Golden Age – Part 1 by Noreen Wainwright
You might have noticed a relatively new trend in crime fiction publishing. In the midst of some of the prevailing big hits, you will see the re-issue of some of the golden age classics. One example of the prevailing big hits I mention, is the unreliable narrator thriller – aren’t they so popular at the moment? The defining book in this sub-genre was probably Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn and there have been several others, of course: The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins come to mind. It may be a fantastic leap to think that what we want in crime fiction may reflect what’s going on in our world – but it’s something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about, so here goes…
There was a definite period between the two world wars when a particular type of crime fiction flourished. The re-release of some of these classics, if it tells us nothing else, shows that at least some of us crime fiction lovers have a fascination with this era and with what these novels – so popular at the time – tell us about it. As I write this, I have one of the British Library Crime Classics alongside me on the sofa. It is, The Santa Klaus Murder, by Mavis Doriel Hay. A friend gave it to me for Christmas – how well she knows me. I had a recent look in my local branch of Waterstone’s and saw a whole shelf in the crime section dedicated to this era. The other night, along with several million others. I watched the final episode of Sarah Phelps’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s, “And then there were none…” This was written in 1939 and was originally published under a title which would be completely unacceptable to a modern readership. There are always risks with adaptations but the consensus on social media, anyway, seems to be that this worked and I would imagine that it was one of the highlights of the Christmas scheduling.
So, what was it in the world of the 1920s and 30s that inspired many female writers (and some male, of course) to write mysteries? The second question which I shall address a little later is, how do we account for their present day popularity?
Britain, in the post WW1 period was a place of great change. It’s a quirk of human nature to look back to a time which was more settled and safer- in other words through the soft-focus lens of nostalgia. But, if you read contemporary writing, for example, diaries, you get a clearer picture. As an aside, because it is not related to crime fiction, another Christmas present I got was, A Notable Woman, edited by Simon Armitage. This is the journal of one of the mass observation diarists. What is surprising about this, is how thoroughly modern, this young woman was in the 1930s. She was training to be an architect and living in a flat in London, not in the parental home. Yet, we do think that women’s “liberation” started in the 1960s or 1970s. But, that is only through the lens of our day where without doubt women’s equality has moved on by leaps and bounds. But, women in the 1930s must have felt cutting-edge, daring and a chasm away from the restricted lives of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Amidst the sadness and waste of the First World War, sectors of society emerged, proved themselves to be capable of work and deeds never previously imagined. The working class, or at least the large percentage of them who worked in service, (1.2 million according to the 1911 census) found alternative employment and a large proportion were reluctant to return to their subservient role. But, for woman, perhaps most of all, the war allowed them, indeed needed them to step outside the home and gain economic independence. It was very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Women wanted to pursue careers and for those who were literate and interested in writing, the day was gone when they were forced to take on a male name to be published – as some earlier writers, including George Eliot, (real name, Mary Anne Evans) had done.
So, why did they choose to write in the crime genre and why did readers, in their millions, become so interested in it. Theories, as they say, abound. Present-day commentators, with the benefit of hindsight can see that the inter-war period was just that – a distinct time between two wars. Some accounts of the 1920s in particular, tell of a hedonistic lifestyle perused by the “Bright Young Things,” whose antidote to the recent years of loss and suffering was to pretend that only the trivial mattered. Obviously, things were very different for those not in the wealthy classes and struggling within an economic depression. Politically, there was unrest (though we might ask: when does this not apply.) Germany had been left impoverished and humiliated after WW1 and was receptive to the rise of fascism.
In Britain, suburbia seemed to be creeping over much of the countryside, particularly around London. Yet, you had people alive who had lived Victorian and Edwardian lives. Now, they were confronted with an unsettled generation and a working class no longer happy to know its place.
One theory of the popularity of crime fiction is that it provides a sense of order. In the traditional crime story (often now referred to as cosy), we know where we are. We have crime, motive and resolution. The reader can sit back and know that the ends will be tied up by the book’s conclusion. Usually, some sort of justice prevails, too. In a very uncertain world, there is something comforting and reassuring in this.
In my next post, I will look at some of the reasons for the popularity of the golden age crime novel in our own time.
NOREEN WAINWRIGHT is Irish and now lives in the Staffordshire Moorlands with her husband, a dairy farmer. She works part-time as a mentor at Staffordshire University and the rest of her time is spent writing. Many of her articles and short stories have been published and she has co-written a non-fiction book.
She loves crime fiction, particularly that of the “golden age” and that is what she wants to recreate with Edith Horton’s world.