#790: On the Morals of Golden Age Detective Fiction, via Crime and Detection [ss] (1926) ed. E.M. Wrong

That title is doing a lot of work, isn’t it? Fair warning: this goes on a bit.

At the online Bodies from the Library conference last weekend, I gave a talk inspired in part by E.M. Wrong’s introduction to the 1926 anthology Crime and Detection. And, in addition to coining the term “Wellington of detection” that inspired the thinking I laid out last weekend, there is plenty of material in that piece of prose to get the cogs turning.

Wrong’s introduction gives a superb overview of detective fiction at that stage in the genre’s development, and towards the end veers into broader territory with the following:

The detective story has proved capable of high development and has become a definite art; the same cannot be said of the tale of crime with the criminal as hero. Why is there this difference? Why is Holmes a greater figure than the late Raffles?

Raffles, for the uninitiated, is the “amateur cracksman” protagonist of a series of tales by E.W. Hornung, and as protagonists go he can be…a little difficult to get behind. Lacking the moral scruples to worry about committing theft (typically from the deserving, in my experience of the stories) is one thing, but abandoning his partner in crime to be arrested so that he, Raffles, can make a clean getaway is…another. Some might call Raffles a ‘lovable rogue’, others could justifiably use stronger language.

[T]here is the question of morality. Perhaps art in general should have no moral purpose, but the art of the detective story has one and must have; it seeks to justify the law and to bring retribution on the guilty. The criminal must be unmasked, the detective represents good and must triumph.

This feels to me a little like Wrong is crossing several streams on more than one horse — expect a seven-part deconstruction on the semantics of moral issues at a later date — but let’s roll with the essential point for now. That detective fiction found itself imbued with some moral aspect was something the progenators of the form would confront through its history. Freeman Wills Crofts — who arguably helped kick off the Golden Age with his debut The Cask (1920), and would later align himself with the principles outlined by Frank Buchman’s religiously-oriented Oxford Group — famously set about allowing his Protestant beliefs, and the essential moral state of the criminals whose exploits he was charting, to inform a lot of his later work (Antidote to Venom (1938) being the only one I have read to date). Equally, the earlier work of G.K. Chesterston was also more interested, to paraphrase H.R.F. Keating, in saving a murderer’s soul than in breaking his neck.

There is much talk about seeking the establishment of the status quo in Golden Age detective fiction, which, along with homilies about the idealised version of society the books represent, seems to me to miss the point of the genre by the sort of distances one usually sees in an Olympic javelin competition. Such nostrums seek, in my opinion, to disregard the complexity of the issues around the crimes in these books simply because the matters aren’t dwelt upon with the pornographic delight it seems many people need in the written word before they realise that an issue has been addressed. As my good friend Brad said in one of our recent discussions about the work of Agatha Christie (I think it was this one, about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)…), the end of most Golden Age detective stories sees someone in the heart of a community unexpectedly unmasked as a devious and selfish criminal, leaving the people around them no doubt reeling. Your classic era detective doesn’t hang around for that part, but anyone under the impression that the denizens of, say, Green for Danger (1943) just shrugged and went about their subsequent lives with a sort of rosy-cheeked forbearance has clearly not actually read that book.

An aisde, this, but I’m curious the extent to which the lack of dwelling on consequences became a fixture of GAD on account of both Christie and Crofts knowing so little about courtroom procedure that they were encouraged to replace the trial scenes that ended their debuts…both published in 1920 and seen as the cornerstones of the Golden Age. Had two such influential books had their trial scenes reworked so that they — drawn out, inviting public scrutiny and shaming — were a key part of those books, might the shape, and hence the focus, of the classic detective story have developed differently? It wouldn’t have been easy (Crofts would later say that “no trial like that I had described has ever taken place, either in this or any other country”), but it remains to me an interesting speculation. Trial novels exist, of course, in the likes of recent reprints The Bellamy Trial (1927) by Frances Noyes Hart and Verdict of Twelve (1940) by Raymond Postgate, so that element didn’t escape examination, but then neither of those titles had anything close to the sway Christie and Crofts’ openers did.

However, I digress.

“You surprise us.”

The moral element of crime in fiction was mentioned without being dwelt upon by the likes of Poe — whose murderers can be induced to reveal the agony their crimes wrought upon them through ingenious application of a piece of whalebone — and brought into sharper focus by L. Frank Baum justifying a murderer getting off scott free and showing us how he does so in ‘The Suicide of Kiaros’ (1897) (still available here, by the way). Hell, you could argue that moral side of crime in fiction has been open to examination since the Gospel of John saw Jesus opening up to a gathered crowd the right to stone an adulterous woman to death if they themselves were entirely free from sin…and so given the role of faith in the lives of a good many GAD athors, the notion of the form’s blithesome unconcern where the matter of morals are concerned is arguably very much more in the eye of the beholder. Baum dressed it up, displaying for all to see the sort of ingenuity that authors like John Dickson Carr and Dorothy L. Sayers might save for the final chapter, but when the likes of Carr lets a murderer go free at the end of one of his novels he knows full well the moral decision he is making (and he knows, too, the response it would likely provoke in his audience — whether he cared about the response is, of course, a separate matter entirely).

To return, then, to Wrong and his speculations about the need for crime fiction to “justify law and bring retribution to the guilty”:

To make a hero of the criminal is to reverse the moral law, which is after all based on common sense, for crime is not in fact generous and open but mean. Robin Hood may have robbed the rich and given to the poor, but his accounts were never audited, and the proportion of his charity to his thefts remains obscure. Raffles stole principally from unpleasant people, but steal he did; not even success can make robbery appeal to us as a truly noble career.

From a purely narrative perspective, I think Wrong goes a little awry here. If, as Ronald Knox asserted, our story of crime “derives its excitement only from the danger of the criminal getting off scot free, or of some innocent person being condemned in his place”, the need for morality is obviated. We read about fictional crime and detection to see if the latter can trump the former, and if altruism is behind the robbery then we (probably) hope the criminal succeeds. The notion of ‘heroism’ — that is, making the actions of the protagonist laudable by whatever moral compass can be seen as providing general guidance — is, however, rather more the focus of his point, so let us move on (also, I honestly cannot tell how seriously one is expected to take that point about Robin Hood — part of me suspects that Wrong is tweaking the nose of his readership, while part of me loves the idea that he’s furious Will Scarlet wasn’t sat down with an abacus trying to work out the horde’s tax-deductible income).

Is the criminal then to try other crimes than theft? Blackmail hardly provides a fitting career for a hero, and we are driven back on murder. Now it is possible for murderers to show courage and resource, to be less mean than the pickpocket or forger. But murder to be successful must be selfish, the victim cannot be given a chance, so a narrative of successful murders, like a narrative of successful robbery, leaves us at the end with a bad taste in our mouth.

On a very simple level, Wrong is correct: making a hero of the criminal, especially if they are a murderer, and making out that their criminous deeds are something lofty and worthy of respect, is an essential reversal of moral law. The Christian bible (in which several key GAD proponents placed a great deal of trust, remember) laid down six such edicts (the other four are exclusively about religion), one of them explicitly condemning murder, and even the functioning of a vast majority of secular society is based on the essential precept that no-one cause too great an inconvenience to anyone else. From the very earliest examples of fiction that survive, the essence of moral karma is clear: the expectation is that decent behaviour begets decent behaviour, and any deviation from such decency will invite upon you a romantic and fitting reversal of one’s fortunes (c.f. Aesop’s (620-564 BCE) fable of ‘The Fox and the Crane’, say). It can even br argued that Baum’s murder of Kiaros is simply reinforcing this — a bad man getting his comeuppance — albeit told from the perspective that allows shades of grey to creep into its interpretation, redressing the pleasing kismet of narrative inevitability into something that runs contrary to a lot of what we are told about how the world should work.

In short: good people do good things, bad people do bad ones.


And yet, and yet…well, the term ‘anti-hero’ is in common parlance these days. Recent years have see outright criminal acts committed by the apparent heroes of their books that would in the Golden Age have fallen well and truly into the remit of the Bad Guys: from the copious examples doubtless available I’ll cite merely Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004) and its sequels by Jeff Lindsay, The Serial Killers’ Club (2006) by Jeff Povey, and the newly-published Win (2021) by Harlan Coben. Hell, the first and last of these have positive careers of murder, maiming, violence, and general order-upsetting…and are encouraged to be seen as heroic even if also unapologetically unconcerned with how that characterisation comes across to the reader (the later Dexter books get a little…yeuch in my opinion). The moral purpose Wrong seeks in Golden Age literature has been up-ended by modern crime fiction’s desire for sensation, which in turn has arguably resulted in a dilution of the efficacy of the stories of crime and punishment told these days (or so my limited coverage leads me to believe). But we were talking about the Golden Age, so…

There are, of course, Golden Age novels that are indeed “a narrative of successful murders” allowing their killers to go free: Poirot did it at least twice, as did Carr’s series protagonists Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, and at least one of the British Library Crime Classics range ends without anyone actually facing any consequences for committing such a crime. Chesterton’s Father Brown might suggest that these people are under the yoke of their sins’ punishment in the next life, but, as discussed above, there’s a tendency to dismiss what is not explicitly on the page in this genre. Plus, implicit in the fact that “the criminal must be unmasked, the detective…must triumph” is the expectation that the unmasking results in consequences which require the law (and the consequent punshiment that trails in its wake) to come into effect — we would presumably forgo this entirely if it was known that everyone definitely gets their just deserts after death. Morally, then, where does that leave us? Murder going unpunished is surely a violation of the moral standard.

Well, how about justified murder? Is such a thing possible? Wrong has views on this, too:

If each murder is to be done from the highest motives (as those by Mr. Wallace’s Four Just Men) it will not be easy for there to be enough of them to keep our interest and approval. Even the Four Just Men began public life by killing a fairly harmless Secretary of State to prevent the Cabinet, of which he was but one member, from carrying a bill through Parliament. We might wink at this if we disapproved of the bill, but can it be called justice? Was this the only way? After all, if we are to regard murder as just, we must credit the murderer with an omniscience that we deny to our courts of law. Even if he thinks himself omniscient has he any business to act on his own opinion, regardless of the consequences to the innocent?

And now, finally, I think we get to where we’re going. Because, see, it can be supposed that the moral imperative behind seeing a criminal commit a crime, however they chose to justify it — and, off the top of my head, a tiny selection of murder schemes alone can be represented by Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930) by R. Austin Freeman, Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles, The Murder of My Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull, This Way Out (1939) by James Ronald, and Case for Sergeant Beef (1947) by Leo Bruce — requires that the criminal be caught (spoilers?). And, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the criminal is caught, and knows of their exposure at the hands of someone who then has them completely at their mercy. From this point is rare that no punishment results, which is why those decisions by Poirot, Fell, Merrivale, and others to pursue alternative consequences hit us so hard and linger so long in the memory. Crucially, what GAD didn’t take a habit of doing was returning to see how those escaped or unpunished killers fared in their next murder — this is for the likes of Dexter and Win, a more modern phenomenon — choosing instead to follow the detective to their next case. The criminals who evade justice are rarely mentioned again because the stories being written about them finds nothing edifying in their actions. They go free, and it is supposed to be shocking, a startling derailment of a train seemingly set on reaching its obvious destination.

Fundamentally, the Golden Age was not about the glorification of the criminal, and any such moral inference drawn from a corpus of GAD stories is, I would wager, entirely unintentional. The few genuinely successful criminals are rehabilitated (c.f. Flambeau in Chesteron’s Father Brown stories), exonerated by later actions in their life (c.f. the above-mentioned Raffles, informed by Hornung’s olde-worlde sense of duty and morals), or simply left in obscurity because they’re usually not interesting enough to base another case around (I can’t be the only one who rolls my eyes every time a Sherlock Holmes pastiche shoehorns in a mention of Irene Adler to prove their grasp of the canon, can I?). Even Wallace’s Just Men had a change of heart and stopped being criminals after a while because, one suspects, Wallace’s original intention was to shake up the accepted order of stuffy crime fiction…but as time went on he found himself aligning more with society’s core principles (success will do that to you, I hear).

“Sounds legit.”

Interesting to note, too, that this wasn’t simply a British School phenomenon. Crime fiction was, to the best of my knowledge, freed from the strictures of the contemporary Hays Code that governed what was shown in cinemas, and a great many American writers delighted in telling stories of career criminals who, come the end of the novel, are freed from legal consequences and yet find themselves trapped in a sort of morally-determined hell of their own making. James M. Cain was a big one for consequences coming home to roost, and Jim Thompson’s most famous work ends with a head-spinning descent into the sort of nightmarish scenario that would drive most people mad (hey, why do you think so many of his first-person narratives end with the protagonists delusional, insane, dead, or some combination of all three?). The story of a crime is the story of the consequences of that crime — Georges Simenon made practically an entire career out of such studies (c.f. The Stain on the Snow (1948) for anyone not sold on Maigret) — but the Golden Age stopped short of explicitly examining these results and left that to the Domestic Suspense school that would follow closely on its heels.

So, “Why is Holmes a greater figure than the late Raffles?”…well, in part obecause Holmes’ actions in and of themselves were fundamentally altruistic, supported the ingrained principles of the common good, and needed no late justification in order to seek reparation for perceived wrongs. Holmes, and the genre that followed him, sought to improve the lives of those who needed his help and ensure that those who had sought to defraud or cause harm got the comeuppance they deserved as dictated by moral law. If you take morality out of Golden Age detective fiction, what you;re left with is…well, something that is not Golden Age detective fiction.

Man, it feels good to get this out of my brain. So whaddaya think, eh?


The contents of Crime and Detection, incidentally, run thusly:

‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) by Edgar Allan Poe
‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844) by Edgar Allan Poe
‘The Adventure of the Red-Headed League’ (1891) by Arthur Conan Doyle
‘The Stanway Cameo Mystery’ (1894) by Arthur Morrison
‘The Case of Oscar Brodski’ (1910) by R. Austin Freeman
‘The New Jersey Sphinx’, a.k.a. ‘Fatal Ruby’ (1923) by R. Austin Freeman
‘The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage’ (1913) by Ernest Bramah
‘The Invisible Man’ (1911) by G.K. Chesterton
‘The Business Minister’ (1921) by H.C. Bailey
‘A Costume Piece’ (1898) by E.W. Hornung
‘On Green Paper’ (????) by Barry Pain
‘The Face of the Corpse’ (????) by Barry Pain

24 thoughts on “#790: On the Morals of Golden Age Detective Fiction, via Crime and Detection [ss] (1926) ed. E.M. Wrong

  1. Did I say that about Roger Ackroyd? I’m very wise, aren’t I?

    A short time ago, I listened to the episode of Shedunnit where Caroline Crampton named the first detective story. She drew the answer out for the requisite 22 minutes, but as I walked along the Shores, I kept muttering, “She had better say Oedipus Rex, or I’m throwing this phone into the lagoon.” She did say it, and my phone was saved.

    That play, as you well know, is all about justice as determined by fate. The gods have decreed that if a man defiles the law, he must pay for it, and the gods will make sure it happens, even if they have to wipe out an entire civilization to do it. Thus, Oedipus is manipulated by the gods, via a plague, to detect his own criminality. Much irony ensues, and then the gods take pity on the man: all they wanted was for him to know, and once he is aware, they leave the punishment in Oedipus’ own hands; yes, there’s blindness and eternal wandering, but Oedipus also achieves peace of mind – and he saves the kingdom from that nasty plague, so the murderer is a hero to the Thebans for the second time (remember the Sphinx!)

    The main thing that differentiates Oedipus Rex from most other murder mysteries is that the play’s contemporary audience came into the theatre knowing the solution. That made the suspense generated by the story quite different from Agatha Christie. The audience rocked in glee as Oedipus came closer and closer to destroying his own life. They gasped in horror/job as he plunged the daggers into his eyes (well, he did it offstage, but a handy messenger described it in gory detail.) They sighed in contentment as they left the theatre, knowing that even kings are subject to the capricious whims of the gods.

    If Oedipus had not learned the truth, there were have been a riot in the house. If he had not punished himself after learning that he had killed his own father and married his mum, there would have been no justice and the audience would have felt robbed. Again, though, Creon didn’t arrest Oedipus; he left it to the king to choose his own fate, as long as it fit the crime. And everyone is satisfied.

    I would suggest that, in their own humble ways, mystery writers seek to provide this same sense of satisfaction, this balance between crime and punishment, with as much variety as they can muster. Even when the victim is a rotten human being (as is often the case), the typical murderer doesn’t get away with their crimes because the detective, as a representative of society, doesn’t believe that regular citizens should take the law into their own hands. Thus, a novel like Murder on the Orient Express generates some controversy – and Christie’s agents must have lapped that up! Her solution is to make the victim a human monster, a child killer who has himself escaped justice for multiple crimes and, most importantly, cannot be brought to justice by normal means!

    What will happen to these killers after the Calais coach pulls into the station? Like most crime authors, Christie can’t be bothered with that. Hitchcock will tell you that this information is irrelevant: the protagonist’s conflicts have been resolved; the story, therefore, is over, and the sooner the better. Will they go on to happy lives, as the ending of Lumet’s film suggests? Or will they suffer for having committed this unnatural act, as Branagh’s final shots suggest? I think past readers were trained not to care so much about these questions, while modern audiences are much more fascinated by the psychological ramifications of crime.

    This is why, regarding your aside about trials, I don’t think this would have happened. For one thing, with very few exceptions, trials in books are there for the innocent to suffer before the truly guilty party is unveiled. (Hello, Perry Mason!) Whatever Christie set out to do at Styles, she went back and did it in Sad Cypress by having Poirot reveal the culprit while on the stand. Her one exception, “Witness for the Prosecution,” is more about the attorney, who suffers from a bit of the same hubris that plagued Oedipus and certainly has his comeuppance. (Notably, in the play and movie versions, justice is wrought against the killer.)

    The crime may be flashier on the Orient Express, but the act of letting a murderer go free is even more powerful in Five Little Pigs, and I think it’s interesting to note that while Poirot figures there’s no real evidence around to bring this killer to justice, he is satisfied that their existence is so awful, so much NOT a life to be lived, that some sort of justice IS being meted out on the culprit. This is a fascinating subset of the detective novel, and as you stated, it happens a lot in inverted mysteries, which I’m not terribly fond of – except sometimes the “justice” reserved for these killers is where the author inserts that same level of surprise that usually accompanies the revelation of an unknown killer. I’m not sure if other readers crave surprise as much as I do, but I’ll bet they feel something akin to what the audience at Oedipus Rex felt when they see some sort of justice befall the guilty. This is also why, when I see a nasty piece of “art” like the Netflix series Behind Her Eyes, where NO justice is wrought and NO evil is punished, I feel unclean and thoroughly dissatisfied. That kind of dark irony is a hard kind of clay to mold into anything worthwhile.


    • I dunno, man — I think if two books that overhauled detectio in fiction as much as Styles and The Cask were published in the same year and both had drwan out trials where the guilty are made to twist and have their ills slowly exposed…I think that would have been a huge part of what would follow. I don’t deny that trials are (typically) used the torment the innocent so that their (typically) eventual exoneration is all the more satisfying…but I think GAD only went in that direction because Chirstie and Crofts were directed away from the alternative.

      Either way, that sense of the miscreant — killer, blackmailer, thief, etc — being know and knowing that they are known is, I agree, key Whatever happens after, meh. Their suffering is brought to them, and how they deal with it after that is part of an entirely different genre altogether.


      • drawn out trials where the guilty are made to twist and have their ills slowly exposed…

        Ask Kate to tell you how much she enjoyed watching Raskolnikov twist for 800 pages after he killed the old woman in Crime and Punishment . . . “


        • Well, sure, I don’t mean the Russian version of “drawn out” — weeping housekeepers, weeping wet nurses, weeping taxi divers, noses coming to life and declaring themselves independent beings, then a long story about a man called Arkady whose goldfish was sad when he was sent away to the gulag for stealing bread (either Arkady or the goldfish, take your pick).

          I meant “drawn out” in the sense of “being brought to light” — the public humiliation of the privileged exposed as just as grubby, mean, and petty-minded as the cap-tippin’, toe-tappin’ barrow boy with a wonderful falsetto voice on the street.

          God, the cultural exposure of my early life really does have me confused, don’t it, guvna?


          • How dare you poke fun at my favorite story of all time, Anton Chekhov’s “Arkady and the Goldfish!” I first read it when I was 7, as punishment for applying a hot iron on the creased trousers of the boy across the street . . . while he was still in them. This story taught me pathos, it taught me irony, it taught me the meaning of the phrase “плиссированные брюки”. You, sir, are a действительно горячий парень!!!

            Secondly, I love the fact that you see an Englishman so willing to wipe out his family to inherit 10,000 pounds and then react with shame at a “long, drawn-out” trial. Plus, I love that you view the English public’s fomenting of that shame as a production number from Oliver!. You, sir, are an владелец многих книг!


            • You’ll have to use Google Translator to find out! I’ve never used such language in my life. I can’t remember all of it, but I might have called you “Princess Dragomiroff” at one point . . .


            • Google Translate said something about me being the owner of many hot pleated trousers…to which I say to you, Mr. Friedman Весной надувной замок теряет свой блеск.


  2. A thought provoking post. I’d say, however, that the GAD detective story is a metaphor for the good of the social order; the reality of evil; and, by comparison, an idea of the society we should all be trying to achieve for ourselves and our children.
    Canadian philosopher Rachel Haliburton (in The Ethical Detective) maintains that detective fiction is an important form of ethical/moral philosophy: detective stories offer to divert and entertain, and then by stealth get under their guard and get the reader/viewer to consider questions of good and evil and what makes – or corrupts – a well-functioning society. And since much of what supports social order are norms and the expectations of others, violations/transgressions of norms are more corrupting and dangerous than a convenience store robber. We expect the middle and upper classes to behave themselves. They aren’t policed the way garden variety thugs are policed. Because if we can’t count on ordinary people to do good even if they’re not being watched, then things fall apart – they’re the centre and they must hold. Christie and the other GAD authors set their works among the middle and upper classes because they recognized how dangerous that kind of criminal was to the social fabric.
    So Wrong is, I think, right to view the detective story as needing a moral/ethical point of view if it’s to be taken seriously. Sayers, Christie, Carr, Christopher Bush. Brian Flynn and their fellow GAD writers all approached the detective story as a form of morality play or as Catherine Aird said: “After all, what is the modern detective story but an extension of the medieval morality play.”


    • I love the idesa that the middle classes are not policed in the same way, and so that’s why all the shit that breaks out in GAD does so there. I don’t agreee with it for a second, but I think it’s an awesome idea 🙂

      And, yeah the notion of the detective story being “taken seriously” is an impotant one. If you’re going to engage in the stakes, and if you’re going to take an interest in the outcome, there has to be something about that style of tale that appeals to the universal order or sense of someone making a useful societal contribution. Leave the moral decay of the world at large to the SFF crowd…


      • Actually, I think you can make a good case that the middle and upper classes are not policed in the same way as “the lower orders”. People like Bernie Madoff operated a theft ring for over 20 years without any serious scrutiny simply because he lived on the Upper East Side, summered in the Hamptons and was a member of the right clubs – if it hadn’t have been for the financial collapse of 2008-09, he’d probably still be in operation. Or the woman in Bell Air who melted down her wedding ring to make the bullet which killed her husband (the jury found her not guilty “he had it coming”)

        Noah Stewart had some blog posts looking at “Brownstone Mysteries” and the role of social expectations in reflecting and enforcing societal norms (I really wish I’d saved those posts) and Auden, of course, wrote the Guilty Vicarage which goes along the same lines. Noah, as I recall, said that threats to social standing and reputation were the driving force in most GAD novels – whether cloaked in a need for money to maintain standing or fear of exposure or something else that would damage their (self-perceived) standing.

        I can’t recommend Haliburton’s book highly enough – she doesn’t hit the policing (that’s me, and me alone), but does spend much of the book discussing how detective novels are aspirational in nature, envisioning a better society. Societal norms are important and we, as a society, expect people to recognize and adhere to those norms even when no one is looking.

        Sorry for blithering on, but the moral/ethical aspect of detective novels is important.


        • Oh, my apologies, I realise my reply was phrased with badness. I completely agree that the middle and upper classes are not policed in the same way; what I didn’t believe is that that is the reason GAD novels take place there. The originators of GAD wrote what they knew, and were working at a time when the middle classes were the ones with the liesure time to write. It happened to work out well, is all 😄 The middle classes ended up the focus of most British GAD stories because they had access to the time, materials, and money needed to pull off the schemes. I’d argue it’s societal rather than…what’s the alternative? Philosophical? That’s not right, is it?

          My point is: look away from the British school, and you get a lot of non-middle and -upper class crime stories. Simenon focussed on the working classes, and made a superb job of it, and the US school had a rich tradition of The Working Man in its GAD and consequent Suspense literature. The contemporary writing in the genre that’s getting translated now from China, Italy, and elsewhere seems (on, undeniably, a small sample size…) to focus less on the middle classes. It was just British snobbishness that made us want to read about supposedly Good People who didn’t know better…!

          And no apology needed. I didn’t write 3000 words on morals to be ungrateful when someone wants to discuss morals. I should apologise for wording my initial reply so ambiguously.


          • Fair points all around, particularly Simenon and the few Italian authors I’ve are less focused on the upper middle class (although Maigret isn’t that impressed with the professional class and the nobility and De Angelis, de Giovanni, Camilleri and Donna Leon span the classes). However, while less focused on those classes, they’re challenging the reader to consider questions of good and evil and what makes – or corrupts – a well-functioning society.

            You’re right, of course, that GAD authors wrote about what they knew (what here in Canada we refer to as PLU – People Like Us), but they were aware of the norms and the importance of norms to a well-functioning – if imperfect – society.

            Anyway, have a pleasant evening. If you’re interested in Haliburton’s book, DM me and I’ll lend you my copy. It’s an academic book, so expensive beyond all understanding. It blew a massive hole in my 2019 book budget, but worth it.

            Take care and hope you’re in a green zone (that’s the way you’re re-opening, isn’t it?).


  3. Hi there, JJ. Interesting topic.
    Christianna Brand is a really curious case, her worldview and method of writing is clearly GAD, but her characters are out of the realist movement and were old-fashioned back in the 40s. Then you have Halter’s case: his detectives are clearly moralists who, in many cases, disregard the laws. The author’s worldview, however, is cynical and dark. Put two and two together and you have the recipe for hardboiled novels… and yet he’s clearly a classic mystery writer. I guess, in the end, it’s all about logic and fair play.
    I’m not going to deal with the comments about social classes all that much. Sufice it to say that nowadays we divide everyone by race, class, religion and sex to the point that there are no individuals anymore, but a series of traits and groups one belongs to by force, and said group represents the totality of X trait. What was the name of this German guy, oh, snap, I forgot. Back in the day the way of thinking was different. There were honest people who got rich by working hard, and crooks. Nowadays every “upper class” individual is a crook unless he’s part of the government (thiefs) or a propagandist. After purging the honest rich, the “middle class” becomes the govt’s target. There are things common people can’t understand about were the world is heading towards unless they live in countries which already got there, like Argentina or Venezuela. The point is, it’s really hard to achieve the second golden age of detective fiction Tomcat wants without returning to the moral thinking of old, and that’s bloody unlikely…and yet, tides change all the time. I really hope it happens in my lifetime, though!


    • The detection can still be good, though. Any second Golden Age wouldn’t be expected to stem from the same situation and so wouldn’t have the same moral core — that’s not the key ingredient for good books, though. Things like “publishers not misusing the term locked room mystery” and “not comparing every mystery writer to Agatha Christie regardless of style” is how we get a second Golden Age, because it encourages people to think about a book’s content, style, focus, and intent…the things that, like, make it good both on its own and in context.

      We won’t get a second Golden Age any time soon, because there’s no appetite for this.


      • Well, JJ, if you tell everyone your author is the new Agatha Christie, you are generating lofty expectations and you’ll have to back that shit up. Even if the writer is relatively competent, you are dooming him because of said comparison. I’d wager publishers would reject a real new Agatha Christie, because they would consider such content dated and lacking social compromise or whatever. Anyway, look what happens when they announce a new locked room author and there’s no locked room to be found. You’ll decide, almost immediately, not to buy a book from that writer ever again, and you might even reject the publisher outright for lying to customers through false advertisement. So no, that isn’t a clever tactic. Never was, never will be.


  4. The most important point of any story is to be something *interesting* to the reader. That of course covers a lot of ground, but what I mean is that there’s no fundamental reason crime fiction and/or detective fiction NEEDs to show the criminal being caught and punished. Trials are rarely interesting, with some obvious exceptions like most Perry Mason novels, and so, it does not usually further the detective novel to dwell on the trial and punishment of the criminal after he’s been uncovered by the detective.

    And that’s the point about what I like in Detective fiction, the resolution of the mystery, not the resolution of the criminal. It may be more satisfying for some readers to know that the criminal isn’t just discovered, but caught., but it’s hardly necessary to resolve the mystery.

    If there ever is a new Golden Age of Detective fiction, it seems to me that it will be even less likely to getting around to punishing the criminals, just because of how society has changed since the 1930s and 40s.

    As for criminals as protagonists, well of course they can be interesting to read about. But what bothers me about Raffles and his ilk is that they usually aren’t Detective fiction, although they can be when done well. The Saint, or Erle Stanley Gardner’s Paul Pry usually have to figure out what kind of criminal operation is going on before they can take a hand and interfere with it, which certainly can involve some detective work. And it can be interesting to see what kind of con or counter operation they use to upset things. But it still seems to be mostly NOT detective fiction, although it is crime fiction.

    And as an addendum, a blackmailer can be a morally good guy, if, for example, he’s blackmailing someone who managed to get away with an actual crime and avoid legal punishment for it, and not simply someone who is an accidental bigamist or posed for nude pictures when they were younger. But I’m not sure how you can make interesting stories out of a blackmailer protagonist.

    And finally, a point that’s been bugging me for years. Why does so much detective fiction, especially the novels, focus on murder? Detective short stories, at least, tend to be a bit more diverse and focus on thefts and such, and not just murder, perhaps because it’s harder to do a murder mystery in a limited number of pages. One reason I like reading young adult mysteries (aka Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and so, so many Scholastic Reader Services books) is that they usually don’t feature murders, simply mysterious situations or events that need clearing up.


    • You make an interesting point there about “the resolution of the mystery, not the resolution of the criminal” — criminals have been going free since the 19th century, so the resolution of the plot has always been paramount in the genre. An open-ended plot, left unresolved, would probably find itself being accused of literary pretentions, and shunned by we genre snobs as Noy Our Sort Of Thing.

      As to murders…I don’t know why the predominate. Sometimes murder is done as part of an initially different mystery, I suppose to reassure us that the crime is suitably heinous to be worth spending this much time examining, or that the criminal is a suitably unpleasant type who warrants the punishment they (usually) have coming. Other crimes might be justifiable, or might evoke sympathy with the criminal, and so their punishment might be seen as too harsh.

      And, I suppose, since the Hay’s Code was in force on the screen, there may have been a certain amount of bleeding into other forms of entertainment: the criminal cannot be allowed to get away with their crime. So you make that something the reader will hope for by making the crime as serious as they can get.



      • Sure, murder is just about the worst crime you can come up with, short of something like mass murder or genocide, and as such, it requires the strongest motivations for someone to commit murder, which I suppose many writers think will make their story more interesting. Although with some writers who tend to write cardboard characters, you have to wonder why they bother with murder except that it was merely the convention of the detective story. But really, I don’t find murder itself very interesting, regardless of whether it’s sanitized or gory. And isn’t that why most GAD writers spend so much time coming up with clever ways of committing murder? Not just to present the puzzle, but to make the story more interesting? What would a John Dickson Carr mystery be if it didn’t center on a seemingly impossible crime?

        Also, it seems that if a murder has occurred, you have to go to greater lengths to allow an amateur or private detective more space to work with without interference from the police. Unless, of course, your protagonist IS a policeman. With non-murder mysteries, there’s ample room for amateurs to take the field and investigate the situation. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of police procedurals, although I’ve really started taking to the earlier Humdrum stories where police detectives investigate (like Inspector French), although it doesn’t seem so very “procedural” to me.

        And the part about the story starting with a different mystery and turning into murder reminds me of the Donald Lam and Bertha Cool stories (yes, I’m a big fan of Erle Stanley Gardner, and not just the Perry Masons). They usually started off with some kind of insurance investigation or the like, and then murder or murders occur.


        • What would a John Dickson Carr mystery be if it didn’t center on a seemingly impossible crime?

          Well, in the case of…

          The Punch and Judy Murders
          The Eight of Swords
          Seat of the Scornful
          The Four False Weapons
          The Emperor’s Snuff-Box
          and (some might say) The Problem of the Green Capsule

          …it would be awesome. But then impossible crime novels — the good ones, at least — always struck me more as someone having come up with a great idea, rather than starting with the concept of a murder. But then I could be completely wrong here, of course.

          Liked by 1 person

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