Emotions in Golden Age Detective Fiction

Spoiler Warning: For the following novels crucial information concerning the killers is mentioned: Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, The Murder at the Vicarage, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Peril at End House and Death on the Nile, Margery Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning, Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes and Gladys Mitchell’s Speedy Death. For the following novels the motivation behind the crimes is mentioned: Christie’s A Murder is Announced and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge. However, I have highlighted the titles in bold so you can see which section to skip and which to read.

I have been inspired to write this piece after reading Maurizio Ascari’s (2013) article, ‘From Enigmas to Emotions: The Twentieth-Century Canonisation of Crime Fiction’ which looks at ‘the early-twentieth-century criticism of the “clue-puzzle” tradition… [and] the progressive return of emotions to the scene of both creative and critical crime writing’ (Ascari, 2013: 9). This article argues that critics of Golden Age detective fiction, who were also often writers within the genre (see Vane Dine, Knox, Sayers, Freeman and Chesterton), ‘had to distance… [detective fiction] from its sensational components (which were associated with emotions) and to emphasise its enigmatic components (which were considered as purely intellectual)’ (Ascari, 2013: 11), in order to separate it as a genre, distinguishing it from other genres such as the thriller or supernatural mysteries. And whilst I do not deny that critics such as Freeman and Knox did write sentiments which embodied this, I think that to repeat such a narrative unquestioningly does not present an accurate depiction of Golden Age detective fiction, as I actually think emotions do have a role to play in such works.

A Warning Against Sweeping Statements

First things first to say that all Golden Age authors focused purely on creating a cerebral puzzle for their readers and avoided features which would cause sensation and emotions in their readers, would be in my opinion quite an inaccurate statement. For example, there was the writer Annie Haynes whose novels have been reprinted by the Dean Street Press, which consistently attempted to combine a Golden Age detective plot with Victorian The Abbey Court Murdersensation fiction components – a style which was arguably still popular in the 1920s as the Illustrated London News in 1923 aligned Haynes with the now famous Agatha Christie and in 1925 The Sketch implied that men were keen Haynes readers. Therefore not only was there a writer using sensational components such as aristocratic villains, criminal suicides, bigamy and persecuted innocent heroines (which are designed to cause sensation), these two newspaper comments also show that this was a popular style and not just with women readers.

Additionally the 1930s saw a number of Golden Age authors going beyond the confines of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vanethe clue-puzzle plot, incorporating elements which again arguably focus on emotions or are likely to cause emotional responses in the reader. For example John Dickson Carr’s gothic atmospheres have been known to send the odd chill down a reader’s spine and even with the novel of manners genre, writers such as Dorothy L Sayers caused a great deal of emotional response within her readers when she radically changed the character of her fictional sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, over the course of four novels which chart his growing relationship with Harriet Vane.

The Role of Emotions in Golden Age Detective Fiction

However, aside from thinking of exceptions to the rule, Ascari’s article also made me consider what role emotions play within Golden Age detective novels themselves. In the end I came up with three main roles emotions can have in such works…

The Suspects: Emotions as Signifiers

One of the key ways emotions play a role in Golden Age novels is that they become clues The Spanish Cape Mysterythemselves, clues which hint at the secrets of the suspects, which are not necessarily murderous ones. This is evidenced in Ellery Queen’s The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935), when one of the suspects Laura Constable, acts very emotionally after the murder victim has been discovered, in such a way her emotions may even incriminate her in the eyes of the police. In fact her emotional distress is not due to being the killer but due to fear of her own secret being revealed as a consequence of that death. This ties into the idea of emotional responses providing red herrings, which is often seen used by the guilty in such stories to help them appear innocent. In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun (1941) for example, the murderous couple hide their guilt by imitating prior to the murder that their marriage is on the rocks, due to another Evil Under the Sunwoman, who ends up being the victim. This conceals their guilt as firstly everyone is very sympathetic towards the wife from the murderous duo and furthermore, no one (apart from Poirot of course) would think it likely that they would be working together. Murdering couples using either positive or negative emotions to mask their guilt can also be found in Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Moreover, emotions are also used by detectives and readers as a means of looking for signs of guilt or innocent – though in keeping with the idea of red herrings and characters role-playing to avoid their secrets and fears being revealed, this is not an infallible detecting tool. A good example of the ambiguity of emotions can be found in Haynes’ The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929), where the female protagonist Sophie, whose husband has been murdered, is said to need:

‘to act today as if she had never acted in her life before… Long ago someone used to tell her that she had laughing eyes….Just now they seemed to move of their own volition. Glancing here and there into every corner fearfully. Suddenly they were caught by a tumbled heap of white by the sofa near the window. It was the frock she had worn last night just as she had thrown it down. She stared at it in a species of fascinated horror. Surely she was not mistaken. Across one fold there was an ugly dark stain!’ (Haynes, 1929: 10-13).

In this example, the reader can assess the emotions Sophie is feeling, but they are ambiguous in that they neither completely condemn nor acquit her and the reader has to wait for further evidence before making their mind up.

The Crime at Tattenham Corner

Emotions and the Detective

Although there are very unemotional fictional sleuths in Golden Age detective fiction, Miss Pym Disposesthere is not the case for many others. Emotions can play a variety of roles within the detective figure such as firstly hampering their investigations and/ or affecting their execution of justice. Josephine Tey’s amateur detective, Miss Pym in Miss Pym Disposes (1946) epitomises this role well, as her emotions towards the suspects, who are all young girls at a training school, greatly undermine her ability to detect. Moreover, once she thinks she knows the truth behind the murder she tries to shield her suspect because she liked her more than the victim, although she does not think the killer should profit from the death. But because of this emotional response to the situation, the real killer actually gets away with the murder. In addition, in Margery Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning (1937) it can be suggested that Albert Campion’s feelings toward Jimmy Sutane’s wife arguably temporarily blind him to her role in the crimes which take place.

Furthermore, there are also Golden Age sleuths who are actually quite emotionally vulnerable and this is often seen at the end of their cases when they do not cope well withBusman's Honeymoon the thought that their talent in detection is leading a person to the gallows. This is most famously demonstrated by Lord Peter Wimsey in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) by Dorothy L Sayers, where his capture of the killer leads to a period of great emotional distress for him and even his shellshock trauma from WW1 resurfaces. This sadness post investigation can also be found in other Golden Age sleuths such as Robin Forsythe’s amateur sleuth Anthony Vereker.

Additionally, just like the suspects, the detectives can also use emotions manipulatively in order to help themselves solve the case. For example, Christie’s Poirot sometimes appears to take the murderer into his confidence, exhibiting cooperative emotions, but in fact this is just a ruse on his part to allay the murderer’s suspicions that he is on to them. This is brilliantly deployed in Peril at End House (1932). Although emotions are not always used so deceptively, as fictional detectives such as Christie’s Miss Marple and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver are arguably seen by the suspects as suitable confidantes because of their emotional receptivity. If they were cold, unemotional and brusque then I imagine far fewer people would go to talk to them. After all people want to confide in others who are likely to be able to genuinely feel sympathy and empathy towards them.

Peril at End House

Emotions as Motivations for Murder

Although murder for greed and gain is a common motivation for murder in Golden Age detective novels, I think emotions also contribute towards many a fictional murder in this Flowers for the Judgegenre as well. For instance fear is a big motivator of crimes, as often characters murder another character to prevent their guilty secret from being revealed such as in Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and A Murder is Announced (1950) and in Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge (1936). Dysfunctional, damaged or excessive relationships are also another example of emotions causing crime inSpeedy Death Golden Age detective novels. This is encapsulated in Gladys Mitchell’s Speedy Death (1929) where the murderer has not only been pretending to be disabled to gain affection from her father, but also kills their fiancé, to get out of the sham relationship, as in reality their fiancé is a woman masquerading as a man. Another example can be found in Christie’s Death on the Nile (1937), where the murdering duo, Simon and Jacqueline, not only have a passionate relationship with each other, but they also have an equal passion for money and therefore plan for Simon to marry Linnet in order to murder her for her wealth, before they themselves marry. It is with examples like these and many others that make it hard for me to agree with Philip Van Doren Stern when he says in his essay, ‘The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley’ (1941) that mystery writers in the Golden Age tradition ‘need[ed] to know more about life and less about death – more about the way people think and feel and act, and less about how they die.’ As I hope I have demonstrated there were many Golden Age detective writers who did realise that ‘murder has to do with human emotion’ and that they reflect this in the characters (suspects and detectives) and in the motivation of the crimes in their novels, even if they sometimes steered away from melodrama and sensationalism.

Death on the Nile

Emotions in Golden Age Detective Fiction Readers

I have looked at emotions in the suspects and detectives of these works but I wanted to end with our emotions, these feelings which are supposedly neutral as we read novel after Penhallownovel. Just because Golden Age detective novels are not dripping with gore and riddled with shoot outs and violence, does not mean that they are unemotional for the reader. Two novels I often think of in relation to this is Georgette Heyer’s Penhallow (1942) and Harriet Rutland’s Blue Murder (1942), whose endings both impacted me a lot emotionally, leaving me visibly gasping and it was not because of any sensationalistBlue Murder trappings but due to way they undercut an intrinsic value we as human beings often uphold. Finally I also think the emotions of fans of this genre are also easy to spot in our attachments to our favourite detectives. At university a lecturer once told me that a student study group got so heated over Miss Marple that one person launched themselves across the table in response. Surely this is proof that Golden Age novels are more than puzzles and cold unfeeling exercises in reason?


  1. Kate, I think you misconstrue Jackie De Bellefort’s motives in NILE and thereby rob yourself of an even stronger argument. She is depicted as a highly emotional and temperamental person (her Latin blood, don’t ya know?), and that does serve to hide her sharp mind (she IS the instigator of the plot.) But she doesn’t do this for money. She does it for Simon. I think Jackie sees herself as a lesser woman than Linnet and fears that, without the fortune she once had, she may not hold on to Simon. She also sees this weakness in her beloved and wants to be sure he doesn’t do something stupid about it. (Ironically, she plans the most complicated plot and then executes it right in front of Poirot. I can’t help wondering if things might have turned out better for them if Simon had simply honeymooned with Linnet and then, when nobody was looking, pushed her off the pyramid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha yea Jackie’s plan is definitely over the top! Your alternative reading of her motives intrigues me and does fit in with my idea of emotions being a powerful motivator for the crimes in GAD novels. I think Death on the Nile certainly warrants a re-reading on my part. Although with all the interesting things I have read about Christie and her works lately I think a canon long re-reading programme may be required.


  2. Enjoyed your piece, and also Brad’s comment – it’s nice not to worry about spoilers once in a while, so I’m going to jump in too. One of the things I love about Death on the Nile is the layers of ambiguity. Because Simon is SO not a worthy love object for Jacqueline – and didn’t have her strength of feeling. But then she is lacking a moral sense – Christie fools us and Poirot into feeling sorry for her, right through to the end, but she is cold-blooded and callous, and her whole plan is a horrible one. But we have some leftover, and completely undeserved, sympathy for her, because she is seen as a sad woman trapped by love earlier. In fact she is an unredeemed murderer, with no thought for her victim: her best friend. Every time I read this book I find another layer of complexity in the relationships and the emotions – the book haunts me.
    So I totally agree that it makes your point about emotions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed the post and yes I did enjoy running amuck with spoilers, as it can be so hard to talk about mystery novels sometimes without revealing spoilerish information. I think one thing I have taken away from doing this post is that I seriously need to re-read Death on the Nile, as I have enjoyed seeing how much more complex the story is, as until you and Brad, amongst others have commented on Simeon and Jacqueline, I hadn’t really seen it in that light.


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