Golden Age – Part 2 by Noreen Wainwright
In my last posting, I mentioned the unreliable narrator crime novel and how popular this sub-genre has become. But, if we look at the decades since the golden age we can see many strands in the development of the crime novel. Women have been more than well-represented in this area of fiction-writing – it would take a whole new article to explore the reasons for this but a couple of possible explanations do emerge.
Virginia Woolf said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she wants to write. The truth of this sentiment is reflected in the fact that the woman who wrote crime novels in the inter-war period tended to be of the middle-classes. If you think about the limitations put on women’s lives at this time– not being paid the same as men for doing equivalent work; having to leave their job on marriage, as was the case in several of the professions – you can see that for those lucky enough to have a talent for crime fiction, writing conferred power, autonomy and for the successful, economic independence. You could also do it at home – provided you had a room of your own, of course.
The position of woman in society undoubtedly improved as a result of WW2 – though at a terrible cost. The work, often dangerous and dirty undertaken by women during the war, changed their own expectations, and to an extent, what they were permitted to do in the workplace. Women had after all, worked on the land, in mechanics, driving, flying and intelligence. This big step forward, together with the civil rights movement in the US contributed to women demanding equality, to the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement and this was reflected in some of the developments in crime fiction.
Many readers may have been thrilled at the exploits of V.I, Warshawski, for instance. Young women readers now had female role models who were tough and independent. In the UK, writers such as Ruth Rendell and PD James used the genre to explore darker more complex issues than the previous generation of crime writers had entered. Another specialty – that of the forensic thriller emerged, typified by writers like Patricia Cornwell, who often had direct experience of working in the scientific side of crime.
But, still some of us return to the golden age in between our usual reads. We may do it for comfort, familiarity or some sort of nostalgia fix. I know of several people who discovered the joys of reading by racing through all the Christie novels in their teens. Apart from, the plethora of TV and film adaptation and updates, the books still sell very well in many countries.
There are, of course, critics of the inter-war crime novel. Indeed, they were criticised at the time for being thin in content, stuffed full of stereotypes, little more than a puzzle. These may be all valid arguments, but maybe the critics also miss the point. The person who picked up one of these novels at the time was possibly well aware that he wasn’t reading Dostoevesky. The reader of the crime novel wanted something to take him away from reality, not reinforce it. We don’t always want to wrestle with the big questions. It is a distinct world that we enter when we read a crime novel and it has its own rules. Indeed, S.S. Van Dine, in 1928, went so far as to develop 20 Rules for Detective Fiction. In the world of crime fiction, the writer and the reader entered a pact. There was a sort of game afoot. Both sides knew the rules and crime writers took up the challenge to deliver a corker of a puzzle. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie recalls that she wrote her first mystery novel: The Mysterious Affair in Styles, partly as a dare – her sister, Marjorie had challenged her to do so. Academics and people who were well known in other fields, such as Cecil Day Lewis, the poet, had an alter-ego as a detective writer Nicholas Blake.
When the modern reader approaches the golden age crime novel one of the first essentials is to be able to differentiate between what we find acceptable today and what was acceptable in the 1920s and 30s. In particular, attitudes to class and gender can jangle our sensibilities. Servants were usually disregarded and often portrayed as stupid. Men, in this era, think about woman – indeed women think about women in a way that makes us cringe today. It was quite a compliment for a woman to be told she “thought like a man.” I think this may be why some of the novels written in this era will not be re-released; some of the casual attitudes expressed would jar to the point where the story would be spoilt. However, a TV series at the moment is based on how humour and drama from as late as the 1970s makes a modern audience cringe and laugh – progress creeps up so subtly that we don’t notice it until we confront a novel or a TV show and turn away and say to someone, “we’ve come a long way.”
It may be that what has been identified as a weakness in the traditional crime novel – that it was all about the puzzle – is what it has allowed it to last and even be revived. Because the writer at the time was concentrating on delivering a clever story, he or she didn’t filter the background. So, we, almost by accident, get a fascinating insight into the social structure of an English village or an Oxford College or wherever it is the book is set. You don’t have to look beyond recent TV drama successes to see that there are times we all want to look back.
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.