Detective fiction is, by far, my favorite genre. I particularly like mystery novels and stories written in the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” This title is attributed to Anthony Shaffer in his screenplay, Sleuth, in which one of his characters calls the 1930s that golden age when every Cabinet Minister had a thriller by his bedside and all detectives were titled.
While mystery stories had been around for several decades, its golden age is commonly understood to have begun in 1913 with Trent’s Last Case, by E.C. Bentley. Mystery aficionados disagree as to the ending, but most agree that it was definitely over just after the end of World War II in 1945-46. While the majority of authors were from Great Britain, there were also excellent mysteries written in France, Norway, Spain, Japan, and, of course, the United States during these decades.
By the 1920s and 1930s, conventions had been developed to give the readers opportunities to solve the mysteries as they read. Whodunits were the most common, which had certain rules to be followed, so that the author played fair, while attempting to fool the reader into guessing the wrong culprit by means of red herrings, opens a new window and other plot twists.
Common themes and tropes included a strong sense of justice; locked-room mysteries; country house murders; seemingly impossible crimes; unsolved cold cases; amateur sleuths; unusual places, times, and means; and the use of poisons.
It was during this period that The Detection Club was founded by great mystery novelists Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton,, opens a new window and E. C. Bentley. The club oath required authors to rely on logic and ingenuity rather than Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God. Their ten rules are still guidelines for detective fiction that “plays fair” with the reader. Here are a few:
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable
- The detective himself must not himself commit the crime
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Of course, even the founding members broke some of these rules if it made for a good story. Agatha Christie herself broke the rules, especially in her ingenious novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, still considered one of the best detective novels of all time.
While the best known of these golden age authors, such as the Queens of Crime Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh,, opens a new windowand Margery Allingham, are still widely read, there are many excellent authors whose books have been forgotten. In recent years, publishers in the United States and overseas are rediscovering some of these classic detective novels and reprinting them to the delight of mystery readers. If you’re new to classic mystery fiction or have read the greats and are looking for some new titles to try, the list CRRL My Librarian: Golden Age Detective Fiction is for you.
Classic mysteries written in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.