Thursday 3rd May 2018 in books

A look back at the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

I am a big fan of detective fiction and recently discussed the genre with some of my friends. The following is adapted from what I wrote in that discussion, and I am publishing it for posterity.

The 1920s and 1930s are termed the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, during which a great number of works from Agatha Christie and her contemporaries were published.

Detective fiction had gradually become increasingly popular in the previous decades, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories being notable examples of fiction created during this period.

However, whilst these stories featured detective characters, they would usually solve the mysteries using reasoning that is not possible for the reader to replicate based on the information provided by the written text.

And so, in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a new style of mystery story arose. The writer would create a game (actually the technical term) between themselves and the reader. Clues would be set out, and the reader would be challenged to solve the mystery for themselves using their knowledge and reasoning.

Essentially, the scenario is set out, the characters are introduced, then the crime (usually a murder) is committed. The detective character goes about the crime scene uncovering clues and red herrings alike. They question the suspects. Then, they sit everyone down and announce that they have solved the mystery.

With this announcement, the reader knows they have all the information they need to solve the mystery. Here, they stop reading, possibly going back to review the information. After some deliberation, the reader hopefully comes up with a solution, and so they resume reading. The detective presents their solution, and the reader confirms whether or not their solution was correct.

However, now came a problem. Although the mysteries were supposed to be solvable, some authors took to writing mysteries with solutions that were entirely unsatisfactory. For instance, sometimes the culprit was a secret twin brother, or the crime was caused by some obscure scientific phenomenon.

To counter these issues, Ronald Knox (a priest and prominent mystery writer) created his Decalogue. These were ten commandments that mystery writers should follow to provide a satisfactory experience to the reader.

One thing worth noting: The use of the word “Chinaman” is frequently mistaken to be racist. In fact, Knox had realised that a number of mystery stories had a solution relating to a stereotype who would only appear at the very end. This was bad writing, hence that Decalogue entry.

Also notable is the American art critic who wrote detective fiction under the name S. S. Van Dine. He wrote an article entitled Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, which is frequently used along with Knox’s Decalogue when discussing mystery stories.

Detective fiction has developed since those days, and modern writers don’t necessarily pay these rules much attention anymore. However, in the last few decades, there has been a resurgence in Japan for the style of mystery stories that were prominent in the Golden Age. These “new orthodox” (shin-honkaku) stories recreate the experience of Golden Age detective fiction and once again invite the reader to solve their mysteries.