Sunday, 31 May 2015

A new awareness?

The time for break the rules is ripe. The Golden Age is coming back.
I’m glad to see the recent increasing interest in reprinting forgotten Golden Age mysteries, mostly thanks to the British Library. Among the garbage that we are forced to see every day in the bookcases, the great novels of such authors like Crofts, Farjeon and Bude are finally back in the shelves. But the most important impulse comes from the work of the scholars: Martin Edward’s The Golden Age of Murder (2015) and Curtis Evan’s The Spectrum of English Murder (2015) are two landmarks that readers should not neglect. In their works, Edwards and Evans show that the Golden Age was a richer affair than much of modern mystery scholars would have us believe.

Modern scholars often don’t care about the complexity of the Golden Age period. They have divided this Era in two separated worlds: Hard-Boiled fiction and clue-puzzle mystery. This dichotomy came to be regarded as a sex war: American males on one side, British females on the other. The most part of influent mystery scholars claims that there was neither communication nor link between Hard-Boiled and mystery. They see the mystery as a genre dominated by rules and norms, unable to reach a literary value. This is a very incomplete part of the picture, which masks the strong cross-pollination of mystery during the two World Wars.

The recent studies of such critics as Lucy Worsley or P.D. James didn’t take into account the variety of nuances of the period, and they lost the opportunity to say something new about the Golden Age. Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) by James, for instance, is not as intensively-researched as I expected and I often disagree with her point of view. First of all I don’t find a real sense of being so selective in the history of the genre. There is no space for the great male Golden Age writers, for instance Anthony Boucher or S.S. Van Dine, which had a fundamental role in the evolution of mystery. Ellery Queen is never mentioned, and it is totally unacceptable. Secondly, I think that the idea of the “rules of the game” (those written by Van Dine and Knox) has been totally exaggerated by the scholars in the past, and James seemed having a fixation on Knox’s commandaments. She took them far too literally and I honestly don’t understand why. I recommend reading the superb essay of John Dickson Carr, The Greatest Game in the World (1946), in which he wrote: 
“Those who nail a manifesto to the wall, saying, “The beginner will do this, and must under no circumstances do that”, are in many cases quoting not rules but prejudices. [...] With all due respect and admiration for those who have compiled lists, it would not be difficult to show that they were often giving dubious advice and sometimes talking arrant nonsense”.
Thirdly, in the James’s book there are too many mistakes: for instance, the perpetrator of The Purloined Letter by Poe is not the most unlikely suspect, and the James’s claim that the detective novel was not intellectually respected until Sayers wrote Gaudy Night (1935) is simply absurd, how Curtis Evans has perfectly revealed in the essay Murder in The Criterion: T.S. Eliot on Detective Fiction (2014).

Many scholars probably think that every Golden Age novel was set in a Country House, where people spoke like Maggie Smith in Downtown Abbey, detectives were snobbish gentlemen and a murder was a little inconvenience. This is nonsense: of course, there were writers for which the novels were simply entertainment, but for many others the reality was totally different. Honestly, though, there is nothing wrong in writing a simple good and well-plotted story, without implied messages. Many crime writers write bad stories nowadays having nothing to say about life, death and people.
James privileged realism and credibility over ingenuity, but I think these are wrong criterions to analyze a fiction novel, mostly a crime novel. “Realism" is the curtain for those who are not able to write clever stories, and “credibility” has the duty to cover the lack of genius.
Many myths of the Golden Age have been unmasked yet: for instance, in the brilliant Evans’s essay The Amateur Detective Just Won’t Do: Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction (2014), he revealed not only that the Hard-Boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler had great affinity with classical mystery, but also that the american writer, despite what he wrote in his The Simple Art of Murder (1950), actually enjoyed the detective fiction of Freeman W. Crofts and Richard A. Freeman. 
Yes, there is still a lot to do, but the time is ripe.


  1. I'm glad you mentioned the T. S. Eliot and Chandler essays too. I think they make important points and Martin mentioned Eliot about a dozen times in his book, I believe, so it got through there, anyway. I'd just be pleased if some people from academic backgrounds, supplementing you of course, ever acknowledged it.

    It goes so against the grain of current opinion, however. All we ever hear, usually, is how Eliot loved The Moonstone, which fits in with the view that "literary" crime fiction is good, puzzle-oriented detective fiction bad. Yet Eliot liked both! And people who keep saying Chandler hated British crime fiction--well, it's just not true. He liked Josephine Tey and Michael Innes as well.

    Now that Martin's book is out to much sales the question is whether more people will be encouraged to engage with these new views, rather than just keep throwing old studies in our faces.

  2. Thank you for coming by, Curtis, it's a pleasure.
    You wrote somewhere that for every person who ever bought an Hard Boiled novel (Chandler or Spillane, I don't remember), there have been more who bought an Agatha Christie. This was the Chandler's problem, mostly after WW2. I think that Chandler didn’t have a real problem with classical mystery, he had a problem with those who sold more books than him. Or we should believe that one who loves Freeman or Crofts hates Carr and Christie. I can’t believe it, I’m sorry.
    I really hope that things will change after Martin's book.

  3. Very interesting analysis Stefano. I agree with a lot of what you say.

  4. I'm glad to hear that, thank you :)