What Exactly Is A Golden Age Mystery? Part Two – A Call For Help

So, following on from my recent post concerning Ronald Knox’s Decalogue – ten rules for detective stories that, it seems, most people took as a joke, whether it was intended to be or not – I thought it was time for a few more thoughts on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. More particularly, what qualifies as Golden Age and what doesn’t. Just a reminder, I’m collating these thoughts due to not wanting to look like a twerp at The Bodies From The Library conference on June 20th.

And yes, I know there isn’t a definitive answer to this. As a mathematician, I always prefer when there is a clear rule for classification, but I know full well there isn’t one here. I’m formulating some ideas as to what I consider to be Golden Age but I’d like to get a feel what other people think, especially on a few key issues.

Why is this bothering me so much? Well, I’m not really sure. The focus of the conference is clearly on the Detection Club and its members but is that all there is to it? And if not – if the definition is much wider than that, how can one use the term “in a Golden Age style” if that style encompasses almost everything?

This is an interim post while I continue to mull things over, but I’ve got three questions that I’d like your opinion on.

  1. When people refer to Golden Age Mysteries, do you only think of the Christie-esque writers or do crime writers of other styles, such as Chandler and Hammett spring to mind?
  1. Clearly a writer such as Agatha Christie is a Golden Age writer. But does everything she wrote count as a Golden Age mystery? There must be some sort of a cut-off date, but she was writing classic mysteries such as The Mirror Crack’d as late as 1962.
  1. Talking of Christie – and long-term readers can probably twig where I’m going with this one – does a mystery have to be set in the present day (or time of writing) to fit the genre? Death Comes As The End is a rarely mentioned Christie from 1944 but is one of the few historical mysteries from the era.

Anyway, I’d appreciate your thoughts on these questions. The internet in general has a range of opinions, particularly on the first two points, but I’d rather go with people who I trust, namely my readers. So any opinions gratefully received…


  1. My answers: 1. Yes, 2. No, Christie also wrote romances, 3. No, though I can’t offhand think of a counter-example, I’m sure they must exist. In general, I’d say “golden age” is partly a temporal and partly a style designation. “Hardboiled” mysteries aren’t golden agers, even if written in the golden age. This also means that you can’t write one today, unless you have a time machine. However, you can write a golden age-style mystery today. That style is hard to describe, but I know it when I read it.


  2. Well, as discussed recently but elsewhere, I would argue that Golden Age applies to both cosy and harboiled because, despite appearances, they are both equally artificial and can, in retrospect, provide the same type of enjoyment.(inevitable atmosphere of a world long gone by, more emphasis on puzzle than character quite often) and a finale in which we discover whodunit. That it is in a country home, a ship, or on the streets of LA or New York does not seem to be relevant.


      • If you are asking about perception, then I would have to say now – we are assuming Golden Age means a detective story written, and generally set, between the wars. There will always be exceptions but i think, in my mind, that this is what the term s generally held to mean.


      • How about John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries? Or Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time”? Also, Christie wrote a few, including one set in ancient Egypt. I believe these were all written too late to count strictly as “golden age”, but surely they are golden age-style. I would think that all of Carr’s and Christie’s mysteries are in that style.


      • I see you mentioned Christie’s “Death Comes as the End”. I don’t remember that one, but it would seem to be an example. I’m sure there must be others, but all of the ones that come to mind seem to be later in time.


  3. To me it’s literally about a time range and I set that time range from 1920-1945. Everything is included if it has the basic plot of crime presented, crime investigated, crime resolved. Country house setting or urban setting, private eye or amateur sleuth or policeman detective — it all counts. It’s the Golden Age of Detective Fiction which is all about mystery and crime fiction written up to the end of World War 2. After that crime fiction tends to move away from fantasy and puzzles and focusses on reflecting reality and understanding character and human nature. Not that the books written during the period don’t also explore human nature and psychological issues related to crime it’s just not the primary purpose of the book. That’s as brief and simplified as I’m willing to go in a comment box. I don’t understand this need to define the Golden Age so rigidly — to toss out one kind of book while throwing in another kind. Why can’t all crime fiction be included? It’s about a time period in the development of a specific genre of fiction it’s not about the style or the content of each book itself. Those aspects continue to change and transform and blend in with other genres even today.


  4. As a Swede, I do not really use the term GA (except when discussing in English, of course). Our primary word for the works of Christie is “pusseldeckare” – which literally means “puzzle detective novel” or more idiomatically “fair play mystery” – and thus everything released by Christie belongs in this category.

    The main advantage of our term is that it doesn’t care one whit about specific time periods and trying to make things fit. Which also means that writers like Colin Dexter, Edmund Crispin and Peter Lovesey are included without us having to make exceptions or come up with Silver and Bronze Ages…

    However, “pusseldeckare” definitiely does NOT include Hammett or Chandler. They are hard-boiled and can never be included in “pusseldeckare”, no matter how fair play they are. 🙂


  5. The classic definition of Golden Age, and one that Martin Edwards pretty much agrees with in his first-rate new book, is the period between the two World Wars. I think you could argue that it extends both earlier and later. Personally, I’d include some of the Americans who wrote in the style(s) of Hammett and Chandler, although they were certainly moving in a different direction. But there are so many styles among the mysteries of the Golden Age that I think it’s hard to come up with a single definition. No reader is likely to confuse a book by, say, Crofts with a book by Sayers, or a Christie with a Berkeley-as-Francis-Iles, say.

    So I guess my answers to your questions would be: (1) Yes, there are many styles that are found among Golden Age authors; (2) Christie, like most of the chief GA writers, continued well beyond the Golden Age, but the mysteries she turned out were quite recognizable as using those classic styles; and (3) I don’t think the books have to be set in the actual Golden Age time period to count – there are so many exceptions to that condition that I don’t think I’ve ever considered it as a viable “rule.”


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