The Literary Crossovers Between Modernist Literature and Golden Age Detective Fiction

A couple of years ago I wrote this article for CADs magazine and I thought I would share it with you today. The article was inspired by a blog post written by Mark Green entitled, ‘Golden Age Part of Modernist Literary Movement,’[1] where he argues that the works of many Golden Age mystery authors can be seen as part of Modernist literature. In particular a feature of such detective fiction which he selects to assert his point is their ‘conscious playing with form, […their] acknowledgement of the artifice in their art, and […] willingness to break down what in the theatre is known as the fourth wall, the “window” through which the audience sees the action but is separated from it.’ The examples he covers range from the well-known The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin and Death at the President’s Lodging (1937) by Michael Innes to the less read Jumping Jenny (1933) by Anthony Berkeley. I certainly recommend giving it a look.

The article that follows is the result of developing and expanding upon Green’s initial premise, looking at some of the key components which define Modernist literature, alluding to more canonical texts from this literary movement and seeing how these are reflected in works by Golden Age detective fiction authors.

Intertextuality and Playing Around with Genre/Literary Conventions

I would be surprised to find any fans of vintage mystery fiction who have not come across allusions to Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick in their reading. Such references are everywhere, with many a vintage author creating humour by suggesting that such and such a character was making for a poor Watson, (see Brahms and Simon’s Casino for Sale (1938)) or in the case of Leo Bruce’s Cold Blood (1952), the Watson narrator mentally chastises their less than idyllic Holmes-like counterpart. The humour exists because the reader is aware of the Doyle characters being alluded to, which then emphasises how the current characters are failing to live up to these earlier moulds. The Holmes/Watson allusions are but one example of the many mystery themed allusions vintage detective fiction writers used. All of these references can be regarded as intertextuality, a facet whilst not exclusive of modernist fiction, is a defining feature, as attested to by Farmen (2017)[2]. An obvious example would be James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), which is structured around and references Homer’s The Odyssey. If you want to consider further the effects of intertextuality in mystery fiction I urge you to visit the blog Noah’s Archives which includes a series of posts looking at this in far more detail than I have space for here.

Intertextuality in a way closely aligns itself with a co-feature of both Modernist literature and Golden Age detective fiction, that of playing around with genre and literary conventions, as it is by establishing what was or is the norm, that you can then show how you are deviating away from it, something which Virginia Woolf does in her landmark essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924). Whilst Modernist writers were attempting to break away from Victorian and Edwardian literary modes of expression, Golden Age detective fiction authors, having their archetypes/blue prints established by Poe and Doyle, which were then crystallised in, not entirely serious, lists of rules, (such as those by Knox and Van Dine), were soon trying to undermine and bend such stipulations. Names such as Anthony Berkeley, R. Austin Freeman and Agatha Christie quickly spring to mind. Yet interestingly it can be argued that both Modernist and Golden Age mystery writers were using some of the same techniques in order to do this, which leads nicely on to my next point…

Innovative Narration Techniques

Having a sidekick narrate a detective’s cases may have been a 19th century invention, yet later mystery authors still had plenty of tricks up their sleeves when it came to narrating their own stories, tricks which also cropped up in the works of Modernist authors. Three key aspects of Modernist literary narration were fragmentation (see Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927)), multiple perspectives (such as in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (1936)) and internalised viewpoints, (as typified in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929)). These modes of narration are partially used as an attempt to record human thought/consciousness more accurately, such as in the way the narration of Woolf’s novel changes topic in an associative manner. Stream of consciousness is a technique often associated with this purpose, as exemplified in Joyce’s Ulysses, yet even this can be found in the works of interwar detective fiction writers, such as in Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1930)[3]. Unreliable narrators were also used by both literary camps; again it could be said for enhanced realism. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) is one such example from the Modernist group, but of course when it comes to the realms of interwar detective fiction, there will be more than one reader thinking of a particular Christie novel, though of course she was not the only one, as others such as Dorothy L Sayers, Paul Rosenhayn, Gladys Mitchell and John Dickson Carr also experimented with this device.

An internalised narrative is more extensive than a text showing what a character is thinking or feeling. It is arguably part of something called narrative identity, which McAdams (2011) defines as:

‘the internalized and evolving story of the self that a person constructs to make sense and meaning out of his or her life. The story is a selective reconstruction of the autobiographical past and a narrative anticipation of the imagined future that serves to explain, for the self and others, how the person came to be and where his or her life may be going.’[4]

Immediately on reading this, my mind turned to the inverted mysteries of the interwar years, especially Frances Iles’ Malice Aforethought (1931), Anne Meredith’s Portrait of a Murderer (1933), Alan Melville’s Warning to the Critics (1936) and Freeman Wills Croft’s Antidote to Venom (1938). In stories such as these, in the main narrated by the criminals themselves, their story is delivered to us in the way described above. We become immersed into their ways of thinking and feeling, as they selectively or biasedly recall their pasts and then rosily look towards the future once they have committed their crimes. The fact these futures are almost never realised serves to show how myopic a perspective such narrators have on their own lives. Yet perhaps this is one of the points both Modernist and interwar mystery writers were trying to make.

Fragmentation, as a narrative strategy was partially employed by Modernist writers in order to express the disintegration and ‘disillusionment of the modern society, consequent of the devastating experiences of World War 1’ (Mambrol, 2016)[5]. Such a society was not full of certainty or unity, but fragmentation and the theme of WW1 will be explored more fully later on in this article. For now though, whilst it can be argued that Golden Age novels differ from this ethos, in that they predominately restored order and showed reason triumphing over inexplicable crimes, it can still be said, nevertheless, that such works explored this fragmentation of society in an alternative fashion. Curtis Evans (2015)[6] has postulated that both Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole wrote mysteries which considered the effects post war society were having on individuals and the role personal finances would have to play in this. In addition, the clue or cluing element of mystery novels were also another way fragmentation cropped up in interwar detective novels: the cryptic and elliptic dying message, as found in Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933), the incomplete written message such as in Georgette Heyer’s The Unfinished Clue (1934) and even diary extracts from a victim, suspect or killer, which both Gladys Mitchell and Nicholas Blake utilised. With all of these variations the detective, be they professional or amateur, are at pains to emphasise the illusive and misleading nature of such fragmented evidence, which brings us back full circle to the atmosphere of division and uncertainty which the Modernist writers aimed to create with their fragmented narratives.

Finally, we turn to the narrative device of multiple perspectives, which both Modernist literature and Golden Age detective fiction used a lot. But given the theme/purpose of most mystery novels this is not surprising, as when a murder is committed the various suspects all contribute a unique point of view on what happened, remembering different things, such as in Cards on the Table (1936) by Christie. Moreover, Christie also often opened her novels, such as in Death on the Nile (1937) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934), with a series of vignettes which shift from character to character and their viewpoints, hinting at potential plot developments.

WW1 and its devastation as a powerful influence

Earlier on I mentioned the preoccupation Modernist writers had with exploring the consequences of WW1 on the lives of those who stayed at home or fought abroad. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), Robert Graves Goodbye To All That (1929) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) are but a few examples. It has often been argued by critics, such as Alison Light (1991)[7] that interwar detective fiction was an escape from the horrors of WW1. Nevertheless, the war itself was not and could not be forgotten in such works and was explored or included in a variety of ways. It is most famously included within the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L Sayers, who has her sleuth suffer from shellshock and in Whose Body? (1923) and Busman’s Honeymoon (1935) the narratives mention him suffering from attacks, which those close to him have to help him through. Interestingly these attacks coincide with the moments where his sleuthing has sent someone to the gallows. Like Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway, Wimsey suffers from guilt due to his wartime experiences and the things he had to do. Yet Wimsey is not the only sleuth to be reeling from his wartime experiences, as Colonel Gethryn in The Rasp (1924) by Philip Macdonald, is equally said to be finding it hard to readjust to normal life. Perhaps the darkest example of a shellshock sufferer in a Golden Age detective fiction novel is in James Hilton’s Was It Murder? (1931), where such a sufferer is made the scape goat of a series of school-based deaths, being murdered themselves in such a way that it looks like a suicide due to remorse.

The First World War also became an important backdrop to interwar mystery novels in other ways. For instance, Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) begins on Remembrance Day, whilst in a short story entitled ‘The Profiteers’ (1925)[8] H. C. Bailey criticises the businessmen who made a fortune out of the war. Henry Wade’s oeuvre also contains a number of works which look back to the war and Wade interweaves WW1 into the stories in unusual ways. For instance the First World War makes it possible for an exchange of identities in Constable Guard Thyself (1934), whilst in The High Sheriff (1937), events which occurred during the war become the basis for blackmail and murder and in Lonely Magdalen (1940) readers are emotively shown how a victim’s life goes astray due to the vagaries and damage wrought by the conflict.

Recorders of and Influenced by Technological/Scientific and Social Changes

The early 20th century saw ‘the birth of a machine age,’[9] where machines and technological developments were becoming much more involved in everyday life and homes. The Modernist response to this partially reflects the invasive nature of these changes and in conjunction with the mass loss of life in WW1, Modernist novels often presented human life and behaviour in a mechanised or mechanical way. Roger Luckhurst (2016) suggests that, ‘at times when rapid technological change transforms our connections to our own bodies and to others, literary narratives can imaginatively investigate these uncanny consequences.’[10] This can be seen in Charlie Chaplin films such as Behind the Screen (1916), where Chaplin’s body movements become mechanical-like, as well as in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) where the pressures and consequences of Mr Verloc’s job cause him to not only act machinelike but also make him see himself as composed of mechanical parts. This last example is particularly pertinent for us mystery fans as it shows a Modernist writer using a crime themed plot. This is also the case in Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play, The Machinal, which was based on the real-life Ruth Snyder case. Moreover, this play highlights how the assembly line feel to everyday life contributes to the protagonist’s murderous actions.

Initially it could be said that true interwar mystery writers did not portray their characters in a similar way. However, I think the idea of humans as machines is definitely something which crops up in the characteristics of the genre’s most important character: the sleuth. From the creation of Holmes and Dupin there has been a sense that such detecting figures embody rationalism, reasoning and logic; traits which in their lack of emotions have machine-based associations. In fact, Jacques Futrelle’s sleuth, Professor S. F. X. Van Dusen has the nickname of ‘The Thinking Machine.’ Whilst not quoted as being a machine, sleuths such as Hercule Poirot are also given similar machine qualities, with his “little grey cells” and is promoted as a cerebral figure. Yet as with Modernist literature which shows protagonists at tension with the mechanical developments around them, we too are shown how our machine-like investigators are not completely emotionally detached from their work, an aspect which they then have to deal with in their own way. That said I think a lot of Golden Age mystery authors had fun using new and emerging technologies in their stories, either as tools which help to solve crimes, such as in Arthur B. Reeve’s The Adventuress (1917) and in the stories of R. Austin Freeman and H. C. Bailey, or as new and fiendish ways of murdering people. Home wireless sets in particular were very prone to being tampered with as in the short stories of Christie and Ngaio Marsh.  

In a way it feels almost trite to say that both Modernist literature and interwar detective fiction commented on and recorded contemporary social changes, but I do think there is perhaps a stronger and more nuanced connection in the way they explored the roles of women and marriage; in particular it is interesting how both bodies of writers had female characters vying for greater autonomy, control and power in their lives through the act of murder, which is either a means for getting out of or into a specific marriage. Both Treadwell’s play and Conrad’s novel, mentioned above, feature women murdering their spouses and vintage mysteries have an even greater catalogue of such instances, such as in works by Michael Innes and Cyril Hare. There are also cases where a woman murders in order to get married or to change who she is marrying, as can found in books by Agatha Christie and Gladys Mitchell. I haven’t mentioned the titles of course, as that would somewhat spoil the solutions. Female roles in society and marriage though are not only mentioned in this negative manner, as both Modernist and interwar mystery novels questioned and discussed marital roles, as well as female employment and education, the latter of which was a pertinent theme in many of Sayers’ novels[11]. Furthermore, when it comes to the male sleuths created by Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, (Wimsey, Campion and Alleyn respectively), the writers show them having to negotiate power and autonomy within their developing relationships over several stories, rather than hurriedly introducing and completing their love interest within one book.

Individualism: Isolation and Anti-Heroism

In a time period which sees a shift to mass production it seems understandable that Modernist literature would focus on emphasising the individual and their specific dilemmas and ambitions. Furthermore, although Ibsen was working a bit earlier than the Modernist period, he voices a concern which is shared with the later movement, that of society becoming ‘detached from social values and isolated from their fellow men.’[12] With this in mind Modernist literature is full of protagonists portrayed as being ‘alienated or dysfunctional’[13] in some way. Equally the frequent departure from accepted morals of time in Modernist literature, ties into how they often had anti-heroes in their works such as Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of course, this comes through in interwar inverted mysteries, such as those by Francis Iles and Richard Hull, where the protagonists are isolated and ‘detached from social values’ concerning murder, but I would not say that anti-heroes cannot be found in non-inverted vintage mystery fiction. Two later examples, for instance, are John Dickson Carr’s Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956) and Christie’s Taken at the Flood (1948).

Returning to the themes contained within the quote from Ibsen, I think that isolation is a key experience both Modernist and Golden Age mystery writers dealt with in their stories. Furthermore, it is not just the criminals or anti-heroes who suffer from this, but in the case of vintage mystery novels, isolation is something central sleuths go through too. This is arguably related to their detecting roles, which can place them as an ‘outsider,’[14] and is most keenly felt when the detective in question has to solve a crime committed within a contained environment such as in Todd Downing’s Vultures in the Sky (1935) or Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934). The group of suspects may be all guilty or mostly innocent bar one or two, yet invariably they all have things they want to hide and even those innocent of the crime may be unhelpful towards the sleuth, who is almost swimming against the tide in order to uncover the truth. Though such ostracism can also be seen in more open cases which involve corruption such as in Roger East’s Twenty Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935).


There are other similarities that I could mention between Modernist literature and interwar detective fiction, such as their use of satire and the way the Gothic influenced them, but this article has already run on far too long. Nevertheless, I feel that Mark Green was correct in making his assertion that literary Modernism made its way into the mystery fiction of the time, as this article has shown with their shared techniques and their exploration of similar themes and like Green, I believe there needs to be a greater recognition and consideration of these connections.


[1] See:

[2] Farmn, L. (2017). Teaching Modernism: Intertextuality, Alterity, Complexity. Available: Last accessed 11/112017.

[3] See: ‘Wright glared at her suspiciously. Women, especially ancient dames like this one, were fools, he knew. Yet was it possible – ? But Mrs Bradley’s wrinkled yellow face was mild and sweet as that of a grandmother – which owing to the extreme distaste displayed by her only son for the whole female sex, she was certainly not! – and Wright was forced the conclusion that – alas for the progress of feminism! – it was possible! The woman was an idiot? Why had he shivered when she smiled?’ (p. 156 Vintage 2010 Edition)

[4] McAdams, Dan P. (2011). Narrative Identity. In: Schwartz, Seth., Luyckx, Koen and Vignoles Vivian. Handbook of Identity Theory and Research. New York: Springer. pp. 99 – 115.

[5] Mambrol, N. (2016). Techniques of Fragmentation Used in Modernism. Available: Last accessed 11/11/2017.

[6] See: The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole

[7] See: Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the World Wars

[8] This story was published in a collection entitled: Mr Fortune’s Trials.

[9] Anon. (2015). Modernism and Modernist Literature: Introduction and Background. Available: Last accessed 11/11/2017, p. 7

[10] Luckhurst, R. (2016). Modern Literature and Technology. Available: Last accessed 11/11/2017.

[11] E.g. Unnatural Death (1927) and Gaudy Night (1935)

[12] Anon. (2015). Modernism and Modernist Literature: Introduction and Background. Available: Last accessed 11/11/2017, p. 4

[13] Anon. (2015). Modernism and Modernist Literature: Introduction and Background. Available: Last accessed 11/11/2017, p. 11

[14] Bargainnier, E. (1980). The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie. Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press. p. 66.


  1. A lot of Michael Innes’s books are intertextual – you can often tell which writers he was reading professionally by the references in his detective stories – and Lament for a Maker uses the techniques of The Moonstone. His J.I.M. Stewart novels are parodies/homages to other novelists. He wrote them all very quickly as a profitable hobby, which is something of a shame, because he had the talent to write really “big” masterpieces if he’d been bothered.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You should look at McCabe’s Face on the Cutting Room Floor. It’s a bad book, but if you want self referential intertextual narrative trickery it cannot be beat amongst GAD novels. (The Adair is a good book though. One mystery blogger was driven to paroxysms of rage and disgust by it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have actually read both of the titles you mention already!
      I reviewed Face on the Cutting Room Floor and I strongly concur that it is indeed awful!
      I read the Adair book in 2014. From my goodread reading I think I thought it was okay, but I’m not sure what I would make of it now. I have read a later book by Adair, And Then There Was No One, which I didn’t particularly enjoy. It was one I reviewed in the early days of my blog.


      • I liked the Adair. I enjoyed the splenetic review even more though!
        Symons praised the McCabe, so I looked for it for 20 years or more. Finally I found a used copy. Oh frabjous joy! Er, not so much. One of the worst mysteries I have ever read.


  3. I think Symons’s description of The Face on the Cutting Room Floor was from memory, rather than a reread. It’s one of those books that Borges – another connexion between modernist fiction and GA detection – would have imagined someone had written and then reviewed: it’s a conceptual novel, a wonderful idea that just couldn’t be put into practise as well as it could be imagined.


    • Quite possible. I am citing Symons from memory too! So maybe his comments were more critical than I remember as well.
      Good point about Borges too.
      I think the most well known example is probably the New York trilogy by Paul Auster.


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