The Crime Readers' Association

Golden Age – Part 3 by Noreen Wainwright

22nd January 2016


Why do some contemporary crime writers decide to re-visit the golden age or indeed any other period of history? This is a popular trend but it is by no means a new one. In the 1970s, Ellis Peters, (real name, Edith Mary Pargeter) began writing the Cadfael stories, which were set in the middle ages. Lindsay Davis located her detective, Marcus Didius Falco in Roman times. Umberco Eco, C.J. Samson and a host of other writers have married their interest in a particular period in history with their desire to construct a mystery novel. But, as with every aspect of writing and reading you have your aficionados and your detractors.
When I mentioned to someone in the publishing industry that I wanted to write a crime novel set in the 1930s, he gently but definitely opined that the 1930 mystery was best left in the 1930s. I think I understand his viewpoint. If you see crime fiction as a genre that has a trajectory starting with (arguably) the first mystery story, The Murders at the Rue Morgue written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841, you might see it this as a progression, so why would a writer want to go backwards in something that has (in some people’s opinion) got better? Some publishers in the crime genre, are much more interested in the next big thing – not what they would see as a rehash of the past. Of course, you can see their point, but not necessarily agree with it. You could tell a person who enjoys reading old-fashioned westerns that those books are escapism, not a true representation of 19th Century life in that part of the US. This does not make the person stop enjoying the genre! I mentioned in a previous post that a modern writer can’t truly inhabit the shoes of a person who lived in a past age. So, those of us who write mysteries set in the 1930s or another time in the past are doing something slightly different.

I think I know why I’ve chosen this particular era (1930s) for my Edith Horton stories. In the opening paragraph, I mentioned stories set in the middle ages, in ancient Rome. While I can imagine a writer immersing herself in ancient Rome or Victorian London, I couldn’t do it, myself. For me it is the past that is just on the edge of living memory that is the most fascinating. Maybe, I lack the imagination to look back too far. I smile as I write this because I really wanted to read Wolf Hall, couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. But, I was so disappointed and quickly gave up – this, is of course, not the fault of the writer and is much more about me – I just couldn’t supress my disbelief that much, I was constantly wondering how we can know how people thought and spoke that far back in history. But, the 1930s and 1940s – well, many of us have strong connections and half memories of people who were around in our formative years who had the aura of this era in their behaviour and speech. All my grandparents were around in the 1930s and I spent a lot of time with them – my maternal grandmother in particular. There was nothing I liked better than to sit in the corner when her friends came to call and listen and listen to their conversations and to conjure up pictures and just bask in it all. If you combine this with my teenage reading of Agatha Christie in particular it isn’t really surprising that I chose to write crime novels set in the 1930s.

I don’t think I’m alone in this fascination with this era. There’s a school of thought which says we are drawn to the past in quite specific ways. The fashions and music and culture of the recent couple of decades, we often find cringe-worthy – we have to go back a bit further to find our nostalgia-fest. So, a teenager of today may be enthralled by the 1970s and 80s, whereas those of us who were around then are probably not. l wonder if this is true? There is certainly a great fascination with the 1940s at the moment. You will have seen vintage tea-shops, fashion and house interior styles. We are drawn to the combination of cosiness and austerity – a social historian would definitely have a field day studying this phenomenon.

I don’t think that choosing to set my books in the 1930s is a refusal to engage with modern life and I do hope to set future novels in the present day. I don’t fear and hate modern technology – not at all. I have read and heard about the ways technology has changed crime writing – not only in books based on cyber-terrorism or crime but in all novels in the genre. The modern writer always has to think about developments which would affect their plot. Wouldn’t the heroine have her mobile phone with her? Wouldn’t the police be able to use technology to trace and track the suspect? In a strange way it can be almost counter-productive to lay too much emphasis on recent developments as recent and cutting-edge doesn’t remain so. It can be unintentionally funny to look back at what was considered high-tech a couple of decades ago. Most of us have laughed at the huge mobile phones Del Boy and Rodney carted about. In a way, if you set your book in the 1930s you avoid at least some minefields. Though – in needing to get your period detail right you certainly do encounter others.

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.


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