Golden Age Mysteries - An Overview

Mystery novels written during the genre's "Golden Age" were the popular favorite for writing and reading alike. Written to excite not only the imagination but also the puzzle-solving instincts of riddlers everywhere, they invited them on an investigation of a grizzly crime without their having to ever leave the cozy warmth of their fire-side reading chair. They were characterized by the spirit of sportsmanship extended by the author to their audience, and it was this time when the genre enjoyed what would come to be known as "the puzzle" or, less popularly, "the game". This "puzzle", as it shall hereafter be referred to as, is the inclination for such novels to offer to the reader all clues and surmises by the sleuth they need in order to, with some challenge, come to the proper conclusion about the crime before the detective and with minimal to no guesswork.

The popular conventions of mystery novels can be traced back as far as the writing of the Bible and records of criminal cases in ancient China. However, it was Edgar Allan Poe, best known for popularizing modern gothic fiction, who would write the first formal detective story in"Murders in the Rue Morgue". "Murders in the Rue Morgue" follows C. Auguste Dupin as he investigates the murder of two women that occurred inside of a fourth-story room locked from the inside with the only key. It was in this story Poe codifies the paradigms for both locked room murders and Sherlockian "super sleuths", and he would go on to follow it up with two more, "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" and "The Purloined Letter". In 1868, 24 years after "The Purloined Letter", the first detective novel would appear in the form of the epistolary The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which follows the theft of a precious diamond a young woman inherited on her eighteenth birthday.

The genre in its most basic form began to make its way out of America. It was pioneered in France by Émile Gaboriau. Her writing would inspire the later Gaston Leroux, a detective fiction author better known for The Phantom of the Opera, who went on to write one of the first locked room mystery novels with The Mystery of the Yellow Room. In Spain, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón would write The Nail and other Tales of Mystery and Crime, but Spanish detective fiction would quickly take on a form different than we know it, instead focusing on themes of police corruption. Cheng Xiaoqing, much later, would write the "Sherlock in Shanghai" series which appropriated the style of Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries to a Chinese audience. And, where the genre is known to have set-up camp and find its forever-home, in Britain the genre was introduced by the writings of Mary Elizabeth Braddon with The Trail of the Serpent. It was from the trails blazed by Braddon that the genre would explode in all of its splendor in the British world.

Following the example set by Braddon's writing and taking it a step further, in 1887 "The Study of Scarlet" would become the debut appearance of Sherlock Holmes and it was by him that the seedling for the idea of a detective story following a "puzzle" was planted. Though the narrator Dr. John Watson himself admits to withholding many of the clues that lead to the solution of the crime in order to make Sherlock Holmes's already-spectacular feats appear all the more impressive, Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries can still be argued as being more fair with the audience than any of his predecessors' can claim. This seedling would grow with the writing of Mary Roberts Rinehart, who became known as "America's Agatha Christie" -- despite the fact that she wrote long before Christie did -- and the writer who coined the phrase "the butler did it" -- despite the fact she never wrote or spoke that phrase at all during her career. Though Rinehart's mysteries often didn't follow some of what would come to be known as "rules of the genre", her writing worked to engage the reader in solving the "puzzle" much more than those who wrote before her.

Finally, the idea came to full fruition -- the proverbial seedling sprouted into a wondrous flower -- with the appearance of the "Knox Decalogue". Seeing the last of the seedling metaphor, the "water" used to nurture the flower to adulthood were the efforts by writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and other members of the "Detection Club". It was their writing and the conventions developed by them that inspired Father Ronald Knox's "Knox Decalogue", ten rules for writing good and compelling, and fair and challenging, mystery fiction. The rules go as follows:

1.) The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
2.) All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3.) Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4.) No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5.) No Chinaman must figure in the story. (this was a criticism of people of eastern origin frequently becoming the culprits as a matter of course.
6.) No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7.) The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8.) The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
9.) The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10.) Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

It was with these rules established that the "puzzle" in its most refined form would be established in the genre, and would become the very basis on which many if not most detective novels would be written for decades to follow. This was when the genre saw the popularizing of "The Puzzle" and "The Game", and during much of the time the "puzzle" was the focus of writing. Characters were frequently caricatures needed to keep other characters moving. Plots were simply what they needed to be to present the facts of the case. But this was the sacrifice made in order to highlight a game of detection, and it was one accepted and eventually beloved.

During the Golden Age, a group of writers known as "The Detection Club", formed by many like-minded authors, created the self-stylized upper echelons of the genre and is still standing to this. The Detection Club was designed so that those who appreciated the craft -- and had their work recognized, as the group is admission-by-invitation only -- could gather and share word of their artifice and, quite frequently, discuss the world of true crime. Such names that had been favorites of the time such as Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkely, Freeman Wills Crofts and many more ranked among its numbers.

After a while, public opinion towards the Golden Age-styled detective novel swayed, and scathing criticisms of the genre came about with works like "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" as the crime fiction world began to favor more gritty depictions of crime like Raymond Chandler's noir/hard-boiled mystery novels.

Of course, the genre isn't entirely dead and the story doesn't end there -- lest we wouldn't be here, naturally.

The genre's popularity prevails still in Japan in the form of the "shin-honkaku" school of writing, invoked popularly by Ayatsuji Yukito and Alice Arisugawa. This school of mystery writing seeks to popularly reinstate the style of the Golden Age in modern literature. Entering more into the world of modern popular culture, the shin-honkaku school's impact has come west-side to younger audiences through popular manga series like "Detective Conan" and "Kindaichi Case Files" and Japanese video game franchises like "Ace Attorney" and "Danganronpa" which take the element of "interactive solving" to a whole new, literal level.

Since the Japanese renaissance of the genre, a faint heart-beat can be found in the world of English-speaking writers. Works like James Scott Byrnside's Good Night, Irene and The Opening-Night Murders, and Sophie Hannah's green-lighting by the Christie estate to write the "New Hercule Poirot Mysteries" -- The Monogram Murders, The Closed Casket, The Mystery of the Three Quarters and, upcoming in 2020, The Killings at Kingfischer Hill -- prove as much. With renewed interest in the genre, multiple informative pieces have also come about, the most impressive being Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders, where he offers a solid overview of the locked room mystery genre and offers a compendious list of impossible crimes and their solutions. Along with these articles, companies like Locked Room International and Dean Street Press have come about, publishing old books once thought to be lost to time like the works of Christopher Bush, Brian Flynn and Paul Halter for the reading enjoyment of modern audiences everywhere.

This blog is, to put it simply, just another hopeful step towards a renaissance. The dream of bringing the genre in all of its splendor into the 21st century with a newfound appreciation. It is with that dream, I say wholeheartedly:

Welcome to the New Age of Detective Fiction.


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