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Golden Ages

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It’s one of those mornings.  I got up so late that I haven’t had my tea yet, and it’s just turned nine o’clock.  I was thinking I’d run to the grocery store, but the later it gets on Sunday morning, the less I like it, so I’m probably going to let it slide.  And Creamsicle keeps sitting on the top of my monitor, which is where the on/off button is, and turning it off.

He actually likes doing that a lot.  I suppose I could always get a flat screen and make him miserable.

But I got on this morning and found a comment to the last post implying that whatever this was, it wasn’t the Golden Age of Mystery–the bronze, maybe, or worse, but not the Golden Age.

And by implication, the Golden Age would then have to be the late Twenties to the early Forties, when Christie and Sayers and John Dickson Carr (under all his pseudonyms) were working, and when people joined things like the Detection Club and took the Detection Club Oath.

And I think that’s wrong.

What that early period was was the mystery’s era of being the most popular genre as a genre, but that second thing is the important point.

The mystery novels of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties were–even when they were good–genre fiction in the worse sense of the term.

They had a standard plot and they were plot driven–not story driven, which is different–most of the time.  There was very little in the way of character development of the suspects or of the detectives. 

In classic mysteries, the puzzles were often unnecessarily complicated and the characters tortured out of shape to fit them.

In hard boiled mysteries, we were treated to volume after volume of adolescent angsting and puerile cynicism about how everybody who had ever succeeded at anything (business and government both) were venal and corrupt.

The advent of mystery novels that were also truly good novels had to await this wave of mystery publishing–P.D. James and Ruth Rendell are first rate novelists, and not just mystery writers.

(I’m told the same thing about Dennis Lehane, but I’ve never read one of his, so I can’t say.)

Even some of the mystery writers who are definitely mystery writers first (and not novelists first) are at least good–say, for instance, the better Martha Grimes, still concentrated on the puzzle but also committed to making full characters and to not violating their cohesion to fit the plot.

Of the first wave of mystery writers, Christie is actually the best one.  For all the complaints about Christieland (an England that never existed) and sneers about dead bodies in country houses, she rarely used even her most cardboard characters badly, and her puzzles were straightforward and made sense.

But of that entire first wave, I can think of only one mystery novel that I would call an actual novel, and that is Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night.

These days, mystery writers tend to try to write actual novels, and many of them succeed.  And mystery readers tend to want to read actual novels. 

Of course, it’s possible that if mystery writers all wrote old fashioned mystery stories, they’d sell more books–but maybe not.

One of the other distinctions between the two waves of mystery publishing is this:  the first way mystery novels were bought and read by bright, educated people as well as by the the masses who bought their books in drug stores and train stations.  That was why Christie sold in hardcover.

These days, the people who are looking for plot-driven puzzle mysteries seem to require that those books be breathlessly written, archly comic and twee–that they be escapism in the worst sense, a picture not only of no world that exists but of no world that could ever exist, a flat-out denial of reality in favor of the cute.

People like me–people who would have read Christie when she was first publishing as well as reading Hemingway and Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter–read P.D. James and Rendell and even Martha Grimes. 

I can’t read a cozy to save my life–and I mean I can’t read it.  I can’t keep my eyes glued to the page. 

This is the Golden Age of Mystery.  There’s a lot of dreck, to be sure, but there was a lot of dreck before, too.  Eventually the dreck will fall off the map and the good stuff will remain.

But the Golden Age of a genre is always the age when genre writers are allowed to be writers first and not hamstrung by conventions, not the age when the conventions reign supreme and some people get very good at them.

Written by janeh

September 26th, 2010 at 9:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Golden Ages'

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  1. I think we have several things going on here. Let’s clear away the dead wood. First, there are almost no “hard-boiled mysteries.” Hammett is an exception, but otherwise, “hard boileds” are crime stories. They are not mysteries. They fail the basic Detection Club test of providing a puzzle and clues by which the puzzle may be solved. They do not live in a rational universe, but an emotional one. There’s a lot of crime fiction out there today, but combing the shelves for a mystery can take a bit of time.

    And that’s one reason this is not the golden age of detective fiction. Part of being a “golden age” of whatever, is that there are a number of competent craftsmen learning from one another, and an abundance of material for those who enjoy and appreciate the art form.

    Of course, that’s why any golden age produces a lot of drek–the unnecessarily complicated puzzles and the characters beaten into submission. When a field sells well, lots of people crowd into it–or are so crowded by agents and publishers, and Sturgeon’s Revelation comes into play. (You never heard of it? “Ninety percent of EVERYTHING is crud.”) Anyway, bad work of that sort is actually a symptom of a golden age–much like the really bad “Indiana Jones” imitations which followed RAIDERS, and some unspeakably bad imitations of Robert Howard and JRR Tolkien.

    As for plot and story, however one looks at the matter, I’d have at least put BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON and MURDER MUST ADVERTISE close by GAUDY NIGHT. There would also be several Josephine Teys–notably TO LOVE AND BE WISE, FRANCHISE AFFAIR and BRAT FARRAR. All are on my shelves–but so are Christie’s “Miss Marples” and Stout’s “Nero Wolfe” stories–because the point is not that they are good novels in the Jane sense, but that they are good mysteries. And their publication shows that mystery writers of the period were not prevented from writing works closer to the mainstream novel if they so desired.

    “But the Golden Age of a genre is always the age when genre writers are allowed to be writers first and not hamstrung by conventions, not the age when the conventions reign supreme and some people get very good at them.”

    I would have said that the writer who feels obliged to make every mystery an exercise in character development is equally “hamstrung by conventions.” And I’d also point out that those people who “tend to want to read actual novels”–by which you mean those types of novels of which you approve–are also keeping in print all the classic Golden Age mystery writers despite all the copies already in circulation. As for who prefers the “twee” I have no idea. Every mystery list and discussion group I can find on the Web calls Christie a cozy–and the best of them. If this were a mystery, I’d suspect the publishers or editors rather than the readers.

    But the novel of character development is not in itself a mystery, and a mystery as such is not improved by being blended with such a novel. And why is this combination inherently superior to the novel which reveals rather than develops character, or the novel which gives primacy to setting?

    You are perfectly within your rights to prefer mystery writers who also want to be mainstream novelists of the character development sort, but a golden age would involve more than two of them. And a golden age of the mystery would involve more than a single type. There would be the character-focused later Sayers, the sometimes farcical locked rooms and impossible situations of John Dickson Carr and the spare cerebral Rex Stouts. In other words, it would look rather like the world of the mystery between the end of the First World War and about 1955.

    [By the way, my teachers exactly reversed those definitions. It was the addition of character and motivation which made a story a plot. I can still see and hear the filmstrip.]


    26 Sep 10 at 11:08 am

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