Last Autumn, through reading Howdunit: A Master Class in Crime Writing (2020), I became interested in finding out what modern-day crime writers consider to be the legacy of Golden Age detective fiction. So, in December I sent out an invitation to crime writers to answer the following question:
What is the most important thing Golden Age detective fiction left modern crime writers?
A tricky question, right? It is like being asked which is your favourite Agatha Christie novel, (and no you can’t have the complete collection on Kindle).
In total I received 28 responses from a range of British and American mystery fiction authors. I will be quoting from their responses in this piece, but I have also included a complete list of participants at the end of this post, with accompanying information about their latest or soon to be released work. I would also, at this point, like to say thank you to everyone who set aside time in their busy schedules to take part.
I was excited to see what answers would be submitted. You don’t need Poirot’s little grey cells to deduce that I am a big fan of Golden Age detective fiction. Consequently, I have my own ideas as to what the mystery writing of this period left as its legacy. Yet I am not a crime writer, so would my ideas be significantly different to those being emailed in? I was also keen to see what patterns emerged in the responses and whether there were some ideas which were more popular than others.
When it came to organising the data I had been given, different categories and patterns quickly developed, yet it was not until I had re-read one particular response that I felt I had found the centre, or the root, from which the other answers grew out from.
‘Establishment of a Genre’
Fiona Veitch-Smith, writer of the Poppy Denby series, wrote that:
‘As a writer of Golden Age-style mysteries, set in the 1920s, for me the most important legacy is the establishment of a genre that is still read and perpetuated a century later. The phrase ‘Golden Age-style mysteries’ immediately conjures up a literary and period style that cues my reader as to what they might expect from my books.’
The phrases I have highlighted in bold are the ones which first leapt out at me. The mystery novel did not begin with the Golden Age, but the books written in those years, and the further material written at the time about crime fiction, were crucial in shaping the genre we know today. As Fiona suggests, by establishing a genre a series of expectations are created and it these expectations, (or ‘underlying assumptions,’ as another participant put it), which I think are explored in the other responses my survey received. However, before I commence unpacking these ideas, I was intrigued that whilst writers such as Fiona found these “expectations” a positive, others have found them to be more inhibitive, such as the creator of the Anna Lee and Eva Wylie mystery series, Liza Cody:
‘The “Golden Age” form is still used today by writers as wonderful as Peter Lovesey, and I’m grateful for that. But from my own point of view it hangs like a millstone round my neck. It stimulates an expectation not every crime writer is interested in living up to. People love categories. They love knowing what to expect. Publishers think they know what I should be doing. Readers get annoyed sometimes because I’m not doing it. I’m just not in that category.’
Whilst later in this post we will see responses which find the expectations left by the Golden Age of detective fiction creatively challenging and enabling, it was interesting to find out that this is not the case for every author. I am used to reading derisive comments about older crime fiction which paint such works as a kind of embarrassing older relative of current mystery novels. So it was surprising, to a degree, to see the positions reversed in Liza’s answer, wherein the greater value is placed upon earlier mysteries and that they become this kind of pinnacle to be reached when writing new tales today.
‘The Golden Age Game Plan’
One of the biggest categories in this survey was structure; although in the answers I received, many different phrases were used including ‘blueprint,’ ‘formula’ and ‘pattern’ and with these phrases a variety of reasons were attached, for why this aspect of Golden Age detective fiction was the most important legacy it left modern crime writing.
Christopher Fowler, author of the Bryant and May series, asserts the continuing relevance of these earlier crime novels, suggesting that ‘murders and murderers, suspects and locations still all conform to the Golden Age game plan.’ Moreover, he felt that ‘now, more than ever, when murder mysteries are turning their backs on CSI-style plots and embracing feelings over facts, we’re relying on traditional GA structures.’ Creator of the 1930s-set Rachel Savernake series, Martin Edwards, also makes a similar point in his own response. He felt that ‘many of the most interesting contemporary fictions borrow, adapt, and develop those structural tricks and techniques.’ However, he develops this idea further, arguing that such use of structure not only ‘demonstrat[es] the rich potential of the novel as a literary form tailor-made for achieving suspense and surprise,’ but that it also ‘offer[s] insight into the way people and societies behave.’ This interested me, as something like structure can produce a mental image of nuts and bolts or a bland sort of scaffold, whilst it seems from a writer’s point of view, it is a much more exciting and creative aspect of a story. It also contributes significantly to the ‘entertainment’ of such stories, a concept brought out in Dolores Gordon-Smith’s answer. For Dolores, who writes the Jack Haldean murder mysteries, the greatest legacy of the Golden Age, is ‘entertainment,’ which ‘leaves a deep sense of satisfaction.’ Yet Dolores argues this pleasure is partly derived from the structure of these mysteries, citing the works of Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and Dorothy L. Sayers, amongst others, as examples of a ‘masterclass in storytelling.’
Sometimes in responses a specific part of the perceived structure of Golden Age detective fiction was focused on. For example, Vaseem Khan homed in on ‘the classic denouement scene’ of the Golden Age ‘formula’; a formula he felt held ‘a personal resonance’ given his use of it in his latest book, Midnight at Malabar House (2020). Meanwhile Kate Ellis, whose D. I. Lincoln novels are set in the aftermath of WW1, concentrated on the solution component of Golden Age mystery formula. She felt because ‘people can never resist a mystery which cries out to be solved,’ the solution which ‘restores order, should always be satisfying, especially at times of uncertainty.’ This latter point is shared by Mike Hollow, creator of the Blitz Detective series. Paraphrasing P. D. James, he felt the most important legacy left by Golden Age detective fiction to current mystery authors was the fact that ‘what we like about crime fiction is that it starts with a puzzle and ends with a solution, and thus order is brought out of disorder.’ Mike’s answer then considers the purpose and effect of these structural expectations Golden Age mysteries left us. He comments:
‘That’s what made crime novels so popular in the 1920s and 30s – people living in those very uncertain times found reassurance in their core element of normality being restored. Little wonder that in more recent times the Coronavirus pandemic has seen crime fiction sales soaring.’
From the ideas raised here it could argued that Golden Age detective novels in their legacy to future mystery authors, cemented the notion that detective fiction is a genre that can be used to alleviate anxiety and to soothe readers with. You could say this section almost makes the claim or at least brings up the question of whether detective fiction would be so popular today if it did not have the potential to provide these comforting benefits.
‘A Battle of Wits’
The author trying to fox the reader, with red herrings and misdirection, is a familiar concept nowadays, something we have are accustomed to expecting. Yet Victoria Dowd, who published last year her first mystery, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder, feels this is the Golden Age’s ‘most enduring legacy.’ Victoria’s response also considers the idea of this expectation having a competitive-race-like element to it, speaking of the ‘addictive need to find out whodunnit’ and ‘to solve the puzzle before the author’ reveals the solution. Historical mystery novelist E. M. Powell’s views chime in with this too, as she describes this author/reader interaction as ‘a hugely enjoyably pursuit for both’ and adds that the fun of this activity has a timeless quality, ‘that the deep satisfaction of solving a puzzle never ages.’ It was particularly interesting to read about how it feels to be an author in this process, as Powell goes on to write that she gets ‘an enormous kick out of being on the other side’ of the interaction ‘and successfully pulling the rabbit out of the hat.’ She summed up that ‘it really does feel like magic!’ However, even though there is this competitive component, the friendly nature of this contest, is also explored in participants’ answers. Victoria mentions that ‘whether they solved it or not, readers fe[el] compelled to try again with the next offering.’ Furthermore, Powell notes ‘that failing to guess or guessing correctly’ the identity of the killer, ‘seem to be equally satisfying.’
Other writers in this survey came at this ‘battle of wits’ from another angle. James S. Brynside, an author of impossible crime mysteries, begins his answer by saying that ‘the greatest thing’ Golden Age detective fiction ‘left me was a respect for the reader.’ Equally L. C. Tyler, creator of the Elsie and Ethelred comic crime novels, argues that the writers from the interwar period ‘established a contract with the reader: that there would a crime that was capable of resolution with reference to clues that would be fairly presented.’ Tyler goes on to say that ‘the reader would be teased and mystified, but never cheated,’ whilst James felt that the ‘codifications which took place during the golden age (rules still with us today) were made to engender fair play, thereby rewarding active and attentive readers.’ I thought this perspective on the ‘battle of wits’ makes a return to the importance of structure which Golden Age detective novels left modern crime writers. If there is to be a competition between the author and the reader, then enough clues need to be planted, at the right time, to ensure it is the ‘enjoyabl[e] pursuit’ Powell mentions.
Whilst there are crossovers between this category and the previous ones, with the idea of fair play reoccurring, I decided that it deserved a separate section, as participant answers in this group expand the survey’s focus. Faith Martin, who writes the Ryder and Loveday series, believes that ‘the real strength of golden age books lie in their tight plotting,’ and adds that ‘for me, plotting a proper ‘whodunnit’ is much harder than plotting a more character-driven (say police procedural) crime novel.’ From this it could proposed that, for some, the Golden Age of detective fiction provides a benchmark for strong plotting, which as Marsali Taylor notes, ‘can still take your breath away.’ John Dickson Carr is cited by both Faith and Marsali as a writer who epitomises this strength of Golden Age mysteries. Marsali, (author of a series of Shetland Islands mysteries), goes on to say that part of the enjoyment of this type of plotting is that it ‘lead[s] you neatly up the garden path, round the dustbins and back to the door.’ Fans of Agatha Christie’s work will be pleased to know that she is not overlooked in the arena of plotting, with Rachel Sargeant, whose first suspense novel was The Perfect Neighbours (2017), naming her ‘Queen of Plots.’ Rachel also picks up on Christie’s use of killer twists, and when commenting on her own writing says that: ‘I start with the plot and work backwards from the end, hoping one day to be half as good as Agatha.’
However, as well as giving examples of earlier plotting experts, participants also assessed the effect of this legacy from the Golden Age, on current crime writing. Tom Mead, whose short stories reflect his love of locked room and impossible crimes, expressed ‘delight’ in ‘see[ing] the gradual resurgence in popularity of skilfully plotted and fairly clued mysteries.’ Tom commends the novels of Anthony Horowitz, as mysteries ‘where a concatenation of clues and red herrings mean the audience really can play detective.’ Other modern crime writers perceived as adept at plotting were Chris Brookmyre and Val McDermid.
‘Queen of the Classic Whodunnit’
When setting up this project, part of me did wonder how often Agatha Christie would turn up in the answers submitted, and whether she would in some ways be over-mentioned, given the modern tendency to use her as a shorthand for everything Golden Age. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that whilst just over 40% of responses mention her, her work or one of her characters, only 14% of responses anchored their answer around her completely. Moreover, I felt the answers offered, provided a range of reasons as to why they selected Christie as the greatest legacy of the Golden Age. For instance, Cheryl Rees-Price, who brought out the mystery Blue Hollow last year, writes that Christie left ‘modern day crime writers […] the formula for cosy crime,’ adding that ‘there is a pattern that is set out in her novels which remains timeless.’ In a way it could said that one of the reasons Christie is singled out as the most important legacy, is because she is perceived as embodying the expectations the genre established during the interwar years.
Some of these expectations were specifically mentioned in responses, such as in Catriona McPherson’s. Writer of the Dandy Gliver mystery series, Catriona asserts that ‘for me, the bit of the Golden Age still shining brightest is Agatha Christie,’ and her reasons for this assertion include Christie’s ‘staggering plots,’ as well as the way her novels and detectives have become ‘woven tight into our culture.’ Meanwhile Alison Joseph, who has written a trilogy of novellas featuring Christie as an amateur sleuth, brings up ‘the page-turning, well characterised storytelling,’ of Christie, whilst Marion Todd adds the additional epitaph of ‘Queen of Puzzles.’ Marion, author of the Detective Clare Mackay series, in her answer highlights the way Christie fulfils the expected structure, ‘creat[ing] puzzles, then fe[eding] the reader clues.’ These clues come in a variety of formats, with Marion including the example of the mispronounced name in A Murder is Announced. The importance placed on giving readers enough clues, which Marion attests to when she comments that ‘we carry our readers with us, laying a trail for them to follow,’ is an idea which crops up in a number of responses to my survey, reinforcing the point that the reason this idea is mentioned so often is because Golden Age mystery authors demonstrated its value in the first place.
‘Smiler with the Knife’
So far the survey responses have dealt with the overlapping ideas of structure, plotting, clues and the desire to puzzle solve. Whilst these themes were chosen the most, a variety of other ideas also emerged. The first of these is ‘the disparity between bright appearance and grim reality,’ as Suzette A. Hill puts it. For Suzette, who has published several novels revolving around the muddled murderer, Reverend Oughterard, ‘the essence of a crime novel’ is the way it contains a ‘sunny surface concealing a dark and murky depth.’ Moreover, she continues that: ‘It is the juxtaposition of these two extremes that keeps me wedded to the ‘Golden Age.’’ One of the main ways this ‘juxtaposition’ is demonstrated is in the choice of settings, which J. G. Harlond observes in her response. Harlond, who created the Bob Robbins Home Front mysteries, echoes W. H. Auden, when she writes that ‘part of the enduring appeal of Golden Age crime, to my mind, is the vicarious experience of a quiet or idyllic location sullied.’ In addition, author of The Ice Daughters (2020), Daisy White, comments on the continuing legacy of settings writing that they are ‘always atmospheric and contributing very much to the story.’ I found this an interesting point, as often Golden Age detective fiction has been criticised for its use of generic settings; a criticism which is referenced in Suzette’s response. Countering this claim, she asserts the ‘reality’ of country house settings and opines that ‘human nature, whatever its circumstance, never alters: fiendish murders are plotted on golf courses equally as well as those in sleazy backrooms.’
‘Devil on Our Doorstep’
Juxtaposition, however, is not just to be found in the settings of mystery novels, but also in their choice of killers. A. G. Barnett, who writes the Mary Blake series and the Brock and Poole police mysteries, revealed in his answer that:
‘For me, the real appeal of the golden age of detective fiction is the idea that murder is […predominately] committed by normal people pushed to extremes either through fear of covering up a dark secret, greed of wanting more than their life has given them so far, jealousy, heartbreak, and all manner of everyday things that can spiral at any moment.’
It is not that these earlier novels never included a serial killer, but it could be said that Golden Age mysteries set up the expectation that the murderer could be anyone, however unlikely or seemingly pleasant they appeared. Barnett makes the further point that choosing an ordinary person as your killer, is ‘far more chilling.’ Moreover, he cites Christie, on this basis, as ‘one of the darkest mystery authors,’ contrary to ‘her reputation being on the lighter side.’
‘Look! I’m doing a thing here! Pay Attention’
We have looked at some of the expectations Golden Age mysteries generated when they made moves to establish detective fiction as a distinct genre, but in this section we are going to consider one of the methods used in this establishment process. Katherine Addison, who incorporates real life killer Jack the Ripper in her latest novel, The Angel of the Crows (2020), wrote in her response that:
‘what Golden Age detective writers have given us is a sense of the detective novel as something that is worth employing artifice to create.’
She gives the writing duo Ellery Queen as an example, arguing that their work ‘is the most metafictional, the most inclined to point at what they’re doing and say, Look! I’m doing a thing here! Pay attention!’ Consequently, Katherine felt Ellery Queen ‘ended up doing some amazing things.’ Dorothy L. Sayers is another example Katherine gave noting the ‘progression from Whose Body? to Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon.’ She goes on to suggest that:
‘having established her detective as a creature of artifice, she [Sayers] then proceeds to take apart this façade until the reader can see the human being behind Lord Peter Wimsey, and she can talk about a murder investigation both as a game AND as something painfully serious at the same time. The later novels could not have the effect they do without the explicit artifice of the first few.’
I thought this last point was particularly pertinent to this survey topic, as arguably modern-day crime writers can only have the effect that they have because of the artifice found in many Golden Age mysteries. Furthermore, I would suggest that we, as readers, have such strong expectations of mystery novels because earlier crime writers in their novels went to such lengths to self-referentially explore the genre they were working in. Interestingly, Katherine draws her response to a close, with the remark that this use of artifice ‘makes the detective novel a genre with a lot more flexibility and range than its origins might suggest, which I think is one reason that it has survived and is still thriving.’ Again, this is an idea which flies in the face of the still persistent criticism that crime fiction, especially Golden Age styled, is overly restrictive.
T. E. Kinsey, creator of the currently 7-book long Lady Hardcastle series, chose ‘sidekicks as narrator,’ as ‘the most pleasing thing bequeathed us by the Golden Age.’ Kinsey feels such ‘marvellous characters’ bring many benefits to a mystery. For example, they ‘keep things breezing along by giving the detective someone to talk to’ and they ‘can highlight the detective’s genius and apologise for their flaws in ways that are often intrusively clunky in the hands of a third person narrator.’ Kinsey acknowledges his own indebtedness to this legacy, concluding that ‘much of the fun of the Lady Hardcastle series comes from using this particular gift from the Golden Age and I’m not sure I could have written the books without it.’
‘We are still in Dangerous Waters’
Before you panic or scratch your heads, this final category is not about Golden Age detective novels leaving a crucial legacy in maritime or fishing related mysteries. Instead this last section is concerned with the fairy tale quality of crime fiction, a quality some participants felt the Golden Age significantly contributed to. The beginning of the post brought up the idea of Golden Age mysteries establishing the genre, yet it will be finishing with the idea that these stories equally enabled a different earlier genre to evolve. Author of the Flavia de Luce series, Alan Bradley, for instance suggests Golden Age mysteries were ‘the natural, grown-up successors to the fairy tales of our childhood,’ whilst Rebecca Tope asserts that ‘the Golden Age reinvented the fairy tale for the modern era.’ Both these writers provide examples of how these mysteries updated fairy tales. Alan writes:
‘All the nasty motives formerly kept hidden in those harmless-seeming nursery rhymes are now on full display: the Wicked Witch is revealed as the Evil Parent, the Naughty Child as the Budding Psychopath, and the Recluse who lives in that old shack at the end of the lane as the Big Bad Wolf.’
Reflecting on how her own writing embodies this ‘reinvention’, Rebecca, who sets many of her novels in the Lake District, comments that:
‘For me, writing a century later, much of this remains subconscious. Only when I examine my own stories more closely do I trace some of these same elements. Jealousy, revenge, malice, greed – the perpetual motives for doing harm – follow through from legends, myths and fairy tales to the present day.’
So for some authors this legacy from Golden Age detective fiction is still highly relevant to writing crime fiction today, something which Alan also suggests. He writes that:
‘We are still in dangerous waters, but at least we have those wonderful Golden Age writers to map out the shoals in ways that are not only instructive and entertaining, but often endearing.’
Even here, we could say, structure wriggles back into the picture, reinforcing how rich and deep a blueprint, Golden Age mysteries left future crime writers.
I did not envisage their being one definitive answer to the question I posed in this survey, and the fact there is not, is no negative, since it has meant the inclusion of a wide range of interesting and thoughtful answers. The large umbrella term of structure though, seems to be the most popular answer, as I felt many of the responses that were submitted came under it. Nevertheless, this did not lead to a bland uniformity in the answers, as participants brought out different ideas related to it. There was a strong leaning towards underlying principles and more abstract ideas, rather than more concrete suggestions such as a specific title or fictional detective. I also found it interesting to see the various TV shows and films that participating authors referenced as evidence of the continuing legacy of the Golden Age. These included programmes such as Death in Paradise (2011-), The Undoing (2020), and the ITV Hercule Poirot adaptations featuring David Suchet (1989-2013). However, a film which was referred to multiple times in responses was Knives Out (2019) – again as an example of a contemporary mystery which delivers the expectations Golden Age detective stories set up.
So now I am throwing out the question to my blog readers:
What do you think is the most legacy of Golden Age detective fiction?
List of Participating Authors
Attached to each name is the title of each author’s latest or soon to be released work.
- Katherine Addison – The Angel of the Crows (2020) (Out in Paperback May 2021)
- A. G. Barnett – Lightning Strikes Twice (2020) (Mary Blake Book 3)
- Alan Bradley – The Golden Tresses of the Dead (2019) (Flavia de Luce Book 10)
- James S. Byrnside – The Strange Case of Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) (Detective Manory and Walter Williams Book 3)
- Liza Cody – Crocodiles and Good Intentions (2018) (Lady Bag Book 2)
- Victoria Dowd – Body on the Island (February 2021) (Sequel to The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder)
- Martin Edwards – Mortmain Hall (2020) (Rachel Savernake Book 2)
- Kate Ellis – The House of the Hanged Woman (2020) (Albert Lincoln Book 3)
- Christopher Fowler – Oranges and Lemons (April 2021) (Bryant & May Book 19)
- Alison Joseph – What Dark Days (2020) (Sister Agnes Book 11)
- J. G. Harlond – Private Lives (2020) (Bob Robbins Home Front Mystery Book 2)
- Suzette A. Hill – Deadly Primrose (2020) (Reverend Francis Oughterard Book 7)
- Mike Hollow – The Dockland Murder (March 2021) (Blitz Detective Book 5)
- Vaseem Khan – Midnight at Malabar House (June 2021) (Inspector Wadia Book 1)
- Tim E. Kinsey – The Deadly Mystery of the Missing Diamonds (March 2021) (Dizzy Heights Mystery Book 1)
- Faith Martin – A Fatal Affair (March 2021) (Ryder & Loveday Mystery Book 6)
- Catriona McPherson – The Mirror Dance (January 2021) (Dandy Gliver Book 15)
- Tom Mead – Occam’s Razor (2022) (Joseph Spector Book 1, though this character has been featured in many short stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mystery Scene and Mystery Weekly)
- E. M. Powell – The Canterbury Murders (2020) (Stanton & Barling Mystery Book 3)
- Cheryl Rees-Price – Blue Hollow (January 2021)
- Rachel Sargeant – The Roommates (2019)
- Dolores Gordon Smith – Forgotten Murder (2018) (Jack Haldean Book 10)
- Fiona Veitch Smith – The Art Fiasco (2020) (Poppy Denby Investigates Book 5)
- Marsali Taylor – Death From a Shetland Cliff (2020) (Cass Lynch Book 8)
- Marion Todd – What They Knew (Feb 2021) (Detective Clare Mackay Book 4)
- Rebecca Tope – The Ullswater Undertaking (March 2021) (Lake District Mystery Book 10)
- L. C. Tyler – Farewell My Herring (April 2021) (Elsie and Ethelred Book 9)
- Daisy White – The Ice Daughters (2020) (Dove Milson Book 2)