arrows to boot. Whilst I think you could be right in saying that a lot of elements converge together by 1937. However I don’t agree that ‘at the start of this enterprise was one of using the background of crime and detection to explore something else’. I would have said 1930s onwards this was more applicable, as Sayers. Allingham and Ianthe for instance didn’t really try to seriously merge GAD and novel of manners fiction until then. For me the 1920s is far more puzzle focused, often with a drier or matter of fact prose style, which doesn’t leave room for anything but the puzzle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I guess the 1920s were a slitghly drier approach, weren’t they? But then it once again comes down to precisely when this kind of thing is determined to have started, and I’d say that the seeds first sown in making an attempt at what we now consider the Golden Age were undoubtedly done so against a background of trying to mess with the expected conventions and see how far it could be pushed: Chesterton’s morality, Berkeley’s switching up of solutions and implication, etc. Certainly the 1930s did it on a more regular and wholesale basis, but I’d argue that the beginnings of this enterprise are not to be found in the 1930s…

      But then, it’s possibly a largely semantic difference. No doubt the GAD convention of the 1930s was different to that of the 1920s, we definitely agree on that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes I definitely agree on that, I just felt that it was in the 1930s that mystery writers more earnestly tried to use the mystery format for exploring wider issues such as women’s rights, the looming war, politics, novel of manners etc. Whereas even when Berkeley and co. were messing around with the genre in the 1920s, the genre itself was still the purpose not a wider issue.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’d be interesting to chart the growth of that sort of thing, wouldn’t it — how the genre focus went from pure puzzle to wider issues as time changed (the war, politics, societal issues, etc) to then circling back around on itself to the detective’s personal life and relationships that form so much of the basis of modern crime fiction. Aaaah, if only I could be bothered with most modern crime fiction, it would almost be interesting to try and look at that…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This has the whiff of a math problem – pie charts, graphs, progressions – it all stinks to high heaven, said the liberal arts teacher. I’m also a little confused, as some of the titles you gave for that writer, George Dickson Carnes, or whatever, are listed as being published in 193EIGHT! However, I shouldn’t quibble here. What you’re suggesting is that Agatha Christie is the be all and end all of the Golden Age! 🙂 She started it! She ended it! I’m okay with that! 🙂 To further that argument, 1939 marks the era where Christie began to insinuate a greater emphasis on character and psychology, so she was chafing at the bit to stretch her creative powers. (It’s also the year of Sigmund Freud’s death!!!! Significant???)

    I might also point to a few other things:

    I don’t have any figures here, but movie-going must be reaching a peak in the late-1930’s and will continue into the 40’s and 50’s as the Hollywood studio system churns out hundreds of films a year. Very few of these were successful puzzle pictures. That sort of story didn’t work so well in a visual medium. You would see far more depictions of Hammett, Chandler and their ilk, with fistfights and violence, than Christie on the big screen. There was Philo Vance and Nero Wolfe on the screen, but their popularity was sadly brief. Carr and Marsh were basically never filmed, and folks like Queen were relegated to the lousiest of the “B” pictures. The Golden Age detectives who were filmed a lot – Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes (yeah, he’s earlier), the Thin Man – had action and comedy incorporated into their plots to provide visual “relief” from the headache of solving a puzzle.

    1938 was the birth of Superman. Kids were just as likely to pick up a comic book as go to the movies, and these little volumes were full of action.

    The boom of forensic science, with constantly shifting methods of detection, was probably a factor. How many classic authors wanted to keep up with that? How many country house mysteries became literary dinosaurs with the invention of the dynomynatechnotramomemeter?

    I think it’s a bit dangerous to pick A year, but I would heartily concur that the late-30’s were the wrap-up of the dominance of GAD, and the 1940’s were full of new-fangled ideas that watered down the whole shebang. By the 1950’s, when everyone started to have a TV in their homes and they wanted to watch action more than ratiocination, the idea that GAD could jumpstart to a new era of dominance – if anyone ever had that notion – was pretty much quashed.

    The previous opinion was brought to you by some poor schnook who was guessing all the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The increasing popularity of film was absolutely a part of the decline, I completely agree, but I lack the full awareness of the relevant factors to discuss that in enough depth — John or Colin would be better placed than me to argue this convincingly, no question. And the steady proliferation of television and the difficulty of filming ratiocination — witness the excitement when Sherlock got it kinda right for the first time a few years ago — would definitely put the tow media at odds.

      I tried to at least vaguely tie comics in, and had missed that 1938 was the birth of Superman, good spot. I mean, it’s not that people can;t concentrate on more than one thing at once — I’ve managed it over the years, and I’m an idiot — but the sudden rise in something new (like superhero comics or the easy availability of television or moving pictures) that captures the general pubilc moood more accurately is definitely going to represent a sea change in how one form is viewed and how relevant it can be seen to be.

      And, hey, the opinions on the post above are brought to you with the heavy dose of salt that accompanies everything I say; all speculation welcome here…


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  4. You younger bloggers continue to astonish me with the types of posts you dream up to celebrate your love of the genre. Genuinely fascinating, JJ, even if some of it like the cinema influence seems a bit spurious to me. You don’t mention radio programming something much more present and common in US culture since it was in the home. Both my parents who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s came from poor working class families had radios in their homes and knew more about radio than the movies. My mother didn’t start going to movies regularly until after she was married in 1944. Thanks for a fun read all the same!

    Two things I’d like to point out that you imply are contemporary crime fiction motifs that do in fact occur much more frequently in vintage detective fiction than your reading has shown you. Forensic psychology and explicit sexual content may not occur in abundance, but they are present as early as the 1920s and sometimes in combination! Charles Dutton used forensic psychology in the late 1920s before the term ever existed and it was always used to come up with the solution. Harriette Ashbrook wrote a mystery novel in 1933 in which an understanding of sexuality and forensic psychology were also needed in order to arrive at the solution. Dig deeper, my friend.

    I’m surprised a regular visitor here hasn’t chimed in and told everyone who all the authors are in that colored arrow chart. I’m not doing that because I only got four of the seven! And –shamefully– I put Sayers in the wrong spot. I had to resort to bibliographic research to uncover the others. Took me forever to think of Michael Innes. Admittedly not one of my favorites. No matter how hard I tried I failed to disclose the identity of the 1932-1953 writer. Who is it? Please forgive my whining now. Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout and R. Austin Freeman aren’t in that chart? They all had very long careers. […sigh…]

    And off topic: thanks for alerting to me to the existence of THE TREES (saw it in your Twitter feed over there on the right). I’m off to find a copy right now!


    • I always feel like my knowledge of radio is so narrow — I’m pretty much au fait with some detection serials and the fact that Orson Welles made everyone think the world was ending — that I’m reluctant to venture too far therein as I’m bound to undo myself! You’re absolutely right that I should have mentioned it, though — thanks for raising it.

      I’m aware of just how much of a reading apprentice I still am when I try to take on stuff like this, and I realise now that there’s enough explicit sexual content in The Judas Window alone to wise me up to the presence of it elsewhere. I suppose I was using a shortcut meaning actual physcial descriptions of, ahem, physical intimacy of the bump and grind nature (hey, this is why I’m not a Romance novelist…). Thanks for the pointers to Dutton and Ashbrooke — I shall add them to the ever-growing list of recommendations that I’ve taken from you over the years…!

      The 1932-53 author is Georgette Heyer — not a favourite of mine by any means, but I’m trying to move away from the predictable “It’s always Carr and Christie” motif that inevitably appears in a lot of what I write. I mean, sure, both Carr and Christie are there — and the first two, to boot! — but I’m trying to braden my range. Watch me grow. And thanks for playing, I was beginning to wonder if that image wasn’t displaying for anyone else for some reason.

      As for The Trees…oh, it’s superb. I’m still trying to figure out precisely what I look for in my non-GAD reading, and I don’t think I ever will. But that book comes very close to a lot of what I would like to read more of; alas, neither of our blogs allows much scope to discuss it, but I’d be really interested to see what you make of it when you’re finished.


  5. What happened to my comment? Ugh. It’s way too long for me to try to duplicate. I talked about too many things like radio begin more common as a form of entertainment than the movies, my attempt to identify all the writers in your chart (found four on my own, two using bibliographies, and one 1932-1953 is still unidentified), and a few other things.

    Oh well, I enjoyed this post. I’ll leave it at that.


  6. Finally got round to reading this – I’m impressed by your cunning plan of inserting the 1938 Crooked Hinge into your list of classics from 1937, knowing that my first reaction would be to scream at that over-rated nonsense being included and then, on checking my suspicions and realising that it shouldn’t be there, assuming that the rest of the list is gold.

    Anyway, nice theory, and #1937book is an interesting investigation into it, but I think we need to get to do #1938book sooner rather than later…

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I have my suspicions that 1939 was pretty damn special, too! I mean, it was for film, so why not GAD (ahem, *cough*Andthentherewerenone *cough*)


      • Oh, virtually every year in the 1930 would turn up several crackers that for this bill. Except 1930, obviously. Things were very different indeed in 1930…

        It is now the internet’s job to work out how serious I’m being… 😉


    • Ha! Good spot. Clearly I meant The Ten Teacups and was having trouble keeping track. And, in fact if anything I’d say the GAD-ness tails off more sharply afterwards and so #1936book would give better results than #1938book. But that might be another post for another time…


  7. Pingback: Ronald Knox: The Shorts Stories (1931-1947) – The Reader Is Warned

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