Friday, May 22, 2015

The Golden Age Classic Mysteries

Lurid Cover!

Here is a report on the first two classes of the History of Mystery course I am taking at the library. The free, six-week course is taught by a woman with a great sense of humor and a wealth of knowledge and many reading lists. We love reading lists.

The first 90-minute session began with a brief summing up of the beginning of the mystery genre with Edgar Alan Poe's stories featuring Detective Dupin (1841), Dicken's Bleak House featuring Inspector Bucket (1852), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable Sherlock Holmes (1887). The instructor then gave an overview of the five types of mysteries we will be studying and a few authors in each category. 

The Golden Age: Christie, Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Allingham
Hardboiled Detectives/Police Procedurals: Spillane, Chandler, Paretsky, Rankin
Cozy: Dorothy Cannell, Carolyn Hart, Diane Mott Davidson
Katherine Hall Page
Dark and Dangerous: Elizabeth George, Val McDermid, Tana French, Patricia Cornwell
More Than Just Mysteries: Ruth Rendell, Amanda Cross, Martha Grimes, Louise Penny

She admitted that she was introduced to detective fiction as a teenager when she found a box of mysteries in her grandmother's attic 'with lurid covers'. You know the ones she means. She eventually discovered Agatha Christie, read all of those she could get her hands on, and because she decided that Ms. Christie was the best, she didn't read another mystery for thirty years!

She is making up for lost time. 

For last night's session we were to read Ms. Christie's And Then There Were None (which I read in 2012 and wrote about here). It was such a puzzler that even though I thought I remembered how the author worked it out, I wasn't really quite sure as I was rereading the tale. I was as surprised at the ending as those reading it for the first time.

The mysteries of the Golden Age were mostly written by British authors in the 1920s and '30s. They were rule-bound, classic whodunnits that center on the investigation and solution of the crime.

The structure is pretty much the same. There is the introduction of the detective; the commission of the crime and presentation of clues; the investigation including interviews with witnesses, theories of possible solutions, and further obfuscations; the announcement that a solution has been found; the presentation of the solution; and a short denouement.

Rules of the Golden Age mystery include:
**The Victim must not be famous or elicit much sympathy from the reader.
**The reader cannot be too emotionally invested in The Criminal.
**The Detective must use scientific powers of observation, reasoning, psychological analysis, and be somewhat detached. 

The emphasis is on a clear assignment of guilt and restoration of order. The mysteries revolve around the idea that evil is not part of the established social order, but a disruption of it by an individual. The evil is not in the world, but in the 'least likely person.'

They are structured and grounded in the environment which is why sometimes these mysteries would include a map (the island), or house plan (the country house), or cast of characters (so very helpful in keeping the players straight). 

For the reader, there is always the certainty that there will be a solution. It is assured that by the end of the book, we will know who the evil person is. There will be no vague endings. The good are saved and the bad are punished. There is an affirmation of the rightness of the established social order of which the reader is a part. Our world is OK.

I have never really analyzed my fondness for the Golden Age Classics. But, first, I relish a good puzzle and know that even if I don't solve the mystery, the author will. The murder usually happens 'off-stage' and there is very little blood involved. Also, I love that time period and the civilized behavior of everyone (murder aside). There is always time for tea or cocktails in the drawing room even though bodies are lying dead in the bedrooms upstairs. And finally, Good does triumph over Evil.

The instructor is providing reading lists for each category of mystery and I have created a History of Mystery page and will add to it as the class goes on. Check back.

Next week, Hardboiled Detectives and I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane.


  1. What a fantastic start to the course. I've read a number of the authors you're going to study, but I see a few I haven't tried yet. I feel exactly the same as you do about the Golden Age mysteries. I like the puzzle aspect and the lack of bloody details, especially!

    1. Kathy, I hope all this analyzing doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for mysteries. Sometimes too much knowledge spoils the fun! I remember taking a speed reading course many years ago and it ruined reading for me for a long while!

    2. It's funny that you mention speed reading--even though I see the attraction in being able to read quickly (read more!), so much of the pleasure of reading for me is savoring the language and paying attention to the story, that I was never drawn to a speed reading course. I think it would have ruined reading for me, just as it did for you.

    3. It took me quite a while to get over the damage! Lesson learned.

  2. What a wonderful course this sounds! And Then There Was None is such a brilliant book, too.

    1. Simon, I am having a ball with this course. What could be better than being in a room full of mystery story lovers. And, yes, ATTWN is brilliant!