The “Golden Age” of Detective Fiction refers to the years between the two World Wars (1920-1939). Golden Age detective fiction writers are those who were working in England at that time, including among others, Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) and Agatha Christie (1890-1976). Both authors wrote beyond those years, of course, as did many other writers of the period. Numerous later writers, including some working today, have adopted Golden Age conventions.
The list of those who write or wrote by Golden Age rules is long, but some of my favorites are Robert Barnard, Peter Dickinson, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, Elizabeth George, and Julia Spencer-Fleming. Every mystery fan has read books by one or more writers who wrote or are writing in the Golden Age tradition.
For many mystery readers, including me, Golden Age conventions define what makes a mystery good, whether it was written long ago, or recently.
Here’s a summary of the Rules for Golden Age Mystery Fiction, which are, in my opinion, the rules that make a book a good mystery:
1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the hero/heroine for solving the mystery. There must be clues, and all clues must be available to the reader.
2. There must be a corpse, the earlier the better, and the reader should care about the victim, unless the hero/heroine is the prime suspect, so that the death puts him or her in jeopardy. Or, perhaps the dead person is important to the hero/heroine in some other way; or he or she has important reasons for investigating the death of the victim. In this case the reader will care about the victim for the hero/heroine’s sake, rather than for the victim’s sake.
3. The guilty person must have a prominent part in the story. He or she cannot appear at the last minute.
4. The criminal must be caught through the deductions/actions of the hero/heroine, not by accident or coincidence; and those deductions must be logical and sensible, not absurd or magical/supernatural.
5. There should be multiple possible suspects, and clues that can have more than one interpretation. Ideally, there is an obvious suspect to whom circumstantial evidence points, but who is not guilty.
6. Accuracy is essential, especially in details.
Some celebrated books, even found on lists of “best mysteries” compiled by various authorities, ignore those rules. For example, in Iain Pears’s The Raphael Affair, no crime is committed until page 100 (of a 226-page book), and the reader first learns that a murder has occurred on page 134. The reader meets the victim on page 96, and has very little contact with him thereafter. In short, the reader doesn’t know and therefore can’t care about the victim. That’s two big rules broken, and in my view, The Raphael Affair is not a successful mystery. (Page numbers refer to the Berkley Prime Crime paperback edition, 1998.)
Consider Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered, 1981, about which a reader commented, “the clues, such as they are, lead nowhere,” and, “could the guilty person at least be a suspect?” (In fact, the identity of the murderer and the solution to the crime apparently occur by magic.) Thus Was Adonis Murdered has some interesting elements, but I don’t think it is a successful mystery. Curiously, the book sometimes appears on “art mystery” lists, although it has almost nothing to do with art. I sometimes wonder if those who compile the lists of various kinds of mysteries read the books, or just pull them out of the air.