(This post originally showed up at Vintage Novels on November 7, 2014)
The Quintessential Mystery Novel.
The Unfathomable Case And The Clever Means By Which It Is Solved.
The Joy Of Having A Watson.
These things belong to the Golden Era mysteries.
Not that I have read so terribly many mysteries in my lifetime, but I have dabbled in the genre as a reader, and I’m entering it as a writer. Through my experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Golden Age of the Mystery Novel was dubbed so for a reason. I have read and enjoyed some mysteries written by contemporary authors. Funny thing is, the setting always pre-dates the late 1940’s.
What on earth makes the Golden Age authors so much more to my taste than the modern writers? What key did they hold to unlock the joys of the mystery-genre for me? How can I feel that Lord Peter Wimsey and Sherlock Holmes were real people, while I have a hard time suspending reality to get my thoughts into the story-world of the modern detective? There is a certain measure of the Watson in me, or, as A.A. Milne described it, “A Watson, then, but not of necessity a fool of a Watson. A little slow, let him be, as so many of us are, but friendly, human, likeable.”
These questions bring to mind the words of P.D. James, a modern mystery writer who has made a respected name for herself in the genre:
“What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually a murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motives, means, and opportunity for a crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”
The latter part of this quote is where I find the charm of the Golden Era novel: “...which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”
Between the covers of a Golden Era novel, I can expect to find all the material I need to decipher the puzzle for myself. Which is important, because I do tend to be “a little slow, but friendly, human, likeable.” Indeed, I sometimes look crossways at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because he so often broke that essential fairness principle. “Why yes, I could certainly have guessed the murderer from the mud on his boots if you had told us there was mud on his boots.” Nevertheless, Conan Doyle (whom we acknowledge is pre-Golden-era), Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and many others in their day managed to create something spectacular in the mystery novel: a genre that has borne the traces of time well, and shows no sign of fracturing.
My new mystery, Anon, Sir, Anon, was actually inspired by picking a random book off the library shelf. When I chose to read P.D. James on Detective Fiction, I really had no idea that the Vivi & Farnham series would be born. But at the end of that intriguing book, I had a detective character, a burgeoning plot, and pages of advice, quotes, and tips on writing a British Mystery. In a way, I had done my research before knowing what I was up to. Without that little volume, behind which is the considerable wisdom of P.D. James, I would have been at a loss over the essential components of a classic mystery. Armed with her words, I was able to try my hand at this most tantalizing of genres and I am pleased with the unexpected brain-child that resulted. I would not have succeeded, however, without keeping in mind lessons I’ve learned from the Golden Era writers.
Dorothy L. Sayers taught me that the story world must feel enormous. Perhaps what I love best about Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories is the breadth of experience and education in his character. You feel that, while he is dealing with a mystery, his life encompasses much more. Sayers gave him friends, acquaintances, family, money, the ability to travel, a fabulous education, war-experience, humour, class, fashion-sense, an eyeglass. Never once in the stories does the reader feel that the investigation is all there is to Lord Peter. In fact, one can almost get a sense that he toys at it on the side, and his real occupation and attention lies elsewhere. As my friend, Jennifer Freitag has it, “An old sleight of hand. The suggestion of more beyond.” All the best Golden Era novels have this dual tone of minute, country-house introspection, and far-reaching, grand planes of intellect and experience beyond the pages of the present novel.
Agatha Christie taught me to “gently seduce (the reader) into self-deception.” No one ever said that the same set of initials belonging to one suspect (thinking of Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train) couldn’t belong to another heretofore unsuspected character. I tried employing a similar trick of self-deception in Anon, Sir, Anon and was delighted to find that most of my beta-readers swallowed it hook, line, and sinker The simplest bit of redirecting the reader’s attention will often have them snatching at gnats while the real deal goes quietly on in the background.
G.K. Chesterton taught me that nothing is too absurd to be impossible. The craziest solution imaginable? Sometimes it’s right. Common sense only goes so far in an official investigation and the more creative your detective, the more complex and ridiculously “I should have seen that coming” your solution can be.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle taught me that a Watson figure is indispensable. A.A. Milne (whose Red House Mystery I adored) addressed the Watson dilemma in this way:
“Are we to have a Watson? We are. Death to the author who keeps his unravelling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but prologue to a five-minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must watsonize or soliloquize; the one is merely a dialogue form of the other, and by that, more readable.”
Conan Doyle invented Watson and in doing so, helped millions of readers who, like myself, find it hard to keep up with vague hints and slip-shod clues and need a little bit of explanation. There are many ways to spin the Watson character. Agatha Christie seems to choose a new character in each mystery, while Dorothy Sayers created Harriet Vane, Lord Peter’s love-interest. In Anon, Sir, Anon, I created Genevieve Langley: the niece of the detective, Orville Farnham. Vivi and Farnham split the roles of Sherlock and Watson just about 50-50, bringing a freshness to the role.
The Golden Era of mysteries has many tips for writers today to glean. The stories have endured, and it’s worth discovering why. Of course there are many fine contemporary mysteries, but for me, there will always something especially delicious about a vintage whodunnit in a little English town. After all, there really is nothing like a curious trip to the not-so-distant past.