Russell James wrote the best guide to detective fiction imaginable in The A-Z of British Fictional Detectives. Most other guidebooks simply aim to give you a general overview of the genre, often from a quasi-analytical perspective: authors and novels are split by date, by type, by top-ten lists and you leave with an overview of the whole that never shows you the details. James, on the other hand, takes the simple road. He offers an introduction to every [most] British fictional detective ever put to paper, even if he does have to dance around with nationalities a bit to include the works of John Dickson Carr. He offers brief descriptions, tells people what’s worth reading and what’s not: but what this gives to the reader is their own sense of what exactly detective fiction means, and how it got to be what it is. James’s work is an encyclopaedia, where all the other works of literary theory are just published blog entries.
But then nobody’s ever perfect. There are a few factual errors that only a truly sad and pathetic case would spot – drop a line to Five Minute Mysteries for a list – and surrounding the A-Z part of the book are a series of essays introducing the reader to each stage on the way to modern crime fiction: from 40s pulp fiction to modern thrillers. And it’s his essay on the Golden Age that is one of the most fundamentally wrong things ever put to paper. And, hopefully, by explaining why the Golden Age wasn’t bad we’re in with a chance of explaining exactly why it was good.
James’s thesis is essentially that the Golden Age was a blind alley, a misstep on the way towards modern crime fiction. Modern crime fiction challenges the reader, whereas the Golden Age was just nostalgia for the days when butlers buttled, people had smoked herrings for breakfast everyday, and they hadn’t invented sex yet. Reading it is therefore just escapism: and a particularly nasty kind of escapism because the Golden Age is set in a world where the many worked for the benefit of the few and all were expected to know their place. Quoted in P D James’s Talking About Detective Fiction – she agrees – is the Irish novelist William Trevor. Despite not being a detective novelist, his opinion on Golden Age fiction is worth setting down in full because it’s essentially the same argument:
‘These novels are, of course, paradoxical. They deal with violent death and violent emotions, but they are novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy with the falsely accused. For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn’t toll for us…Rereading the Golden Age novels with their confident morality, their lack of any empathy with the murderer and the popularity of their rural settings, readers can still enter nostalgically this settled and comfortable world. ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three?’ And is there arsenic still for tea?’
From a socio-political perspective, the Golden Age is an abhorrent idea; an objectionable fairytale: where class struggles, inequality, misogyny etc. were swept under the rug in favour of afternoon cocktails and the odd genteel murder. But this is a moronic way to judge detective fiction because the setting of the Golden Age is secondary, always always secondary, to the story and the backdrop is chosen precisely because it’s so anodyne. In 1944 Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End, a murder mystery set in ancient Egypt. And the first thing you notice is that the characters and their relationships and motivations are exactly the same as they would be in a novel set in the present day. The Golden Age is essentially apolitical, though if you had to call it anything it’d probably be small-‘c’ conservative. Not because it’s right-wing, but because it believes in morality over the mythical concept of capital-‘p’ Progress. Because the Golden Age isn’t interested at all in politics, yet remains fundamentally egalitarian in its belief that people are the same everywhere. For the people that argue that the Golden Age should have been more interested in politics, you wonder quite how we’d view the Golden Age now: as a piece of history, something to be studied for GCSE coursework, something to be picked apart by English literature thesis: something completely boring, not loved by anyone. Political fiction never ages well, and it’s to the Golden Age’s advantage that it has nothing to say of political relevance. But this brushes over the more important fact: that the stories are simply, obviously, thunderingly moral.
Modern crime teaches us that the world is a worse, more horrible, more evil place than we can imagine, and that the only way most people can go about their daily lives without descending into drink or drugs (like most of the detectives who investigate it) is because they don’t know about it. Modern crime novels teach us that the world is evil, and that only stupid people are happy. Poirot and Marple and Father Brown were perfectly aware of the existence of evil in the world, they just knew that there was also good. In Christie or Chesterton murderers are redeemable: it’s only in modern crime that we find psycopaths. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the worst crime novels ever written for a variety of reasons, but the one to mention here is the good/evil divide in it: the goodies are the goodies, the baddies are the baddies and there aren’t any shades of grey in between. But in the Golden Age Father Brown walks with a murderer. Poirot warns the initially good not to let evil into their hearts or else it will come in and make its home within. Modern Crime would laugh at the idea that Evil exists as a force, but its villains are black to the core and without either redemption or any sense that they weren’t always that way. The Golden Age believes in Evil as something that exists, mainly in desperation or selfishness, and traps ordinary people – it, consequently, has a better understanding of ‘good’ than any other genre.
And, more than this, the Golden Age tells you that the world’s an exciting place. Golden Age solutions are sometimes out-of-a-hat, but what they almost always are clever. Read a book like He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and you won’t find out anything about life in the Blitz, but will instead discover how air-operated dummies work. P D James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, points out that the Golden Age makes use of the ‘ten thousand doors to let out life’ with victims being stabbed with icicles, licking poisoned stamps and battered to death by church bells: her tone is gently mocking. She points out that the murder methods in Sayers’s Unnatural Death and The Nine Tailors probably wouldn’t work in real life. Which is true, but nobody should read detective fiction to find out how to actually murder someone. A method of death that’s applicable to reality is a far, far worse thing to read than one that’s outlandish precisely because the latter is supposed to be unbelievable. The Golden Age contains outlandish happenings because it truly believes that the world is a magical and interesting place where strange and outlandish things happen all the time – but in ways that reflect the real world.
Let’s take G. K. C. again, and this time look at a non-mystery story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. For those that haven’t read it yet, it tells the story of an England five minutes into the future where democracy has become irrelevant and the King is elected by lottery as all politicians are the same. A workable system; until a King is elected who wants to split London into independent nations. Reading this description, the novel doesn’t seem overtly political, or even overtly relevant to anything. Initially, it just seems like a vehicle for G. K. C. to poke fun at the notions of progressiveness and civilisation (which he is) and how the most judgemental thing of all is to assume that you know what civilisation means and someone else doesn’t (which is true). But what makes the scene sing is the novel’s one tragic hero: the man who knows that wherever there’s a red sunset on a golden field, there’s Nicaragua. And that’s what carries the story: The Napoleon of Notting Hill is about patriotism, about the loyalty to a place or thing simply because it’s yours.
“When there is a field of marigolds and the red cloak of an old woman, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a field of poppies and a yellow patch of sand, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a lemon and a red sunset, there is my country. Wherever I see a red pillar-box and a yellow sunset, there my heart beats. Blood and a splash of mustard can be my heraldry. If there be yellow mud and red mud in the same ditch, it is better to me than white stars.”
Which brings us back to the magic of the world. Fantasy novels, from Harry Potter to Skulduggery Pleasant, have people finding another world that’s hidden from this one: others involve people being transported from one world to the next; science fiction and fantasy base themselves in another, more exciting, world than this. They teach us that there’s another exciting world that’s hidden from us: detective fiction teaches us that the world we’re in is the exciting one, we just have to see it. It’s not fantasy, because the exciting thing about is just showing us more clearly something that we could see every day. In the Ball and the Cross, both the protagonists are the sort of people who today would spend all day locked in their bedrooms arguing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free: but to Chesterton they’re heroes, because they care about the world. Chesterton writes magical realism not because there’s any magic in the stories, but because he believes reality is magic. There are minor escapades involving hot-air balloons over St Paul’s or escaping from madhouses, but the driving force of the novel is that caring about things matters. Turnbull is a hero, but he’s a person you could (and probably do) meet today. You wouldn’t appreciate him but, to Chesterton, that’s your loss.
Chesterton makes you see heroes in the sort of people you’d loathe if you met them. John Dickson Carr tells us that snakes can’t move on a glass floor. Christie tells you that all people are the same; and that this is a good thing. And you may not find out how to kill someone from The Nine Tailors, but you will get an introduction to basic campanology. Golden Age fiction fundamentally believes that people are interesting, that most people are decent, that evil isn’t something that some people are predetermined to, like a particularly horrible atheist Calvinism, but a choice. And overall, that the world is a wonderful and consistently surprising place. A far better message than that the world is an evil place, and evil people are born that way.