Looking for something to read over the three-day weekend? I have some writers for you to investigate.
Jon Jermey, a mystery aficionado and moderator of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction Mailing list on Yahoo, has composed a set of humorous rules for the writing of Golden Age detection fiction, the sort of tale that was made immensely popular by authors such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson), Erle Stanley Gardner, H. C. Bailey, Rex Stout, and so many others during the 1920s and ’30s.
The Golden Age, traditional, puzzle mystery style thrived in Britain and America between the two world wars, but was driven out by publishers and critics after World War II when it was arbitrarily decided that a pretense of realism should be paramount in the genre. I say a pretense because the styles that superseded the puzzle form, the hardboiled and police procedural approaches, were just as much romances (in the literary sense) as the puzzle form was. In addition, the importation of ambitious literary devices (as in the non-series novels of Ruth Rendell) to create Serious Crime Fiction did nothing to change the fact that the books were romances at heart. Crime and Punishment, The Bothers Karamazov, and Bleak House are serious, important novels; Road Rage is not.
The Golden Age writers wrote to entertain and enlighten, and they embraced the fact that what they were writing was intended to be fun to read, recognizing that genre fiction could be well worth reading if done well. The works they wrote within their chosen form were every bit as real and true to life as the hardboiled genre (so beloved of left-wing critics) and the police procedural form (which so often descends into a mundane preoccupation with physical evidence that can be read more than one way but which is presented as entirely dispositive).
In recent years, the Golden Age style has found its way to television in series such as Monk, Murder, She Wrote, Midsomer Murders, Nero Wolfe, Psych, and other puzzle-based programs that center their attention on human devices and desires, as opposed to currently popular but fanciful notions about the unambiguity of physical evidence and the desire and ability of the police to pursue all conceivable leads.
With all that in mind, here are Jon’s rules regarding the type of crime fiction we both enjoy most:
Ten rules for writing Golden Age Detective Fiction
1. The victim shall be someone who, despite being universally loathed, has no difficulty in surrounding themselves with friends, relatives, employees and colleagues.
2. The murderer shall kill the victim using a method that a) is clearly murder and b) is available only to a small circle of individuals. Genuinely untraceable murder methods (such as anonymously hiring a hit-man) shall be avoided at all costs.
3. To compensate for their poor choice of murder method, the murderer will evise an elaborate plan to cast suspicion away from themselves and on to one or more other people. Despite being based on detailed and untested assumptions about human behaviour, this plan shall succeed perfectly.
4. The investigator shall be a bright and wealthy person with an international reputation who is thrilled by the prospect of spending a great deal of their own time and money prying into the sordid affairs of perfect strangers.
5. The aforesaid perfect strangers will not question or resent this intrusion but – after some initial grumbling – will bare their souls to the investigator and reveal compromising secrets that they have never before told anyone.
6. These witnesses and suspects will be perfectly willing to spend their time and money on investigating the death of a person they loathed, including acting in a dramatic reconstruction of the circumstances of the crime, and coming back together at considerable inconvenience for the dénouement.
7. The witnesses and suspects will be able to remember and recount with perfect clarity everything they said and did days, weeks, months or years ago. Any deviation from the truth on the part of a witness shall be a deliberate attempt to deceive and not forgetfulness or simple ignorance.
8. The death of a second or third victim shall not be taken by anyone as a reflection on the competence of the investigator, but rather as an encouraging sign that he or she is getting close to a solution.
9. Low-level police operatives will be well-meaning but slow. Mid-level police operatives will be active but hostile. High-level police operatives will recognise the sterling qualities of the investigator and allow them full access to any evidence gathered by officials.
10. When confronted with their guilt the accused shall not point out the paucity of the evidence against them or the threadbare nature of the detective’s reasoning, but shall instead engage in some dramatic act which makes their capture or demise a certainty.
Yes, all of this is precisely why we enjoy them.
Golden Age detection fiction is an acquired taste—so aquire it! (Use the author links above.)