Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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2.2 The Golden Age


Between the First and the Second World Wars, murder mysteries became more popular and the era is now known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Most prominent British authors of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s were Agatha Christie with her most popular detective character, Hercule Poirot, and Dorothy L. Sayers with Lord Peter Wimsey. The beginning of this era is mainly connected to Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), where she introduces her Great detective. Additional interesting women writers, who represented the genre from the 1930s, were Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, whose Great Detectives shared some attributes with Wimsey. This period introduced many changes in the detective fiction in comparison to the early stories, but some model aspects of the genre were preserved.

Hercule Poirot, despite being written in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, is a much more conventional character than Holmes is, displayed as a little foreigner with a funny appearance but serious expression. His looks are best described by his good friend Hastings: “He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military” (Christie 14). For him the most important part of investigation is getting people to talk and gathering all pieces of information from them, even those seemingly unrelated to the case at first. He uses the method of being a confessor to the possible suspects, often referring to himself as “Papa Poirot”, helping to earn their trust, sometimes even lying to get confidence of other characters. In addition, he often tries being deliberately underestimated by the people around the case, using this as an advantage, so that the potential criminal does not suspect him of knowing too much. When missing a little detail while investigating, he calls himself a “miserable animal”, who has “behaved like an imbecile”, and rushes “like a madman from the room”, leaving others in confusion (Christie 54). The other prominent detective character of these years, Lord Peter Wimsey, also relies strongly on talking to the people connected to the case, his main goal being an effort of blending in; in Murder Must Advertise, he actually begins to work for the advertising agency to get a proper insight into the case. He explains himself how his acquaintance recommended him there to reveal the crime: “Why not get somebody in to investigate it, and he said, Who? So she said she knew somebody—not mentioning my name, you see—and he said would she ask me to buzz along, so I buzzed and there I am” (Sayers, MMA 81).

Furthermore, the feature of politeness and proper behaviour, typical of the British, and presented in the early detective novels, for example in the speech of Sherlock Holmes: “At ten o'clock to-morrow, Dr. Mortimer, I will be much obliged to you if you will call upon me here, and it will be of help to me in my plans for the future if you will bring Sir Henry Baskerville with you” (Doyle, 38). These manners is present with the Belgian detective, too; Poirot always shows respect to people involved with the case and when revealing the mystery at the end of the novel, he patiently explains all the clues and factors of the mystery to the family members gathered in one place.

The use of partners in detective stories develops in the Golden Age as well. It becomes more common for the investigator not to work on the case alone. For example, the companion of Hercule Poirot, the “intent, if slower-witted Hastings “does not reason as acutely, and the Great Detective by his side “always seizes the solution long before Hastings can recall what simple observation he made which enabled Poirot to see everything so clearly (Hardesty 37). Lord Peter, on the other hand, does not have any particular sidekick accompanying him throughout the novels in which he figures, however, he often discusses the case with various family members, for example with Detective Inspector Charles Parker, who eventually becomes his brother-in-law, the most consulted partner in the stories, or his manservant, Mervyn Bunter, in some cases.

The narrative techniques of the later novels differ considerably, especially contrasting to Collins’s epistolary novel The Woman in White, which is written as a “series of documents which have been put in their present order for a specific purpose” and the character of Hartright “explains the rationale of the arrangement” of these narratives of the different participants in the case as “answering to immediacy and continuity” (Kendrick 24). Similarly to Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, written fully in the first-person narrative of Dr. Watson, Agatha Christie also uses Hastings to narrate her story, which serves as a balance to the detective character and as a surrogate for the reader. John Scaggs describes this narrative technique in his work as contrasting “to the abilities of the detective, emphasising in the detective’s genius a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind” (21). By contrast, the above mentioned The Blue Cross and Murder Must Advertise are both written in the third-person narrative, as is the second Sayers’s novel discussed, where the narrator is omniscient and reveals facts to the reader gradually, though not forgetting to express the dominion of the Great Detective over the case.

This authority of the detective over the partner and the reader is still typical in the Golden Age novels. The stories traditionally contain a lot of clues and misleading tracks, and are supposed to be an intellectual game for the reader. As Molander interprets, “the early detective fiction did not put as much emphasis on character and characterization”, leaving the plot almost always dominant (43). Together with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot takes the aspect of the detective’s control over the case to the most extreme level by concealing relevant facts about the case even from his own companion, either as a test, or, to make sure nothing is revealed before it is absolutely clear. On the other hand, Lord Peter Wimsey chooses different characters in the novel to help him with different pieces of clues, confiding in them with a certain aspect, though still not telling the whole truth to anyone.

Another interesting aspect is the detective’s background and the conditions in which he lives and works. The early detective stories portray, for example, Walter Hartright, a young poor artist who ends up investigating injustice after meeting a mysterious woman, or, Father Brown, a Catholic priest who ends up solving a mysterious crime incidentally using his wits and instincts. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes is presented to the reader as professional private investigator, accenting his experience and seriousness in the process of inquiry. Although serious and professional, too, the detective protagonists of the Golden Age do not necessarily have the qualified detective manners at first; Hercule Poirot is already retired from this profession in the first book of his appearance, whereas Lord Peter gradually evolves from an amateur into an experienced and acknowledged investigator. This background might also lead to a certain preference of a specific environment in which the detectives work; it was typical of these puzzles to take place in closed settings like a locked room or a city apartment. Hercule Poirot, for example tends to solve crimes in the English countryside and usually within one particular family, while Sherlock Holmes works in the middle of London, although also travelling to the outlands on account of his case. Lord Peter is a city-based investigator as well; in Murder Must Advertise he works in a company of spiteful and jealous co-workers of a prominent advertising agency.

As Trodd notices, detective fiction was a “genre associated specifically with women writers and readers” in the Golden Age (129). Together with Christie and Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, who started dominating the genre in the 1930s, are often called “the sanctified English Queens of Crime”. Allingham introduced her Great Detective, Albert Campion, in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) as a “lank, pale, fair-haired, spectacled” man giving the impression of being “well-bred and a trifle absent minded” (Symons 129-130). These characteristics make him similar to Lord Peter Wimsey, and Trodd sees this as a “problem of distinguishing yet another eccentric and effeminate detective” (135). Marsh then presents the character of Roderick Alleyn as a Scotland Yard inspector, who is a professional detective, but shares his “Oxford education, discriminating literary tastes”, and other features with Wimsey (Trodd 135).

In general, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in Great Britain provided a number of significant works of fiction which presented some of the most remembered detective characters of all time. One of these is indisputably the character of Dorothy L. Sayers, who, in contrast to other of the writers mentioned, “had a relatively short career as a writer of detective fiction, but she created a persona who continues to captivate readers and to attract followers” (McManis 319). Furthermore, Lord Peter Wimsey now serves as an archetype of the English gentleman detective.




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