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The Golden Age of Crime Fiction

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

We have had several interesting conversations with customers on this topic. Our crime shelves are happily populated with Golden age crime novels and we love introducing them to readers who want to explore classic crime. Our own process of discovery is ongoing in this genre as we steadily make our way through the greats.

The Golden Age of Crime fiction is generally defined as the period between the 1920s and 1930s, the period between the two world wars. The novel that kickstarted this period is Last Case, by Edmund C Bentley. Some considered Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (published in 1920), as the benchmark novel; but Trent's novel came out in 1913 and is now generally acknowledged to be the first.

Of course, many of the writers who wrote in this period continued to write and publish novels well after the second world war ended, so a better description of a Golden Age crime novel might be in its distinct form rather than the specific period.

In the 1920s and 30s, British crime writing was dominated by female writers: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and Ngaio Marsh (Marsh was from New Zealand). Male writers at the time included G K Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley, Edmund Crispin, Nicholas Blake, and Freeman Wills Crofts. Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr are the two notable American writers of this period.

  • Agatha Christie was a consummate plotter, and was ruthless with her characters - anyone could have done it. She has been criticized, though, for not giving her characters enough depth.

  • Dorothy L Sayers turned out sublime prose, and readers over the years have come to love her aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey first appears in "Whose Body?" but it is the second novel in the series, Clouds of Witness, that made him a more familiar name among crime readers. Wimsey is wounded in WW1 and is sent home as a result of "shell shock" or what we now understand as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experiences flashbacks and anxiety from time to time.

  • Ngaio Marsh's novels featured Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard and, in later novels, his wife, Troy. Given Marsh's background (she studied painting, and was an actor and producer in the theatre) the art world and the theatre are a frequent backdrop to her novels.

  • Margery Allingham, who in her time, sold more copies of her books than Christie, gave us the gentleman sleuth, Albert Campion. Her writing was subtle and sophisticated, her plots devious, and she had a keen insight in to her characters. She wrote 18 Campion novels and 44 short stories. Allingham is recognised as one of the four Queens of Crime alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.

  • Josephine Tey (whose real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh) was not as prolific as the rest (she wrote only six mystery novels in all), but they were of the highest quality. Her book, The Daughter of Time in which Inspector Grant dives into history to examine the guilt of King Richard III, one of history’s great villains, was voted the best detective novel ever written, by a Sunday Times survey.

  • Anthony Berkeley (who also wrote under the pseudonym Frances Iles) was one of the first to predict the development of the 'psychological' crime novel. He was also a founding member of the Detection Club, in 1930, the oldest society of crime writers in the world (the club is still active).

  • Edmund Crispin (pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery) was also a composer and his novels contained frequent references to English literature, poetry, and music. His detective, Gervase Fen, is an absent-minded forty-year-old Professor, who teaches English Literature. Crispin devised complex plots and his solutions were sometimes a bit fantastical.

Golden Age detective stories have a recognizable style and structure, like a comedy of manners or a Greek Tragedy.

  • They follow a clue-puzzle structure, where the reader is privy to the same information as the detective, so in in theory, one could solve the mystery before the detective does.

  • Red herrings are often used - a clue or suspect introduced to divert the attention of readers. While this is misleading, it is not considered a violation of the fair-play rule.

  • Since clue-puzzles are essentially intellectual exercises, readers are not expected to empathize with the victim. A good way to achieve this, is to get the murder out of the way as soon as possible.

  • There is generally no master villain (consensus being that this belongs in thrillers, not in mysteries), so, the murderer is nearly always an individual, not a gang.

  • There are multiple suspects, each seeming as likely to be the murderer as the other.

  • All of the suspects typically belong to the same social circle.

  • And finally, a typical Golden Age mystery has a closed-world setting, i.e. the murder happens in a place where a small number of characters, all of whom know each other, are brought together.

This is literature of the past, to be sure; the social setting, more often than not, tends to be among the privileged. But the work of these writers has endured and is recognized as some of the best crime writing there is. The form is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance today, thanks to writers such as Anthony Horowitz, Nicola Upson, and Sophie Hannah, among others.

As readers of crime fiction, we are happy to dig in to these novels, knowing that we are in for an intellectual treat, while hoping that the friendly old man who runs the local bakery will not, after all, turn out to be the murderer.

Sources for this post include:

Encyclopaedia Brittanica


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