While reading a mystery novel from the “golden age” of detection, the 1920s to the early ’40s, it occurred to me that one crucial difference between the detective fiction of the golden age and the detective and crime fiction of the current day is that murder is no longer a capital crime. In Britain, murder is no longer a capital crime, and even in the United States a murderer’s chances of facing the death penalty are fairly slight.
Don’t worry, I have no intention of starting a debate about capital punishment. I’m simply talking about the effect this major change in policy toward major crimes had on the detective story.
In a golden age detective story, you always have the sense that the criminal is playing for the very highest stakes—his own life. Getting caught means being hanged. That gives the detective story of those times a particular sense of moral seriousness, and it’s undoubtedly the reason most detective stories of that era involved murder. Arson, fraud, or various other serious crimes might be just as challenging to solve, but the stakes are very much lower.
The death penalty also meant that the detective was playing for very high stakes. If he made a mistake, he could send an innocent man to the gallows. Even the most superficially frivolous of fictional detectives are always aware of the frightful consequences should he make a mistake.
Capital punishment was also a useful aid in plotting a mystery. If an author decided that the plot required more than one murder, it could be done convincingly. After all, they can only hang you once, so it makes perfect sense to commit a second murder to cover up the first, should the need arise. In today’s world, by contrast, one murder might mean ten years behind bars,whereas a second murder could add a significant number of years to the sentence. Hence, such thinking no longer makes quite so much sense.
Finally, the decline of capital punishment may be one reason writers have had to resort to upping the ante in terms of graphic violence. If murder no longer leads to the gallows, a writer can feel constrained to add sickeningly graphic descriptions in order to achieve the same impact and in order to make the stakes for both the murder and the detective sufficiently high.