The Golden Age of Mysteries

What do the names listed below have in common?

G.K. Chesterton, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, Earl Derr Biggers, Patricia Wentworth, Rex Stout, S.S. Van Dine, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Ronald Knox, Phobe Atwood Taylor, Ngaio Marsh, Lucy Beatrice Malleson, Gladys Mitchell, Georges Simenon, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, Raymond Chandler, Stuart Palmer, and Leslie Charteris

A very impressive list and there are many more names I didn’t mentioned. And of course you are absolutely correct they are all mystery authors. But did you know they are also all authors from what is called the “Golden Age of Mysteries.”

The Golden Age of Mysteries was at its peak during the 20’s and 30’s but the format for these mysteries continues today.  What are the rules for these mysteries that include so many well known writers?

First and foremost mysteries were approached as if they were a game or a puzzle. Clues or puzzle pieces were provided to the reader so they would have an equal opportunity along with the detective to solve the crime. However, there were other rules the authors were expected to follow. These rules were outlined by S.S. Van Dine (creator of detective Philo Vance) in 1928 for the American Magazine and then by Monsignor Ronald Knox in 1929 in his Introduction to The Best Detective Stories of 1928-1929. Here is a summary of the rules from both men.

  • There must be a corpse in a detective novel. No lesser crime than murder will suffice.
  • The novel must have a detective and the detective must detect. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the crime.
  • The detective is set apart from everyone including the reader because of their eccentric habits, appearance and exceptional intelligence.
  • There must be only one detective although the detective can have an assistant.
  • The detective’s assistant must pass along any thoughts they have about the crime even if wrong.
  • The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery–this means the detective must reveal all clues which are uncovered and must plainly state and describe them.
  • The truth must be apparent at all times. The reader, after learning the solution, could reread the book, and see that all the clues pointed to this villain.
  • No willful tricks or deceptions should be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective.
  • The villain must be mentioned early in the story and cannot appear only at the end when accusations are made and the final solution presented.
  • The detective or one of the official investigators cannot commit the crime
  • A servant must not be selected as the culprit. The butler Didn’t Do It!
  • The solution must be determined by logical deductions and naturalistic means -not by accident, coincidence or unmotivated confession. Learning the truth from slate-writing, Ouija-boards, mind-reading, séances, crystal-gazing, etc., are taboo.
  • Unknown poisons or scientific devices which have not yet been discovered may not be used.
  • No more than one secret passage per story.
  • No love interest–the business is to bring a criminal to justice, not foster a love relationship.
  • No secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al. for the detective to fall back on.
  • A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to solving the crime.
  • The guilty party must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story; a person with whom the reader is familiar.
  • The culprit cannot be a professional criminal. A really fascinating crime is one
    committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  • There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The villain may have helpers or co-plotters; but the entire crime must rest on one person.
  • The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. Motives must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, which gives the reader an outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

Well, what do you think–did certain mysteries come to mind as you read the guidelines. Its quite a list of rules to follow if you were a Golden Age detective writer. Are there exceptions to these rules? Of course, but on average this was the guiding format for the detective fiction from this period.

Next time you’re reading a book from one of the authors from the Golden Age of Mystery see if they are following the rules. And no doubt you will agree these rules continue to govern many of today’s mysteries as well.

Happy Reading!

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