The Golden Age of Mystery: British Influence

Mysteries written during the Golden Age of Mystery, roughly 1920-1940, influenced all mystery readers and writers who lived then. And even now. I’m sure it influenced me, mainly because at one time I read hundreds of mysteries from that period, and these stories helped shape my idea of what constituted a satisfying mystery. (And perhaps even what didn’t.)

90599-86823Agatha Christie epitomizes the Golden Age of mystery. Such is her influence (particularly in plotting, her forte) that she is still the best-known mystery writer in the world. Many scholars date the beginning of the Golden Age with the 1920 publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie’s first novel. Not only did this novel introduce the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (he of the egg-shaped head, drinker of tisanes), it also introduced “the little grey cells” he employs to solve mysteries.

I think of Poirot’s little grey cells as a symbol of Golden Age mysteries, for these novels stressed the intelligence of the detective, his/her ability to observe and deduce, to solve intricate puzzles, to see inconsistencies and contradictions, and, often, to possess arcane knowledge.

16322I’ve read each Agatha Christie novel at least twice, and some I’ve read three times. My favorites are all Poirot novels, particularly The ABC Murders and Murder on the Orient Express. I can recall the very first time I read Murder on the Orient Express, when I was in my late teens. At some point I muttered out loud, “This is ridiculous! They couldn’t have all done it!”

English intellectual Dorothy Sayers wrote poetry, plays, essays, literary criticisms, and translations, including a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She also wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. I love these, particularly Strong Poison, Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. But I find the Scottish dialect in Five Red Herrings difficult to read. In addition, the intense use of time tables makes the solution of the mystery less than riveting. While The Nine Tailors is a long book, and tells me more about bell ringing than I might want to know, I nevertheless liked the mystery and its solution. Sayers’ use of timetables is very much a Golden Age characteristic. As is the arcane knowledge about bell ringing.

Philip MacDonald wrote mysteries in the 1930s and onward. He’s best known for his novel The List of Adrian Messenger, published in 1959 and made into a movie in 1963. The book was very Christie-like in its plot. A seemingly unrelated series of murders turns out to be very related indeed: somebody is killing all the men who were prisoners of war in the same camp in Burma. John Huston directed the film, which featured well-known actors in disguise — Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Mitchum among them.

Philip MacDonald was even better known for his screenplays than for his novels. He wrote the screenplays for Charlie Chan in London and Charlie Chan in Paris; for several Mr. Moto film; for an Agatha Christie movie, Love From a Stranger; and he did an early adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for screen. In addition, he wrote TV scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and for Perry Mason.

imagesNgaio Marsh was a New Zealand writer who moved to England in her early 30s. She wrote 32 novels featuring Roderick (Rory) Alleyn, a detective on the London Police squad. Because Marsh was interested in theater and painting, many of her mysteries feature artists and/or the stage. I think she plotted well and wrote well, though, compared to Christie’s, her plots don’t move as quickly. (Compared to Christie’s, few plots move quickly.)

Edmund Wilson, an American, had little regard for Golden Age mysteries. In his famous critique, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (The New Yorker, 1945), Wilson, an author and critic, claimed that Golden Age mysteries were subliterary. He called the reading of such mysteries a harmless vice and said that people were addicted to them the same way they might be addicted to solving crossword puzzles.

Mah-jongg tiles from the 1920s
Mah-jongg tiles from the 1920s

Puzzles is a key word when it comes to Golden Age mysteries. Many who read these novels compared them to crossword puzzles, in that the reader is given cryptic clues that she or he can use to solve the mystery before the detective solves it. It’s interesting to note that the Golden Age of mystery grew and flourished during the same time period (1920s-30s) as did the crossword puzzle (first printed in the New York World on December 21, 1913;) as did Mah-jongg (first sold in the US by Abercrombine & Fitch in 1920); and as did contract bridge (Vanderbilt rules set in 1925). One of the similarities between mystery novels of the Golden Age and the these games is that they all require use of the intellect: the faculty of reasoning.

It would be coming full circle for me to say that in my mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, I was so influenced by the British Golden Age mysteries I read that I wrote a puzzle mystery.

But I didn’t.

Because, much as I admire the puzzle mystery (particularly when it’s turned into a stage production, which seems to emphasize the puzzle aspect even more than a novel does), I also admire realism, a certain degree of hard-boiled sleuthing, and emotional involvement with characters. More about these in a future blog.


In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies I offer chapters on “Plot Complications”; “Casting Suspicion”; “Planting Clues”; and “Disguising of Motive, Means, and Opportunity,” as well as other mystery-writing topics.

3 responses to “The Golden Age of Mystery: British Influence”

  1. We’ve read many of the same books. I read all of Marsh and all of Sayers, and maybe all of Tey. The Daughter of Time is one of my favorite novels. And I enjoy P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. James’ small book on mystery novels, which came out a couple of years ago, is a good read: based on who you’ve mentioned, I think you would really enjoy it. The title is “Talking About Detective Fiction.”


  2. I really enjoyed this blog. Once I had graduated from Nancy Drew, it was these Golden Age authors who turned me into a life-long mystery reader. I read ALL the Agatha Christies, or at least all I could find in local libraries, then Sayers, Marsh and Tey.
    Of course there was the American Mary Roberts Reinhart (I recently re-read The Circular Staircase), but I always preferred the British mystery queens: P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Anne Perry, Martha Grimes, and Elizabeth George (her new one drops Oct. 27th and has good reviews after the last two duds).



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