The end of the Golden Age?

CluedoToday I was scanning some blogs I enjoy when I came across a brief post on At The Villa Rose in which the author says, in reference to Crime and Detective Stories (an irregular journal that usually contains fascinating non-fiction articles about detective fiction) #67, “I could have done without Mike Ripley dissing traditional mysteries, though.”

Mr. Ripley is then quoted as saying:

“The idea of a novel as an artificial puzzle, a literary parlour game or an extended cryptic crossword did not appeal to me: then or now. I am firmly of the opinion that the so-called Golden Age of that sort of English detective story ended in 1949 when it was replaced by the board game Cluedo. Not, in my opinion, a moment too soon.”

Well, I beg to differ for a number of different reasons, partly because I’ve coincidentally been reading a 1926 article by Willard Huntington Wright — better known to mystery connoisseurs as S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance novels — called The Detective Novel in which he appears to specifically disavow the relationship of the detective story to the cryptic crossword.

Helen Eustis

Helen Eustis

Many years ago, I remember reading The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, published in 1946, and said to myself, “Well, THAT was the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” I remember thinking that it seemed to me the the first time that what then might have been called “abnormal psychology” formed a crucial part of the solution to a mystery, and that it was the first mystery where the solution might not have been understood by one’s maiden aunt (and certainly would have met with violent disapproval). I’m not absolutely sure that that novel remains my choice to signal the end of the Golden Age; I’m starting to think that it was more of a slow, gradual fade-wipe between one style and another. And I’m also not prepared to say authoritatively that The Horizontal Man is the first such novel (I’d want to re-read Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer and do quite a bit more research); that’s just a memory of my moment of awareness that the Golden Age actually did come to an end.

012-01I could be persuaded that the beginning of the end was prefigured by the 1936 publication of “Murder off Miami” by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links — the first “dossier novel”, which seems to me to more accurately represent Ripley’s point about the detective novel being reduced to a kind of abstract game experience. And yet, if that is the case, how are we to feel about Ellery Queen’s “Challenge to the Reader”, wherein the fourth wall is broken and the mystery is revealed to be, after all, an artificial puzzle? 

2132_7f90There’s an article in Wikipedia called “The Golden Age of Detective Fiction” which offers Julian Symons as a reference such that the Golden Age was “the Twenties and the Thirties” and suggests that Philip Van Doren Stern’s article, “The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley”, from 1941, “could serve … as an obituary for the Golden Age.” I was considerably amused by the “talk page” accompanying that article where some pompous little oaf waggles his finger and says that, because a Yahoo discussion group thinks it’s 1910 to 1960, so it must be or else “Wikipedia will have egg all over its face.” And yet the very blogging challenge in which I’m participating, the “Vintage Mystery Bingo” challenge, agrees with 1960 as the cut-off date. Honestly, I think 1960 is just ridiculous. These people are confusing the continued publication of puzzle mysteries with their membership in a literary movement. This is rather like insisting that, because people still continue to ride horses, therefore the horse and buggy are still a viable form of transportation. I suspect that a great deal of the reason that the Yahoo discussion group wants the boundary to extend to 1960 is because they want to discuss books that they enjoy, and some of them fall outside any logical boundary; just because Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie began working in the Golden Age doesn’t mean their entire oeuvre defines the Age ipso facto. I’d prefer a more logical boundary than mere personal preference.

eustis1I’ve been giving these issues some thought lately, mostly because this blog’s most recent post has enjoyed a great deal of discussion in the comments section about the Humdrum School, and the fascinating insights have provoked me to consider the idea that the decline of the Humdrums and the decline of the Golden Age go hand in hand. In fact, I’m in the throes of some kind of insight that has to do with an X/Y axis, where one line moves from realism to fantasy and the other moves from the detective’s POV to that of the criminal. It might be that “the end of the Golden Age” might merely be the point at which the balance tipped from preferring the POV of the detective to preferring the POV of the criminal — and another balance tipped from a preference to realism towards a preference to fantasy. (Today, I think, the marketplace’s domination by the cozy represents a return swing towards the POV of the detective but now presented in a fantasy modality.)

However, I will throw this question out for discussion. Do you think there is a particular event that precisely defines the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction? If it’s a particular book, which one? Perhaps that might be a year, or a range of dates; what might that be? And if you think that 1960 is the correct date, why on earth do you think so?

Postscript, later the same day: And, as if upon cue, another mystery-oriented blog I follow, Beneath the Stains of Time, today had a post wherein the opening sentence is “The year 1920 is generally accepted as a semiofficial starting point for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which witnessed the debut of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the rest, as they say, is history.”  And I’ll accept that very sensible statement backed with sensible evidence.  So the starting point is 1920; thank you TomCat!

41 thoughts on “The end of the Golden Age?

  1. You touch on so many interesting things here Noah! Mr Ripley of course knows his cadlestick from his split-personality disorder better than most and to a degree I know what he means – too many books that are all plot and nothing else pall very quickly for me too – but give it some dash, vigour and humour a la Carr or Crispin and I’m hooked again! I think I know why the likes of Bev pick the basically arbitrary end of the 50s as it coincided, if nothing else, with what seemed like the end of the Ellery Queen series and the deaths of Craig Rice, Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Sayers – and the publication of Robert Bloch’s PSYCHO, which followed on from Eustis, Millar and Fredric Brown but was mainly different in becoming a smash hit thanks to the movie. That the Golden Age represents the world that we associate as being from between the World Wars, even if it continued into the 1950s and the paperback original revolution, seems basically rue to me too – but I bet there will be lots of debate on this – great topic Noah – bravo!

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Then let me hesitantly say that you are homing in on the Golden Age as ending — well, somewhere between the end of WWII and a nebulous date in the 1950s that is connected with the paperback original revolution. Craig Rice died in 1957, Chandler in 1959 and Sayers in 1957. Bloch published PSYCHO in 1959 and Ellery Queen published THE FINISHING STROKE in 1958, which I will suggest is what you mean by “what seemed like the end of the Ellery Queen series”. It certainly seems that way to me (although for me there’s a case to be made that CAT OF MANY TAILS (1949) was the last novel featuring Ellery that wasn’t a self-parodic rehashing of earlier work). Anyway, the range you’ve suggested seems to be 1957 to 1959.
      So that’s something, and it’s certainly more sensible than the Wikipedian contributor who seemed to think that as long as Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie kept pumping out unreadable novels, the Golden Age did not die. It’s hard to say when Craig Rice published her last decent mystery; perhaps THE FOURTH POSTMAN in 1948. Chandler published almost nothing after 1954’s THE LONG GOODBYE. And Sayers’s last mystery novel was BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON in 1937.
      As far as the paperback original revolution — Fawcett Gold Medal started publishing original paperbacks in 1950. I admit I hadn’t thought of that particular advancement as being connected with the Golden Age, which gives rise to another possibility. Could it be that the end of the Golden Age was signalled, not by some triggering Golden Age novel or author’s death, but by something that marked the beginning of whatever movement that replaced it?

      • Well, we are never going to get a clear cut off point, as you point out, and I was partly looking to explain the way that people like Bev Hankin say the Golden Age ended with the 1950s, an admittedly arbitrary date once you get past the World Wars – what is true is that in the US the arrival of JFK seemed to signal a seachange from the Eisenhower era of comformity – in the UK you might have to wait for the arrival of the Beatles (as Larkin would have us believe). Certainly by the time Rendell and PD James are publishing the world has changed substantially so that by the sixties even Agatha Christie refers to fake nostaliga in the likes of AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL – The fact that John Dickson Carr from 1950 onwards moved almost explusively into the past for the rest of the decade certainly also suggests a changing time. As for Queen, THE FINISHING STROKE was by all accounst intended to be Ellery’s last case and indeed, when he returend belatedly it was mostly without Manfred Lee – fascinating stuff Noah!

  2. Albert says:

    If we think of the Golden Age as the domination of the main current of detective fiction by the fair play mystery, which includes the prominent detective, the multiple clues, the maps, etc., then the end of the Golden Age would be the rise to dominance of a different mode of telling the story. I think a case can be made that the publication of I, the Jury by Spillane in 1947 signaled the end of the Golden Age fair play mystery and the rise to dominance of the hard-boiled story. The hard-boiled story had existed in Black Mask with the Race Williams and Continental Op stories since the early 1920s, but that was a side mode. Mike Hammer’s trigger finger really brought his kind of detective story to predominance. After 1947, most of the Golden Age writers had either stopped writing or had only a few more books to go. Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and John Rhode were still there, but their method of writing a detective story was no longer the dominant mode. It is a rare detective novel after 1947 that has a map or a railway timetable or a list of clues in the text.

    As far as the psychological detective story goes, I think there were plenty of those published before 1947. Freudian psychology was used as early as 1910 in The Achievements of Luther Trant and in various Craig Kennedy stories. The work of Cornell Woolrich also comes to mind.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Thank you for this excellent contribution; I have to admit that 1947 sounds much more reasonable to me than anything closer to 1960. I’m still wondering if the hard-boiled story was the dominant modality of the detective story — this period also saw the beginnings of the police procedural, but the date for that is generally accepted to begin with 1952’s LAST SEEN WEARING by Hilary Waugh. I think I will suggest that the hard-boiled story was a lot more dominant than the procedural and so I’ll agree with you but with a small reservation.
      I think you’ve also put your finger on the point that I was suggesting, that it wasn’t so much that a particular event signalled the end of the Golden Age but that a particular event signalled the beginning of another Age.

      • Albert says:

        Thank you for your response. As far as the police procedural goes, I have always thought that Freeman Wills Crofts started off that mode with The Cask in 1920. If Henry Wade was not writing a police procedural with The Duke of York’s Steps (1929) and if Helen Reilly was not doing so with McKee of Centre Street (1934), then I don’t know what to call them. (The back of the front cover of McKee even has a copy of the tag affixed the decedent’s body!) The Fire Marshal Pedley stories of Stewart Sterling first appeared in the pulps and he graduated to hard covers with Five Alarm Funeral in 1942. The Pedley stories are undoubtedly procedurals. Sterling even quotes from official documents, fire regulations, etc. Ellery Queen seems to think that the procedural started with Lawrence Treat’s V as in Victim (1945), but I think that date is too late.

        The upshot is I think that the period from 1900 to 1950 was one of great experimentation in the detective field. In fact, they may have exhausted its possibilities. I think you can find numerous examples of virtually every possible type of mystery fiction during that period either in the novels, the popular magazines or the pulps. We see the scientific detective (Dr. Thorndyke), the science fictional detective (Craig Kennedy, Taine of San Francisco), the Insurance detective (Miles Bredon) etc., etc. However, each period also has a dominant mode of expression.

        I would divide the mystery field into eight time periods, each with its predominant mode of expression:
        1. Beginning Period: From Poe to Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1887). The genre is beginning to develop.
        2. Period of the Great Detective: From A Study in Scarlet (1887) to The Old Man in the Corner (1909). In this period the dominant mode of expression is the Great Detective, cerebral and often eccentric. The dominating figure is Sherlock Holmes.
        3. First Transition: (1910 to 1920) A more realistic type of detective starts to make an appearance, with the type represented by Bentley’s Philip Trent (Trent’s Last Case, 1913).
        4. Golden Age: (1920 to 1942) 1920 seems a good stating point: we see books published by Crofts, H. C. Bailey and Agatha Christie in that year. Fair play mystery is the predominant mode.
        5. Second Transition (1942 to 1947): During this period we see a waning of the fair play detective. For instance, Charlotte Armstrong begins with a fair-play type detective (MacDougal Duff) in 1942, but he makes his last appearance in 1945. Lawrence Treat begins with a fair-play detective (Carl Wayward) in 1940, but he makes his last appearance in 1943, dropped in favor of police procedurals in 1945.
        6. Hard-Boiled Period: (1947 -1960) Predominant mode is the private detective, and main type is Mike Hammer. Hard-boiled crime novels (Gold Key) also common.
        7. Spy Novel (1960-1970) Fleming, le Carre, Deighton predominant. Even Spillane gives us Tiger Mann.
        8. Decadence (1970-present): In this period I see very little experimentation, but mainly a reiteration of former modes. I see no evidence of a “Silver Age.” This is not to say some fine work is not being produced, but it lacks the inventiveness of prior periods.

        I would note that this scheme is not fixed. You will find all the various types being practiced from the 1920s onward, but the dominant mode shifts after transitional periods, in the same manner as other complex adaptive systems. For instance, the Great Detective is still riding high to this day in the form of Sherlock Holmes; but just how original are these new iterations?

  3. Albert says:

    If we look at Ellery Queen, for instance, his predominant mode of constructing a mystery in the 1930s was the heavily clued fair play mysteries like The Chinese Orange Mystery. By 1949, however, Queen was producing a story with prominent psychological and sociological underpinning like Cat of Many Tails. It is still a fair play mystery, but the elements going into the mystery have changed. Historically, the late 1940s were undoubtedly influenced by the psychological aftereffects of World War II and a rise in interest in Freudian psychology.

  4. Albert says:

    Or, for instance, Margaret Millar in the second transitional period. She began with a fair-play type detective, Paul Prye, in 1941 and then Inspector Sands in 1943, but they were both gone by 1945. Thereafter she still wrote many fine detective novels, but they were also psychological studies, such as How Like an Angel (1962). She only went back to the series detective with Tom Aragon in Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976), but those were not in fair-play mode.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Albert, I’ve been ruminating on your comments ever since I saw them, and the one thing I’m *sure* of is that I would love to buy you a beer or two and sit in the corner of a friendly pub and talk about this for hours!! There’s much here with which I agree, some with which I completely disagree, and quite a bit where I think the problem is merely one of definition; you and I would agree on the subject matter, we’re just calling it different names.
      Rather than write what would probably be something the length of a master’s thesis with respect to your point #8, “Decadence”, I will just say that I think if you look at the period from a female reader’s point of view you would get a quite, quite different answer. I think 1977’s EDWIN OF THE IRON SHOES, by Marcia Muller, began something that concatenates through detective fiction to the present and beyond; a New Wave, as it might be called, or even dare I suggest a “Silver Age”; not in inventiveness, because I agree with you on that point, but in focus and marketing. But that is beyond the scope of the question I asked, unfortunately.
      It is with great regret that I’m going to restrain myself and return to the central question, can we pinpoint an end to the Golden Age? You seemed to say at first that it’s 1947, with the publication of I, THE JURY, but then you identify the period between 1942 and 1947 as your point #5, “Second transition”. I’m really curious about what it is specifically about 1942 that causes you to identify it as the end of the Golden Age (your point #4).
      Thank you to you and Sergio SO much for sharing your scholarship and erudition with us. This is the kind of topic that I long to discuss with someone who has obviously given it as much time and thought as you folks, and I’m grateful that you have given it so much thought and effort in response!! Please consider that all my comments are from someone who is in the process of handing all my commenters a large stein of beer in a comfortable pub and saying, “Please, tell me more, your ideas are fascinating.”

  5. TomCat says:


    You asked me to speculate on when the Golden Age period ended and before doing that, I want to point out how impossibly difficult it’s to bookmark this period between two exact titles, writers or years. There are readers who mark the publications of E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case and Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear as the starting point and others wedge the Golden Age between World War I and II.

    I have come to define the period as following:

    1920s as a transitional period from the pre-GAD era (Doyle, Chesterton, Freeman, etc.) to GAD and introduced writers such as Christie, Sayers, Berkeley and Bailey.

    1930s was naturally the most successful and recognizable period of the era.

    1940s is generally considered the end of this period, however, I see it as an extension of the previous (golden) decade, in which writers such as Brand and Crispin debuted and established writers were still producing some of their finest works.

    1950s is when this period began to lose its shine and began to transition (rapidly) from the GAD to whatever passes today for a mystery novel.

    I’m sure this hasn’t been half as helpful as you’d probably hoped for, but these are the imaginary borders I use to define the Golden Age.

  6. TomCat says:


    You asked me to speculate on when the Golden Age period ended and before doing that, I want to point out how impossibly difficult it’s to bookmark this period between two exact titles, writers or years. There are readers who mark the publications of E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case and Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear as the starting point and others wedge the Golden Age between World War I and II.

    I have come to define the period as following:

    1920s as a transitional period from the pre-GAD era (with Doyle, Chesterton, Freeman, etc.) to GAD and introduced writers such as Christie, Sayers, Berkeley and Bailey.

    1930s was naturally the most successful and recognizable period of the era.

    1940s is generally considered the end of this period, however, I see it as an extension of the previous (golden) decade, in which writers such as Brand and Crispin debuted and established writers were still producing some of their finest works.

    1950s is when this period began to lose its shine and began to transition (rapidly) from the GAD to whatever passes today as a mystery novel.

    I’m sure this hasn’t been half as helpful as you’d probably hoped for, but these are the imaginary borders I use to define the Golden Age.

  7. Albert says:

    Thank you for your comments. As far as the end of the Golden Age and other periods go, I think of it in the manner of a system. As any system increases in complexity it also grows increasingly unstable over time. Finally the tipping point is reached, there is one last shove, and the old system collapses. Smaller, nimbler systems, which had existed all the time, now have the freedom to achieve dominance.You may think of it in terms of biological evolution. The dinosaur system fed on large quantities of energy and grew larger, more complex and then more unstable. When finally the meteor hit (if that is what happened), the dinosaur system was so unstable that it collapsed. The mammal system, which had existed along side the dinosaurs, was simple and adaptable, so it survived and grew to dominance. So the end of the dinosaur system was a long time in preparation but its final collapse was sudden, just as you see in the collapse of a stock market.

    The detective story is a system of ideas, and its development works the same way. The Golden Age system became increasingly complex as all the various ploys were worked out, and as it grew in complexity, it became increasingly unstable. You had to try more and more plot devices to achieve the same effect. The solutions to the cases got longer and longer. By the time the early 1940s was reached, the system was getting soft and unstable and the War had its own psychological impact on mass psychology. It is difficult to celebrate rationality in the face of mass slaughter and atom bombs. So the Golden Age system became more and more cumbersome and outmoded over the 1940s. When Spillane came along with a type of story more consistent with the mood of the times, the Golden Age system collapsed and the hardboiled mode rose to dominance. All you had to do was look at the sales figures. It is important to note that the hardboiled mode, like the thriller, the scientific detective, etc. had existed all the time. The hardboiled mode goes back as early as 1923.The new modes just had to wait for their time in the sun. So after the hardboiled mode rose to dominance in 1947, it also had its time and followed the same process, becoming exhausted as the dominant mode by 1960. After that, the thriller took over as the dominant mode, in the form of the spy story. This also was consistent with the needs of the time: the Cold War was at its height. But the thriller dates back at least to John Buchan, and was it turn an outgrowth of the future war story, which is a theme of science fiction. We can see this with an early work of this type such as The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erskine Childers. So the thriller just had to wait for the old system to weaken and for the times to be ripe to rise to dominance in its turn.

    The problem then is where are the new modes and the new ideas in the modern detective story? I don’t see any. What does it say about the state of detective fiction if some of the most popular TV detective shows star Sherlock Holmes (indeed, parodies of Holmes) and Hercule Poirot? In short, it appears to me that the detective form in our culture has reached a state of ideational exhaustion. This mirrors the exhaustion of Western culture as a whole, both intellectually and artistically.

    As far as the modern politically correct detective novel goes, I do not think they are detective novels at all. Rather, they are a perversion and termination of the process of the development of the detective story. The detective story is an art form that celebrates rationality and social solidarity. The politically correct novel replaces art with propaganda, social solidarity with tribalism and intergroup conflict, and reason with irrationalism. It is important to note that in the Golden Age, it was not just the detectives that had to be rational. The murderers had to be rational as well, in order to spin their intricate plots.

    It is not surprising therefore that one of the dominant modes in the modern detective novel is the psychotic serial killer story. That way, the author does not have to work with rational motivation at all. The psychotic serial killer goes back at least as far as Philip MacDonald’s Murder Gone Mad (1931), (as I stated, ideas have long roots), but I think it is instructive that this type of story has such importance in modern detective fiction. It is the celebration of rationality that is gone. But once that is gone, the entire underpinnings of the detective story are undermined. This is the decadence of the entire art form. Nor do I see any new mode waiting to take its place, as has happened before in the manner I have related. All the politically correct writers have done is to change the detective story from being an art form into becoming another battlefield in the culture war. I do not spend my good money on other people’s propaganda.

    As far as Marcia Muller goes, it does not appear to me that altering the sex or race of the protagonist does anything to advance the art form. If people want to write mainstream novels (which I think is what most modern detective story writers want to do), then that is what they should do, and quit trying to make it into a detective novel just by throwing in a dead body. I am sure there are worthy authors now writing, but I have not run across too many of them.

    The findings of modern science give any author an almost unlimited fund of new ideas and techniques for crime. Authors like the sadly neglected Arthur B. Reeve exploited these potentialities to the hilt. For instance, in a single story, “The Black Hand,” (written about 1912) Reeve wrote what is probably the first story dealing with Italian organized crime. The story also presented an early use of wire tapping as an investigative tool, and the first use of ricin as a murder weapon. The writers over at Breaking Bad were congratulating themselves on their originality in using ricin; they were 100 years too late. This is the sort of thing that needs to be done today. I think that anyone could pick up any scientific journal and come up with a dozen new ideas. But who is interested in doing that? All they want to do is write Holmes parodies, pseudo-historical novels, and talk about their detective’s drinking problems, martial problems, children’s problems, and sexual proclivities. This is the sort of thing you see when an art form has reached its end and is being employed for purposes other that what was intended: the detection of a crime by a detective.

    This note got a bit longer than intended, but I thought I should make my position plain. However, I am certainly open to news of anyone you think is good. Do you have any suggestions?

  8. Albert says:

    As far as 1942 as the year I think the mode started to change, that relates back to authors I mentioned, such as Charlotte Armstrong, Lawrence Treat, Margaret Millar or Dorothy Hughes: they start off the decade looking like Golden Age authors but abandon any real semblance of that mode by the end of WW II. That seems to me to be a general trend in that period.

  9. Albert says:

    In other words, the authors I mentioned represent a new generation of authors who began writing in the 1940s, It did not take them long to discard many of the methods of their predecessors. So in the 1940s, you see a change in generation and changing social and economic circumstances, and the exhaustion of the old methods,so it should not be surprising if the structure and content of the detective story did not change with it.

  10. Noah Stewart says:

    Well, again, Albert, you’ve provided so much that I’m still digesting … but returning to the central question, I think I grasp that you’re suggesting 1942 (or thereabouts; I can’t see any specific novel or writer or event in 1942 that seems significant) began a kind of interregnum where the old guard declined and Mickey Spillane was waiting to burst upon the scene in 1947.
    I’ve been reading so much background material on this in the last day or so that I’m getting muddled, but my thinking is moving in the direction that 1942 to 1947 marks a time where two things were happening. One is that readers wanted stories with more realism and less abstraction/stylized crime solving, and the other is that … and I’m not quite sure how to express this … instead of wanting stories where protagonist detectives restored order to a disrupted social system by punishing individual criminals, readers began to want stories that reflected protagonist detectives’ attempts to make sense of a chaotic and disrupted social system that could not and would not return to what it was before WWII. I’m thinking that at a time when Western society was worried that the atomic bomb could kill millions at a time, the problems of a country house murder became almost trivial.
    Anyway — I think I’m going to settle on 1947 and the publication of I, THE JURY as a useful place to divide the Golden Age from whatever happened afterwards; I have to say I’m not married to this date, but for utility’s sake it will come in handy for now. I’ll have to think a lot more about what happened next.
    I’m still not sure how a genre that focuses on “the detection of a crime by a detective” can so easily include the spy story and the thriller and yet somehow rule out the female private eye story post-1977; it seems more logical to me to have it the other way around. And no one has yet mentioned a bunch of post-WWII developments like the modern Gothic, the “femjep” school and its earlier sister the HIBK, and, heaven help me for even mentioning this, the modern cozy. Luckily those areas of scholarship are beyond the scope of my question about pinpointing the end of the Golden Age, because this comment section is already twice as long as my little snippet of post! I’m sure I’ll be giving this idea of a timeline a LOT more thought in the future.
    Thanks again to my erudite and knowledgeable contributors for sustaining such an interesting and wide-ranging discussion. Your efforts and your comments are very much appreciated, and I only wish I was beside you in that pub to buy you another beer in thanks!

  11. Albert says:

    The problem that you run into is that our popular culture is really a ramifying stream and cannot be grasped by looking only at a part of it. I (and other people) have always considered the start of Western popular culture to be the publication of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764). Folded into that seminal work are the seeds of the Gothic novel, the horror story, the historical novel, the romance, the mystery story and the science fiction story. Each of the elements contained within Otranto have separated and bifurcated into distinct but related subgenres. The romance or had I but known school are simply those portions of Otranto that relate to the Gothic heroine in peril. Jane Austen, and I have no doubt the Bronte sisters, were all big Gothic fans, and they in turn caused the development of a lot of women’s literature. You can see science fiction developing from the gothic to first E. T. A. Hoffmann and then Poe and so to Verne. Science fiction then developed the future war story and this in turn gave rise to the spy story. All of this stuff is related, so it is easy for the different elements to shift and combine at will. So James Bond contains elements of the spy novel, the detective novel and science fiction. The Golden Age detective novel is just one more small sub-branch of all of this. I once saw someone do a spreadsheet of all of this. It is somewhere on line but I forget where.

    So if you are looking for the end of the Golden Age, I would look carefully at the new generation of writers who arose in the 1940s. I would look at the dates. Most of the important Golden Age writers started writing in the 1920s. By 1945, the majority of them were either dead, or had ceased writing, or had only a few more books to go. There were a few dinosaurs left like Rhode, Carr and Christie, but they continued to write mainly in the style to which they were accustomed. The World War II generation soon abandoned the old techniques and developed their own techniques. The hardboiled, fast-paced, more sexually explicit pulp style then came to the fore. But this is just part of the larger process of the increasing velocity of entertainment speed. Have you ever seen a teenager read a book when he can play a video game? Interestingly, a lot of those computer games take place in a medieval Otranto-like setting, with Princess Peach in peril and all the rest …

    Of course, there are a whole lot of other influences from other parts of literature and culture also folded into the mix. Good luck with your research program – this is really the study of a lifetime.

  12. curtis evans says:

    People were already moving away from emphasis on the strict fair play detective novel by 1930. I know this is self-promotion, but people should read Chapter One of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery. I still think the 1940s are a dividing line, because of the explosion in popularity of the hard-boiled paperback, the rise of Simenon in English translation to great heights of popularity, the wartime espionage novel and rise of realism and the increasing emphasis, especially among women writers, on psychological suspense rather than strict fair play detection. By the 1950s fair play, or “traditional” detective novels, are just one mode of crime fiction among many (add the police procedural too).

    I can see a case for extending the GA to 1950 or so (Tom Schantz does this), but I still stick with c. 1940.

    By the way, that Yahoo group is GAD, which does the GAD wiki, very informative. They’ve been around since 2001, lots of good people. Hard to read all the old discussions now, with the new format.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I agree that the GAD material is informative, frequently interesting and occasionally brilliant; in the context of Wikipedia, though, completely ineffectual because Wikipedia’s standards require arm’s-length third-party expert publication. The Wikipedia administrators can no more accept a Yahoo group as authoritative than an anonymous letter, or even our blogs. (How do I know? I used to be an admin, until I got tired of shovelling garbage as a volunteer.)

      My natural instinct is to agree with you and Julian Symons that c. 1940 marks the end of the Golden Age. In fact, September 1939 marks two things; the start of World War II and the publication of the first North American paperback from Pocket Books. That might be a useful date. But it’s clear to me now that this situation is a case of each to his own, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow.

  13. curtis evans says:

    By the way, I agree about Henry Wade and the police procedural in the 1930s. Crofts is notable for having a plain cop sleuth, but Crofts didn’t know beans about police procedure, to be honest. But the police procedural is much bigger after 1950. That’s the thing about the 1950s, all the other forms besides traditional detection are expanding. The developments of the 1930s all achieve fruition then. It’s not as if there are no new fair play mystery writers (Moyes, James, Rendell, Aird are all fair play mystery writers in the 1960s, followed by people like Lovesey, Hill, Barnard in the 1970s), but it’s just that there are so many competitive modes.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      You know, I’ve been thinking that I may end up with a post about the definition of the police procedural, so I won’t pull my punch here . But I will say that LAST SEEN WEARING seems to mark some sort of division between two different types of procedural. It’s what I was getting at in an earlier comment when I talked about problems of definition; I think of Wade and Crofts as part of a “proto”-procedural movement, before anyone had defined such a term.
      Much though I am known to loathe the work of Elizabeth Linington and all her pseudonyms, she did pick up the ball and run with it in the sense that her police officers had (a) personal lives, and (b) worked on more than one case at a time.
      For the rest of it — yes, I agree with you that there are so many competitive modes that the fair play mystery remained a faint but distinct lamp in a theatre full of different coloured lights. (My goodness, that’s more lyrical than I usually am!) After the 1950s, EVERY mode of crime story seems to have become viable; some a trickle and some a flood.

      • Curtis Evans says:

        The thing about Henry Wade is that two of his novels really are realistic police investigation novels, with emphasis on police work as it is really conducted, with multiple investigators (though there is still a primary sleuth focus). They are vastly different from Crofts’ efforts. Edgar Wallace also is important for emphasizing police detectives, but Henry Wade really does seem to me to have been innovative for his day. Which certainly isn’t to take away from Waugh or McBain or Maurice Procter (Crofts was a fan of the latter). They greatly deepened and systematized the form, no question.

  14. curtis evans says:

    One practical impact of WW2 on traditional detective fiction was the paper shortage. With much shorter books (sometimes 60,000 words rather than 90,000 or more), writers couldn’t spare all that time for lengthy clue analysis! Coupled with the popularity of the spy novel it shifted the emphasis in mystery to incident rather than ratiocination.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Great comment — this is the type of idea that people frequently overlook! I have seen comments about “the genre does this or that” as if it was a rational being instead of a group of publishers and writers desperately trying to figure out what people want so that they could sell it to them. And yet so often it’s the shifts in technology or social pressures that have the most impact on the marketplace. It makes me chuckle to think that 40 or 50 years from now, people may be talking about “the market wanting more self-published books” from the present time when really it’s just a combination of e-books and Amazon that have made it possible to read books that would have been relegated unread to the slush pile 40 or 50 years ago.

      • Curtis Evans says:

        Well, I’ve always been dubious that people after WW2 we’re going, oh, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have made me lose faith in human reason, so I won’t read detective novels anymore, darn it!

        Heck, a lot of American we’re perfectly fine with dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Understand I’m not debating this morality of this myself, I just think a lot of Americans were glad we had the bomb and able to use it, as they saw it, to shorten the war and save American lives.

        Blaming the Bomb for the end of the classical detective fiction strikes me as one of those Big Ideas that appeals to intellectuals, but it may be that while some intellectuals really think this way, the “regular hoe and Josephine do not. So, yeah, I am looking more for practical as opposed to metaphysical reasons for how WW2 may have had an impact on people’s reading.

        There’s also the point that combat veterans may have had more of a taste for the upsurge in violence and sex in the crime novel (Mickey Spillane, etc.). Of course I suspect people have always been interested in violence and sex, but wars do loosen traditional social standards. I do think Spillane really found a way to speak to a large segment of the crime novel readership.

        Generally, people do seem after the war to have reaching out more to incident than rational analysis (violence, sex, suspense). But, on the other hand, the thriller or shocker of Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Sax Rohmer, etc. was hugely popular in 1920s and 1930s, more popular than the detective novel, I think we could say. So there always was a readership, a very large one, for more visceral crime fiction (look at the huge success of Hammett and Cain and the pulp fiction mags).

        I think a big event, within detective fiction itself, was the accelarating loss of interest in the 1930s in the puzzle per se, so that you have the rise of humorous detective fiction, manners detective fiction, the cozy. Look at the popularity of Patricia Wentworths Miss Silver books in the 1940s and 1950s, the period when people allegedly had turned off traditional mystery. On the other hand, the Wentworth reader probably was more interested in character and milieu than puzzle per se.

        And of course it was after the WW2 that Christie became this fantastic international bestseller. So there clearly was still a great taste for true detection, because Christie always stood for this.

        It’s certainly true that pure puzzle detection lost the allegiance of the intellectuals. An important factor is the rise of detective fiction in the GA was when it got the endorsement of the intellectuals in the 1920s. But as a group they became bored with it pretty quickly, as early as the 1930s (with individual exceptions of course).

  15. Albert says:

    The issue is how it came about that the American hardboiled detective story, which was first established in the early 1920s (almost at the same time as the Golden Age fair-play mystery) came to supplant the fair-play mystery as the dominant technique for the mystery story. It appears to me that there are a number of factors involved in the shift, which I have addressed above.

    The question is why did a technique which emphasized violence come to be acceptable to millions of mystery readers? The pulp hardboiled story never stinted on mass slaughter. By the end of Red Harvest there are more than 100 dead people and the National Guard has to be called in to restore order in Poisonville. In your typical Spider novel by Norvell Page, the bodies drop by the hundreds of thousands. So the question is why did pulp violence become acceptable to a mainstream audience? I think that this was partly due to the brutalization of American tastes, and I attribute this partly to the effects of WW II.

    The United States, and all the other participants for that matter, pretty much fought with the gloves off. However, I think one is being a hypocrite when one’s official position is that it is wrong to kill civilians, on the one hand, and then one employs weapons of mass destruction against entire cities when one knows they are filled with civilians, on the other hand. It is disingenuous to say that such actions can be justified because they “shortened the war.” That is merely to say that the end justifies the means. There is no atrocity which cannot be justified on that basis, because they all serve to “shorten the war.”.

    • Curtis Evans says:

      I don’t know so much that it’s a case of becoming acceptable to mystery readers as that the publishing world embraced a format (the cheap paperback) that enabled readers to buy the books. In the 1930s, most people did not want to spend $2.00 on a mystery novel, whether it was a country house mystery or a toughie in the mean streets (Hammett and Cain, the latter of whom did not see himself as a “mere” crime writer, were two writers who did manage to sell lots of copies in hardback).

      Look how Chandler, who actually sold pretty well in hardcover compared to most mystery writers, benefited from paperback sales in the 1940s. And of course on those pb covers they made the amazing discovery that graphic representations of sex and violence sell (though that was already clear from the pulp mags). I’m sure the war was important but it’s also important to remember that it went along with the paperback revolution. Mystery readers also were running out and buying Agatha Christie paperbacks in droves. A big part of this is the publishers finding a revolutionary way to satisfy the tastes of the market.

      I’m not wanting to debate the ethics of the Bomb, I’m just saying I’m not necessarily sure it had the same effect on the average person that it had on Julian Symons. “It shortened the war” was somethign I used to hear from a lot of people of that generation.

  16. John says:

    I’m way too late to the table. But I’ll throw in my two cents worth. Probably more like a halfpenny’s worth at this point.

    I’m in Curt’s camp. In my reading of the last five years I’ve been continually surprised by the number of lesser writers who never got their due when they were alive who were delving into an unexplored narrative territory in the mid to late ’30s and who were trying to subvert the traditional detective novel into a more realistic treatment of how crime affects both the individual and society. And even earlier in the 1920s I find examples thought not as many. Look at all the books Berkeley wrote under both his pseudonyms. C.S. Forester’s two crime novels Payment Deferred and Plain Murder were written and published in 1926 and 1930. Even A.P. Herbert’s The House by the River (an underrated book) published back in 1921 shows the beginnings of a modern crime novel rather than a detective novel.

    Too much emphasis is placed on World War 2 being the culmination of all that is old-fashioned and the dawn of a modern age — in art, culture, politics. World War 1 did more to destroy the sensibility of the “old ways” and create a modern age than World War 2 if you examine both wars thoroughly. And it therefore follows that the art of the time reflects that modern age. Dance, painting, music and literature all were extremely experimental in the period between 1915 and 1939. An assiduous reading of crime and detective fiction in the immediate post World War 1 era will reveal the bitter truth of war veterans coping with life after the armed services, grief and horror at the carnage of war, the desperate attempt to cling to the past in the rise of spiritualism. Should I go on? I used to talk about a subgenre I called “vet noir” made up almost exclusively about the stories of broken men trying to return to a civilian life after serving in WW 2. But I have been encountering more and more detective novels published in the 1920s and 1930s with portraits of shell-shocked men who served in WW1 that are sometimes more powerful than those books published in the post 1945 era.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Your comment immediately made me think of Sayers’s THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB, (1928), right off the bat. I always thought that was a bit overwrought and histrionic, but perhaps that’s just my previous inability to appreciate the historical context in which it should have been viewed. And then there’s Lord Peter Wimsey himself, whose problem would probably be called PTSD today.
      I’m not familiar with THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER, but you’ve made me want to look it up; thanks!

    • Noah Stewart says:

      And then in the larger scheme of things, I agree there are a bunch of mystery novels that “don’t fit” the prevailing mode of their between-the-wars period. Some, like MALICE AFORETHOUGHT, were heralded as cutting-edge. Others just sank because the market, and critics, didn’t like the fact that they didn’t “fit”. But it was indeed a time of great experimentation for writers like Anthony Berkeley, who first helped to create the boundaries for the form and then, a few years later, helped to subvert and break them.

    • Curtis Evans says:

      You get this situation where the opposite argument is made at the two ends of the Golden Age. WW1 = desire for rationality, interest in puzzles “feminization” of English mystery/WW2 = loss of belief in rationality, interest in visceral crime fiction, masculine brutality.

      But, like I said, what about the popularity of pulp fiction in the States and the shocker/thriller in UK. Surely Edgar Wallace, the King of the Thriller, is as much a representative literary figure of the period as Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. I agree that the fad of the detective fiction puzzle is a notable event in between-the-wars literary history, but people tend to ignore, as Noah says and John and I have indicated, things that “don’t fit” the narrative.

      I would say a lot of people did like reading about sex and violence during the Golden Age (besides pulp fiction and the GA thriller, look at the popularity in the press of gangsters and true crime murders). And there definitely were a lot of dissidents, if you will, within the detective fiction movement itself, who were rebelling against the primacy of the puzzle and the “rules.”

  17. Albert says:

    The points I am trying to make are these:
    1. The period from 1910 to 1935 was a period of extensive experimentation in the mystery field, and virtually every form of mystery was invented or explored in that era. For instance:
    a) Scientific detective: Dr. Thorndyke, Craig Kennedy, Luther Trant, Taine of San Francisco. There was even a magazine devoted to this sort of story, Scientific Detective Monthly.
    b) Occult detective: Dr. Silence, Carnacki the ghost finder, Jules de Grandin
    c) Police procedural: Crofts, Wade, Helen Reilly. I don’t know why some people decline to include Crofts as a writer of police procedurals. I think that Crofts must have been a first-rate researcher. I have been reading The Loss of the Jane Vosper, and Crofts goes into minute detail about how an official investigation of the sinking of a ship was conducted. His entry in Six Against the Yard even has a diagram of how you make an anti-personnel bomb, and his entry got good grades from ex-Superintendent Cornish. I find it difficult to believe that a man who could research every other aspect of his stories in detail would fail to perform some routine research in police procedure.
    d) Hard-boiled pulp: Race Williams, Continental Op, Jo Gar, etc., etc. These investigators came in all shapes and types. Gar, for instance is half Filipino and half Spanish. The pulps developed an incredible variety of detective types.
    e) Thriller: Sax Rohmer, Edgar Wallace, Sapper. Note that these also wrote detective stories. Rohmer had Moris Klaw, Paul Harley; Wallace had J. G. Reeder. Bulldog Drummond on occasion could act as a straight detective; one of my favorite stories was “Thirteen Lead Soldiers.”
    f) Fair Play
    g) Romantic suspense: Mary Roberts Rinehart, etc.

    2. All of these types are co-existent. However, they may appear in different media. Some are only in hard-cover books, some are serialized in the slick or higher-class periodicals, some are in the pulp magazines.

    3. It appears to me that we would call this period a golden age precisely because there is such a great deal of inventive and original work going on simultaneously by many different authors with many different types of stories.

    4. As far as the pulps go in the United States, they were both plentiful and cheap, the average price being about 10 to 15 cents per issue for much of this period. These magazines tended to find their way to England as ship ballast. Orwell has an interesting essay on them.

    5. It appears to me that while the thrillers were very popular, the fair-play mystery was the dominant modality in terms of name recognition and number of authors, at least in England, and many of these authors had a transatlantic reputation.

    6. When we are talking about the decline of the Golden Age, therefore, I think what we are really talking about is the decline of the dominance of the fair-play mystery, which is a particular method of telling a story, and which had its largest center in England, and the rise to dominance of a different mode of telling a detective story. It appears to me that its decline was a process which took a number of years. I think we can see its decline from dominance during the war years, and the concomitant rise to dominance of the American pulp style. Any process can gather steam for a long time, but really achieve dominance with a sudden event. I take this event to be the publication of I, the Jury. I attribute its popularity to two things: first, because Spillane is a first-rate writer. When a writer has a visceral belief in his material and is a good writer, he can make you believe in it as well, even if his material is inherently incredible (i.e., Robert E. Howard). Spillane emerged from the comic books, which had emerged from the pulps, and exemplified their tradition. Second, Spillane brought in the sexual element, which had been largely absent from the mystery story up to this point.

    As to why this happened, I am sure their are a number of factors as I have stated above. However, I would make this point. The U.S. Army’s typical means of clearing the Japanese soldiers out of cave systems was to burn them alive with flame throwers. When you come home after doing that, Dr. Priestley tenting his fingers with his eyes shut (again) and informing Waghorn that he is making false assumptions (again) may seem rather tepid entertainment.

    In summary, I think that this is an issue that really bears further factual investigation. If we think of dominance in terms of number of authors, combined sales and geographical spread, exactly what is going on? I have a feel for what seems to be going on and a lot of anecdotal data, but no hard data.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      If anybody has a method for finding out exactly how many copies of a specific book were sold in a particular year, I’d love to know it.

      • Albert says:

        Someone would have to review the publishers’ records and authors’ royalty statements to the extent they still exist.

      • Curtis Evans says:

        The average mystery was said by an expert in the field to have sold 2000 copies in the 1930s. People read mysteries mostly through rental libraries. Occasionally someone hit it really big: Dashiell Hammett, Van Dine, Mary Roberts Rinehart was a big seller. Carolyn Wells was one of the biggest consistent sellers of mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s,

    • Curtis Evans says:

      We’d need to know how many specific readers switched from John Rhode to hard-boiled or what have you after WW2. Or did Rhode’s market stay about the same before and after the war? He was published by Dodd, Mead until his last book, in 1961. There’s an account where a publisher talks about another so-called humdrum mystery writer from the 1920s, Christopher Bush, maintaining about hte same audience right up into the late 1960s. Christie of course went on to become the bestselling mystery of all time, after WW2.

      I certainly agree that anyone using flamethrowers on Japanese soldiers would feel a lasting psychic impact. But for what percentage of the U. S. reading audience did that account? I’m just suggesting that a lot of people went on reading, and enjoying, relatively traditional mysteries. And even after WW2 the mystery form can still be seen as one where, to a great extent, order of some form is restored at the end. A lot of your popular hard-boiled stuff in the 1950s was a long way from noir, it’s quite formulaic and predicatable. In a lot of the domestic suspense stuff, the woman’s marriage is saved at the end. There’s a great deal of difference between the ending of, say, Charlotte Armstrong’s A Dram of Poison (a great book) and somethign by Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson.

      I accept the idea of a Golden Age of detective fiction, running from roughly 1920-1940, because it was the period when the formal detective novel, which enshrined the fair play principle, was elevated to its greatest heights. But throughout the 1920s, Edgar Wallace probably had the greatest name recognition of any crime writer in England. There were a great many thriller writers and the most popular sold tremendously well, had films and plays adapted from their works, etc. they don’t get studied in genre histories like the Criem Queens and Hammett/Chandler, but they were there and they were big.

      You mention Crofts’ The Loss of the Jane Vosper. That’s the novel I mention is Masters of the Humdrum Mystery as being most like a police procedural among Crofts’ output. Crofts himself admitted he didn’t know much about police procedure (as I recall knew nothing about is his words), but he wanted to have an ordinary man as detective. Crofts is an important corrective to the idea people have that every British GA detective was an aristocratic amateur. But I just can’t accept Crofts, definitionally, as a writer of police procedurals. Read The Box Office Murders, say, and anything by Ed McBain back to back and tell me what you think! Henry Wade did write a couple of what I would call police proceudrals, although even the one, Lonely Magdalen, introduces a back story element which is pure mainstream novel.

      I think there was sex in 1930s crime fiction, but there’s no question it was amplified in the 1940s and 1950s (as was violence).

      I agree with a lot of your point six, just don’t know whether I can pinpoint that like you would.

    • Curtis Evans says:

      Incidentally, what about trench warfare in WW1, that was hardly a picnic, surely. Of course there’s a great difference between the U. S. and English experience in WW1, but apparently the English soldier’s experience of WW1 made him want to read John Rhode (himself a war veteran)?

  18. Albert says:

    My opinion is that it is difficult to assign changes in literary style to historical events. What suddenly becomes popular may, in some cases, be attributable to changes in the mass psyche, which may be influenced by current events. When the Cold war was on, we saw the rise to prominence of the spy story. My feeling is that the fair play mystery was a logical outcome of the possibilities inherent in the mystery story. Any particular literary genre will have a field of possible development. The fair play mystery is what you get when you become dissatisfied with the Holmes trick of having him make deductions without telling you first the clues he used. Holmes’s deductions on the fate of Watson’s brother based on observations from his pocket watch would seem much less impressive if we were first told ourselves what the watch looked like. The fair play mystery is just an extension of that point: In the fair play story, the author tells you up front what the watch looked like, and gives you the chance to figure it out for yourself. No one ever cusses at himself for failure to figure out a Holmes story. So it seems to me that the fair play story is a logical development in the growth of the genre.

    As I have stated, the case has been made that much of our popular culture springs from Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Over the 200 years since it was published, we have seen its elements bifurcate, differentiate and expand to fill its potential developmental space. So the mystery elements in Otranto give rise to Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, where the suspected supernatural events are in fact rationally explained, and so on to E. T. A. Hoffmann and through him to Poe. At each point the system becomes more differentiated and more complex.

    As to why the fair play mystery became so popular in the 1920s, that is more difficult to answer. Why did the crossword puzzle also become so popular in the 1920s? It is difficult to predict the coming and growth of fads. My feeling nonetheless is that after the destruction of WW I, people indeed took some comfort from the idea that reason might still solve their problems. I would note, however, that the English homeland itself sustained little damage in WW I, mainly some Zeppelin raids. However, if first you go through WW I, and then the moral dissolution of the 1920s, and then the Great Depression of the 1930s, and then WW II on top of that, I think one might be considered naïve if one put one’s trust in man’s reason at that point. When force has become your method of choice in dealing with your problems, then Mike Hammer becomes your hero of choice. People, I think, in the modern world really tend to forget the scope of the impact of nuclear weapons on the mass psyche. When I read the literature of the times, however, the impression I get is one of sheer terror of what had been let loose. For the combination of Mike Hammer and atomic power, see the famous movie Kiss Me Deadly.

    I think, however, that what I have been trying to say is best said by a contemporary of these events, George Orwell in his essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944). In this essay, Orwell contrasts the Raffles stories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939). Chase was a British writer who had been influenced by the American school. Orwell contrasts the Victorian code which informed Raffles with the American school, which in Miss Blandish displays no values except a desire for power. No Orchids was consistent with the violence of its times. I do not detect much of a difference between I, the Jury and No Orchids. Orwell concludes that he hoped that No Orchards was just an “isolated phenomenon …” Little did he know what Mickey Spillane had in store for him.

    As far as Crofts goes, I think he was being too modest about his achievement. It is his use of logical method that impresses far more than whether he is using the proper call signs on the police radio. I have read a good many of the 87th Precinct series and they have left me rather unimpressed. McBain’s idea of how to do research is to lift whole paragraphs from O’hara and Osterburg’s Introduction to Criminalistics (1949). For instance, compare the description of the precipitin test in Give the Boys a Great Big Hand to Chapter 31 in O’hara and Osterburg. I think his books lack the beauty of pure functionality and constructive complexity of Crofts. Chandler did not call him the “soundest builder” for nothing.

  19. Curtis Evans says:

    You really should be reading Masters of the Humdrum Mystery! Crofts certainly was a construction man, but his books are mainly about one man sleuthing. The books by McBain or Waugh are really focused on teams and what has the appearance of realistic police work

    I think what I’m mostly arguing for is the diversity of these periods. Of course we try to fence off historical periods, but there are a lot of exceptions within these periods. Like I keep saying, Agatha Christie achieved her greatest sales by far after World War Two, as a result of the paperback revolution (her hardcover sales greatly increased as well).

    I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, still during the Cold War, and I loved rational detective fiction. I have never liked Mickey Spillane (it’s interesting that fifties liberals were so condemnatory of Spillane, but he has found a place with some modern liberals to day).

    There’s obviously some relationship between current culture and literature, but I try to avoid easy causal explanations. I read a lot that the femme fatale was a result of cultural forces of the 1950s. But the femme fatale was a potent figure before the postwar period as well.

    I think there were a lot of people who liked detective fiction before World War Two and just went right on liking it after WW2. But people already had been leaving the temple of pure reason (the pure puzzle detective story) since its height in the 1920s, especially the intellectual class. In the 1930s we see the detective novel fragmenting into numerous different form, a process which accelerates in the 1940s and 1950s. Meanwhile, you have the classical thriller, which detective novelist tried to keep distinct from the detective novel, making interesting developments too, with the popularity of the spy novel during WW2 and the Cold War. With authors like Erick Ambler, the “thriller” was something the detective novelist could continue to dismiss.

  20. […] most recent post, “The End of the Golden Age?“, attracted more comment and attention than anything I’ve ever displayed here (offhand, […]

  21. […] had read both this post and an earlier one on the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, found here, where this inquiry into the police procedural began. I foolishly asseverated that the origin of […]

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