Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Mysteries, When the Puzzle Mattered
The period between 1920 and 1940 is generally known as the Golden Age of the detective novel. England, at the time, was the most civil and orderly of countries, but in popular fiction, its citizens were being dispatched with great regularity and ingenuity. In addition to garden-variety shootings, knifings and throttlings, murders were committed with poisons injected into eggs, crossbows, and poison darts. It was a great time for a fictional character to die in style.
Some of the best-known authors of that period are still in print or readily available at used bookstores. In England there were, among others, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Anthony Berkeley, Cyril Hare and Father Ronald A. Knox. America contributed Ellery Queen, S.S. Van Dyne, and the hybrid John Dickson Carr (also writing as Carter Dickson), whose stories were set in England with British detectives.
Back in the day, the puzzle was paramount, and the game was for the reader to match wits with the author and try to deduce (or guess, if reason failed) the identity of the killer. Most mysteries today don’t even try to include that challenge, but at the time it was taken very seriously indeed. Carr, master of the locked-room mystery, devoted an entire chapter of his The Three Coffins to an elucidation of all the methods by which someone could be murdered inside a locked room, or other secure space.
It was not uncommon in those days for books to have a “challenge to the reader” near the end, advising that the clues had all been laid out and that, based on them, deduction of the killer ought to be entirely possible. Father Knox carried the concept of fair play with the reader to the point of codification. He laid down ten commandments (hey, he was a priest!), such as “No more than one secret room or passage is allowable … No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used.” The rules were a warning against conventions that don’t exist today.
Even at the time the conventions and wild plots — especially in the hands of authors less skilled than those previously mentioned — were an object of satire. Consider this bit of dialogue from a P.G . Wodehouse short story, “Strychnine in the Soup,” published in 1932:
“It was not the vicar,” he said. “I happen to have read The Murglow Manor Mystery. The guilty man was the plumber … he fastened a snake in the nozzle of the shower-bath with glue, and when Sir Geoffrey turned on the stream, the hot water melted the glue. This released the snake, which dropped through one of the holes, bit the Baronet in the leg, and disappeared down the drain pipe.”
Wodehouse was having double fun on that one, given that The Murglow Manor Mystery clearly cribbed from Conan Doyle and the Speckled Band. They don’t write them like that any more.
Three quarters of a century later it’s easy to look back on those books with a condescending smile. As stylishly as some of them were written, they don’t begin to stack up against the best mystery and crime novels of today in terms of character development, social awareness and complexity of theme; also the casual racist, classist and colonialist attitudes are tough swallowing for a contemporary reader. But in the best of them, the sense of innocent joy is still contagious. It was the Golden Age not because of the literary quality, but because of the fun and exuberance of a genre discovering itself. Open one of those books, even now, and the game is on, in a way it isn’t nor likely will be in a mystery written in our time.