Student blog: The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

Bridget Coulter is studying for her PhD in music at the University of Sheffield and is a regular contributor to the University's official student blog, We Are Sheffield Students. This is her first of two posts she is writing for Off the Shelf.

The golden age of detective fiction, which took place roughly in the twenties and thirties, left behind an enduring legacy which continues to shape the crime genre today. The classic whodunnit of the golden age – typically involving the investigation of a suspicious murder in an enclosed scenario, such as an English country house – is still a popular literary sub-genre. Most famously, the work of bestselling writer Agatha Christie (the celebrated ‘Queen of Crime’) remains a global phenomenon over forty years after her death. It was through Christie’s books that I initially became interested in detective fiction, after which I became hooked on the novels of Dorothy L Sayers, so I was excited to learn more about the genre at this event.

Traditionally, detective fiction has been considered a form of ‘low’ culture. Early critics of the genre dismissed it as middlebrow at best and, at worst, trashy. Nowadays, the classic whodunnit format is often considered somewhat cosy and safe – thanks, in part, to the lavishly produced and extremely popular television productions of Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple novels. However, contrary to these assumptions, golden age detective fiction drew heavily on supposedly ‘highbrow’ classic literature and, very often, crime writers used Shakespearean allusions in their work. They were, however, also heavily influenced by the Jacobean playwrights, such as Ben Jonson, John Webster and Thomas Middleton.

In her talk on The Golden Age of Detective Fiction for Off the Shelf festival, Professor Lisa Hopkins used three case studies to explore the ways in which the crime writers of the golden age incorporated allusions to Jacobean drama into their work. The first of these, Thou Shell of Death by Nicholas Blake (the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis) is based on The Revenger’s Tragedy by Middleton (previously attributed to Tourneur). The Evil of the Day by Thomas Sterling draws on Jonson’s Volpone. Finally, Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie alludes to Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Through these three novels, Hopkins explored how authors of detective fiction used these references to perform various literary functions.

Often, literary references were used by crime writers to signpost the reader, providing clues about the plot. Plot is, of course, central to the detective genre; as well as being stories, detective novels are often intended to be treated as puzzles, and many readers enjoy attempting to solve the mystery themselves. By referring to a famous play, an author could leave clues for the reader, signalling plot twists before they even happen. However, while Shakespearean references were considered fairly accessible, the work of the Jacobean playwrights was (and still is) far less well-known. The use of these references, therefore, served to flatter the more educated, observant reader. By recognising an allusion to The Revenger’s Tragedy in Thou Shell of Death, for example, the reader could enjoy feeling clever, having used his or her superior literary knowledge to solve the mystery.

Hopkins’s analysis of Christie’s Sleeping Murder, which draws on Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi, was particularly compelling. Christie’s use of this reference is interesting, given that she cultivated a reputation as a staunchly middlebrow novelist, in contrast with writers such as Sayers, whose work is steeped in scholarly and literary allusion. Nevertheless, Christie did include references to supposedly ‘highbrow’ culture in her novels – for example in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side which alludes to Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott.

However, rather than simply trying to flatter her readers or leave clues for them, Hopkins argued that Christie used literary references to address big ideas; for example, in Sleeping Murder, she addresses the idea of death and the human soul through the character of Gwenda who is haunted by ghosts from her past. Too often, Christie is characterised as a writer of comfortable, formulaic page-turners. Hopkins challenged this view, shedding light on the depth and complexity of Christie’s writing, and showing that she used literary allusion adeptly in order to deal with themes of life, death and the human condition.

Hopkins’ engaging talk showed that golden age detective fiction was not just about eccentric detectives, intricately mapped plots and the thrill of the denouement; it was also a deeply sophisticated popular genre, which drew heavily on a range of literary references and dealt with complex issues of morality and justice. This fascinating and thought-provoking talk encouraged me to see the work of these authors, particularly Christie, in a new and interesting light, and made me want to go back and read more novels from the golden age.

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