The Golden Age of Detective Fiction: The era of classic mysteries

It is sometimes said that when Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a short story published in 1841, the word “detective” didn’t exist–and he couldn’t use it for his story. We will not speculate on whether Poe would have liked to label Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin as a detective or not, but simply state that the word “detective” was already in use at the time.

What matters here is that Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue is generally regarded as the first modern detective story, closely followed by Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1968) as the first detective novel.

However, the best-known detective is arguably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes who helped shape the modern literary detective. A character inspired in part by Dupin (as well as the real Dr. Joseph Bell), Holmes made his debut in the short story A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887, and featured in many novels and short stories up until, canon-wise, 1927.

Around that time, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction started…

The Origins of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction

Following the aftermath of World War I, a new particular literary era of mystery novels emerged: The Golden Age of Detective Fiction. As the middle class was growing, more people were reading and the literary scene became naturally larger.

Readers were in search of stories easy to get into, offering a form of escapism after the harrowing times that were the war. They found it with mystery puzzles to solve and the Detective Fiction genre took off! This was also the time of the pulp magazines, filled with serialized detective tales, extending the genre’s reach and making it accessible to a more diverse readership.

As economic depression and global tensions grew in the 1930s, the genre broadened with more complicated stories that included criminal psychology and reflected the changes affecting society, from traditions to technology.

Famous detectives such as Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, and Roderick Alleyn contributed to making the genre popular. They became beloved and iconic figures of literature and helped establish their creators among the most recognizable novelists of the Detective Fiction genre. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh were the four dominant women crime writers of the time and became known as “The Queens of Crime.”

Traveling in the Golden Age or the conventions of the genre

If you read–or watch an adaptation of–an Agatha Christie story, you have a pretty good idea of what makes a classic murder mystery from this era. Many of the tropes associated with the genre, such as a small group of suspects, red herrings, unlikely culprits, or closed rooms and message clues, were already present before the Golden Age and never really disappeared. Author and theologian Ronald Knox even wrote an essay where he gave his “Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction“, published as an introduction in The Best English Detective Stories of 1928.

Those tropes were here to captivate the reader with some familiarity as he tried to unravel the mystery before the writer revealed the least likely suspect as the murderer. But it was more than some conventions, as those detective books focused on certain types of characters and settings that created a particular ambiance. With the murder happening generally off-set, with no blood and violence described with precision, it could take the form of a game, with the reader exploring each room of the manor and questioning every inhabitant with the detective on the scene. Simply like a Clue Game, with more details and introspection!

One of the most important features of the genre was to have an enclosed space, as it instantly limits the set of suspects–something quite rare in reality. The country house mystery was quite popular during the Golden Age, with And Then There None (by Agatha Christie (located on an island) and Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh (isolated by a snowstorm) two of the most known classic examples of this genre.

As workers got paid holidays and traveling became cheaper and easier, the travel theme mystery represented perfectly the societal changes happening at the time, while offering escapism and romanticism to the readers–and perfect places to have a murder! It could take place on a train or a boat, with a little group of travelers instantly becoming potential killers.

Those holiday settings were also perfect for gathering a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and with no supposed links to each other while exploring different cultures and learning more about the world and oneself.

The Decline and Renaissance of the Gentler Whodunit

In America, hard-boiled detective stories began to appear during those times and flourished in the aftermath of the prohibition. Popularized by authors like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, their stories depicted a darker and grittier time–following the simple rule that it’s every man for himself.

It didn’t mean the end of the Great Detective, but what can be seen as the more light-hearted side of the “whodunit” was slowly declining in popularity, and with World War II came new ways of writing crime in fiction. Books from Golden Age writers disappeared from the shops, giving way to other types of detective novels. If Agatha Christie continued to sell, she was the exception to the rule, and many books from less popular writers were, not so long ago, out of print.

Life is cyclical and an effort to revive this Golden Era emerged in the mid-20th century, with writers wanting to reconnect with the gentler side of detective fiction, far away from the hard-boiled fiction. And thus was born the cozy mystery, the official successor of the Golden Age of detective fiction…