By William D. Rubenstein.
First appearance: History Today, December 1, 2010.
Article (6 pages as a PDF).
Online at The Free Library (HERE).
(Note: SPOILERS for Chesterton's "The Invisible Man.")
"Between around 1910 and 1950 England was in the grip of a genteel crime wave; a seemingly endless output of murder mysteries, generally set among the upper and upper middle classes and usually solved by a brilliant amateur detective rather than by the police. They were read enthusiastically and with an insatiable appetite by British middle-class readers. The 'golden age' of the English detective story during this span of 40 years or so is an important and often overlooked feature of English popular culture, as significant in its way as the dance bands and the early BBC."
As most of you know, the modern mystery was not a British invention, but it did find a home in England's fecund cultural soil:
"Despite these American and French origins, it was to England that detective fiction migrated, took root and flourished, becoming a characteristically British genre."
And what detective could be more "characteristically British" than the Sage of Baker Street:
"Most of the Holmes stories are set among the higher levels of Victorian and Edwardian society, a world inhabited by professional men, retired army officers and country gentlemen as well as members of royalty and cabinet ministers. Few take place among the working classes or the very poor. This situation is the precise opposite of the actual occurrence of criminality, which is overwhelmingly fanned by poverty, alcohol, gangs and domestic violence, sometimes accompanied by examples of brutal thuggery, as subtle or mysterious as a punch in the nose."
|Artwork by Natasa Ilincic|
"The generation following Holmes saw the appearance of many other landmarks in English detective fiction building on the Holmesian model: the eccentric or unusual private investigator; an extremely ingenious solution to the crime which was, normally, situated in the top levels of society; they are often accompanied by a 'Watson' as foil. . . the two decades after the First World War comprised the 'golden age' of the pure English detective novel and short story."
At some point every movement reaches its peak of development; our author thinks he can pinpoint when it happened in British sleuth fiction:
"The Poirot books and those centred on Christie's other famous sleuth, Miss Marple, represented the zenith of the classical English detective story, usually demonstrating such features as the unmasking of the 'least likely person' as the villain: the final set-piece when the suspects are all gathered in one room and the detective reveals the perpetrator and endless varieties of ingenious, sometimes brilliant sleight-of-hand by the criminal—although never brilliant enough to fool the master-detective."
"Until the 1950s explicit sex and gratuitous, sadistic violence were largely absent from detective fiction, which revolved around the ingenious solution of a fairly-presented puzzle. The villain never got away with it and was always revealed and punished, the only exception being when he committed suicide to avoid capture. The crime was also committed for a rational motive and was never the work of a psychopath. Equally, the rational solution of a puzzle, the more seemingly mysterious the better, was the detective novel's raison d'etre."
Fame is fleeting, as the toilers in the fields of detective fiction learned to their dismay:
"In the two or three decades following the First World War, there were literally dozens of outstanding detective writers who are today, sadly, known only to enthusiasts."
|". . . known only to enthusiasts."|
"Such works formed a major component of middle-class culture in Britain at the time: for every person who read T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf, probably 50 more read Agatha Christie and double that number Conan Doyle."
While many detective fiction writers between the world wars were leftists, socialists, or even outright communists, nevertheless . . .
". . . everything they wrote within the genre is almost Tory by definition, upholding a firm belief that established society would punish its evil-doers who deserved punishment regardless of their circumstances."
For some reason—or maybe a multitude of reasons—sleuth fiction was primarily an Anglophonic affair:
"Yet the 'classical detective story' found few real echoes outside the English-speaking world."
James Bond and his ilk were waiting in the wings for their big chance:
"By around 1960, the classical English detective story was in serious decline and today the genre no longer exists, at least in its old form."
"The best-known living crime fiction writers generally eschew private detectives for police inspectors and straightforward puzzles for stories with twists at every turn. A relaxation of attitudes regarding overt depictions of sex and violence have proved too tempting to most authors. Also, detective writers simply ran out of ingenious plots and puzzles to solve."
"Crime fiction has evolved during the past century from a demure celebration of rationality to the polar opposite position. Arguably this mirrors the transformation of British society as a whole."
Typos: "Marie Roger"; "Vincent Sterrett"; "sinister lews disappeared"; "ED. ]ames".
- A close comparison of this article with George Orwell's (1903-50) ideas about crime fiction, "Raffles and Miss Blandish" (1944; HERE; SPOILERS) and "Decline of the English Murder" (1946; HERE; SPOILERS), should prove most enlightening:
"It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahog-any-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
"Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder? If one examines the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public, the murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels and re-hashed over and
over again by the Sunday papers, one finds a fairly strong family resem-
blance running through the greater number of them."