By Xavier Lechard.
At the Villa Rose, October 13, 2008.
The term "detective fiction" has a more specialized meaning than most casual readers might realize. Many of us are content to call them "mysteries" or "crime fiction" — and even the majority of publishers couldn't really care less about the difference — but to aficionados the distinctions are real and worth respecting.
Also among these aficionados are uncertainties about what has come to be known as "The Golden Age": What was it? When did it begin? When, if ever, did it end?
'What then is time?' St. Augustine famously wondered. 'If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.' This would apply just fine to Golden Age. At first sight it looks a perfectly clear, well-delineated concept; then one tries to define it and trouble begins, for whatever meaning you ascribe it just brings more questions.
If we go by the chronological definition, then we have to agree on when it began and when it ended, none of which is a wholly settled issue. We also have to account for all those authors who, while active and often at the height of their fame and powers during that period, did not fit the standard model — mind you, Georges Simenon, Edgar Wallace and Dashiell Hammett too were Golden-Agers. Not to mention those like Anthony Berkeley or Mary Fitt who progressively shifted away from traditional detective fiction over the years.
One might thus favor an aesthetical definition of Golden Age: a particular brand of mystery fiction, not bound by chronological restraints. But it isn't much more helpful, for it presupposes a consensus on the distinctive characteristics of the form and that consensus — to put it in euphemistic terms — doesn't yet exist. Also, many so-called Golden Age writers have little in common but this label. John Dickson Carr and, say, Cyril Hare may both have written detective novels but their approach, style, even ideology, were completely different, and Gladys Mitchell is definitely not like Agatha Christie.
A third solution is to regard Golden Age as both a period and a form — to define one is to define the other. Contradictions are still there, but at least they are manageable. . . .On his weblog, "At the Villa Rose," Lechard has posted several times about this. Go HERE and follow the links thereafter.
Category: Detective fiction criticism