(Out)Dating the Golden Age

‘Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?’

Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye

Everyone knows what to think of when they think of the Golden Age. The Country House mystery, where beautiful socialites drop poison in cocktail glasses then play a round of croquet, and as a body is found in a locked room all are baffled until the arrival of a learned, middle aged man quoting Shakespeare and dressed in the latest of Savile Row fashions. And everyone knows that the Golden Age is long gone, outdated even at the time, and anyone sensible should lay down their copy of Poirot and pick up something gritty, preferably set in Glasgow, instead.

The first thing to notice is that the Golden Age is mythical. The Golden Age is firmly set after World War One, from which Poirot and Wimsey and England all bear the scars, but it is very rare to find any kind of reference to the Second World War, the one that completely and utterly destroyed the essence of the golden age lifestyle. The great houses were requisitioned, the socialites became farm girls. Yet so many of the novels set in the stereotypical Golden Age transpire, when you study the publication dates, to have been both written and distributed after World War Two. A contradiction?

And it is now that we have to define the Golden Age, and in doing so you realise quite how few of its supposed examples actually follow the pattern set above. We all know, deep down, that that is what the Golden Age is, just as we know that Sherlock Holmes wears a deerstalker and cries ‘Come, Watson, the game is afoot!’. But of course he doesn’t, just as almost all of the Golden Age stories don’t fit the pattern stated above: because the setting of the Golden Age is nothing more than a means to an end.

The Golden Age, like the England it represents, is not a place or a time but a belief. In superficialities, it’s a world of butlers and maids and Cockneys, not because it’s inherently class-driven but because it’s easier when the characters can devote their lives to murder, love and intrigue without having to worry about the cooking or cleaning – note that, even the detectives we think of as the epitome of upper class, Wimsey and Poirot, are not averse to dipping their toes into the world of the lower or middle classes. The Golden Age is monochrome and everyone is white: not because the authors are racist (and anyone who thinks so should note the way bit-part characters are treated in A Caribbean Mystery and Unnatural Death) but because the Golden Age is a world where social troubles and the problems of race relations don’t exist. The Golden Age is interested in problems, interested in the way people relate to each other and these are timeless. The Golden Age is not interested in ephemeral politics because it has no reason to be, and there is no sense of time or place because the characters and stories it depicts are eternal.

This is why the ‘golden age’ novels take place in mythical times in mythical places: because they tell timeless stories of timeless characters, and it’s precisely because the setting of the Golden Age can’t intrude on this that the Golden Age setting was chosen. You could drop any of the characters in Christie (or, for that matter, Jeeves and Wooster) into any setting, anywhere, and their stories would still work: the country house is used because it provides few distractions.

And this is why, ultimately, any attempts to ‘modernise’ the Golden Age or ‘make it more relevant’ are doomed, and why those who claim that the Golden Age is outdated and/or implicitly classist / racist / sexist are missing the point entirely. The great thing about the Golden Age is that it preaches the ultimate democracy: that all people deep down are the same.

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