Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

May 22, 2008

Declining puzzles and rising characterization

Filed under: modern trends,Simon Brett — Jon @ 3:54 am
Tags: , ,

I was surprised that Simon Brett’s brief article produced such passionate responses, including even a sideways (or is sidewise?) swipe at the Detection Club for electing him its President. It seems to me that, except perhaps for the tone, that Simon’s article was non-controversial. Like it or not, the pure puzzle novel, the unadulterated Whodunit, that dominated between WWI and WWII is no longer the major form. I also think it is obvious that characterization has become of greater importance than it was 80 years ago. Indeed, I would argue that the greater depth of character has saved the Whodunit — and it has made Julian Symon’s prophecy completely wrong that the detective novel would give way to the crime novel. The detective novel is still very much with us; the puzzle is still a major part of the genre; but characterization has become just as important as trickiness in the telling.

Look at the current Members of the Detection Club — some of course (eg, le Carre) write spy stories, but most still retain the puzzle and mystery and genuine detection. And the Members remain the most proficient practitioners of the genre. One of the greatest honors a British (or Colonial) mystery writer can receive is to be chosen a Member. Except for a couple of crime thrillers, Simon Brett himself has remained loyal to the Whodunit in his own books.

I argue in JOHN DICKSON CARR: THE MAN WHO EXPLAINED MIRACLES that the effect of WWI for English writers was the emphasis on the puzzle and its solution, the proclamation that (all evidence to the contrary) the world still was orderly, still made sense. The 1920’s was (were?) also the era of the crossword puzzle, of board games, of contract bridge and canasta, of the Murder Game — and the chess puzzle detective story.

But WW2 had a different effect — (unlike WWI with minor exceptions) England was directly bombed by the Germans — and the immediate postwar era was grim, with rationing and shortages. Doing a crossword puzzle no longer made the world seem rational. And even the metaphysical world seemed to collapse — churchgoing declined radically. The Whodunit in England survived because it recognized those changes.

I say all this even though I love the GAD formalism.

And now I have probably (re-)opened a can of worms.

Doug G


  1. Doug,

    My criticism of Brett’s piece is based on what I see as its formalistic representation of a transition in the genre from the restricted, simplistic between-the-wars old days to the complex, varied days following World War Two.

    My reading of the piece suggests that Brett is saying these changes all occurred AFTER World War Two (“The Second World War wrought many changes….the art form of the crime novel had either to go under or to change….Characters no longer had to be mere counters in a board game. They could become living, breathing human beings. And their crimes were more than just a trigger for a bit of light-hearted sleuthing. Crime writers started to think about the causes of crimes and the motives of those who committed them. The whodunit element became much less important than the whydunit.”). Thus it ignores all the ferment going on in the genre in the 30s, much of which came from the supposed Citadel of Orthodoxy, the Detection Club: the psychology of Iles; the novel of manners approach of the Crime Queens; the greater realism of Blake and Wade.

    Look at the subject of your own biography, John Dickson Carr. As I recall, you praise novels like The Emperor’s Snuffbox and She Died a Lady for their stronger characterization. You and others have called events in She Died a Lady “tragic,” as I recall. They couldn’t be tragic to people unless those people perceived the characters as something more than “mere counters” in a board game. Now, these particular books came out during World War Two, so perhaps we should credit the War for the change, but I think the genre began changing around 1930 (ironically, about the time the Detection Club was founded!). The revolt against the rules and strictures of Van Dine, Knox, the Detection Club itself came very quickly, and some of the leading rebels were members of the Detection Club! Even the more conservative members were affected to some extent, as I have written about with Street and Crofts (see the former’s Death at the Helm and the latter’s Antidote to Venom).

    Even Symons, who wanted to bring the Golden age down several pegs, recognizes that change started in the thirties (while stressing as well the significance of World War Two). I agree that World War Two was a big factor, though more because it accelerated social changes that already had been ongoing. Brett seems to me to truncate the history of all this far too severely.

    Concerning Dame Agatha, Brett writes that “she was brilliant at what she did, but the genre has moved on.” Doesn’t that strike you as a wee bit condescending (isn’t “moving on” suggestive of a process of growing up and advancing)? It does to me. But it’s how Christie routinely is treated by modern genre writers in Britain today. Giants like Ruth Rendell and P. D. James routinely dismiss her as someone who essentially could not write, who was only a clever fashioner of puzzles. But Christie herself “moved on”; there seems to me clearly greater “depth” in later novels like And Then There Were None, Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs, The Hollow. Indeed, the recent TV adaptations of the three latter novels were among those that had traditionalist fans of the TV series howling with outrage: “Where were Hastings and Miss Lemon?! Why weren’t they funny?! Why was Poirot so serious?! What were they so “dark”?! It seems unfair to continually refuse to recognise this, as many modern genre writers do. Granted, the Christie estate is crying all the way to the bank, but still….

    To say, as Brett does, that “there are very few books being written today which the practitioners of the 1920s and 1930s would recognise as being part of the same genre” seems rather extreme to me. It makes the earlier members of the Detection Club sound like a bunch of hidebound ninnies. I’m not as up to date on “the moderns,” but it seems to me the many of the books of the first generation of post war Brit writers would be recognizable as such: James and Rendell (even the Vines have ancestry in the Iles school), Lovesey and Barnard, Brett himself.

    I’m certainly not saying that Brett should be ejected from the Presidency of the Detection Club. I have no doubt his views represent those of most of the members. But I do feel he could have been more generous to his forebears. They were hardly all opposed to humanizing the detective story, though most of them, I believe, did want to retain the puzzle element in some form.

    But there is always GAD, fortunately!

    And, on the plus side for Brett, the fuss provoked me to order a book by him, which will make the first Brett book I have read. So Brett got one sale out of all this!


    Comment by jonjermey — May 22, 2008 @ 4:09 am | Reply

  2. Excellent critique by Curt, and I agree with much of what he says. His phrase “a wee bit condescending” is a much better way of saying that we can take exception to the “tone” of Brett’s article.

    I also agree that writers were breaking the Van Dine and Knox rules already the middle 1930’s. In fact, Had I written more sophisticatedly I would have said that by the middle and late 1930’s the genre was changing not only to allow but to permit more emphasis on character. In fact, it was going to extremes with the puzzle element producing the non-novels like THE CRIME FILES, packets with all most no narrative and all the physical clues included, and the novelistic side producing some superb fully characterized works — writers like Marsh and Allingham and Innes.

    But with all this, I still think that WW2 was a main ifluence in forcing the whodunit more closely to resemble real life — and that this process, especially the characterization, has kept the whodunit form going into the current era.


    Comment by jonjermey — May 23, 2008 @ 5:36 am | Reply

  3. Doug,

    I think as well that the social change World War Two accelerated/generated had a lot to do with broadening the type of “life” that the genre looked at, although so, for that matter, did the swinging sixties (from what I’ve read of them in the history books!). I recently read a BBC forum where some younger critics were talking about how “old-fashioned” P. D. James was, that she read like something out of the sixties, before the sexual revolution, multiculturalism, etc., fully took hold in cultural life.

    I haven’t fully worked out the whole World War Two thing in my mind. I know the madness of the Holocaust and other mass killings and the anxiety of the Cold War certainly affected a class of intellectuals of which Julian Symons was a part. But I think Julian Symons already had a predisposition to write the sort of novels he ended up writing (after a few false Ilesian starts). But clearly what was “hot” after WW2 was “psychological suspense” and espionage novels. A child of one Golden Age mystery writer, who wrote a few puzzle mysteries herself, wrote me that she stopped writing them in part because she felt publishers were no longer so interested in traditional mysteries, but preferred thrillers and spy stories, which she had no interest in writing.

    One interesting seeming implication in the Brett piece, it appears to me, is that you can’t write a mystery about real people in a country house setting (or that no one in the Golden Age, at any rate, did). I think when people think of these settings nowadays they are influenced by arch books like The Affair of the Bloodstained Tea Cosy, etc. (i.e., deliberate parodies). But Henry Wade, for example, wrote novels where the inhabitants of the country houses are real people — No Friendly Drop, for example, is another book that can be legitimately deemed “tragic.” Admittedly, you had in books of the period a lot of rote country house settings populated with stick people, but this setting, so used, had become a tired cliche even in the thirties. I recall one reviewer criticized Ngaio Marsh for using a country house setting in “Death and the Dancing Footmen” (1941, I think?), because such a setting was beneath her talent. However, it’s quite an engaging book (if not tragic)!

    It’s certainly true that the Crime Queens, clever and literate as they are, were more limited that many writers today in their settings and tone, but as far as creating characters goes, it’s clear that people for decades have responded, when reading Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, to the novel of manners approach that Sayers advocated. Much of the popularity of the Crime Queens is due to what people perceive as more developed characters and better writing (well, Edmund Wilson didn’t see it that way, but that’s another story!). As you say in your introduction to Alleyn and Others, your excellent collection of Ngaio Marsh short works:

    “I think Death in a White Tie is the best of her early books, not because of the crime and solution but because of its sensitive discussion of the social expectations that produced the ‘season’ of debutante balls. In the novel, poor but presentable women are hired to sponsor girls, including one who has an unhappy time in what amounts to a marriage market. Marsh comments that ‘she was not so very plain but only rather diasastrously uneventful.’…”

    “Those who argue that the detective story had to give way to the crime novel sometimes say that the classical, fair-play form did not allow commentary on society or on people….it is less the form than the talent of the writer that makes for insights.”

    Well-said indeed!!


    Comment by jonjermey — May 23, 2008 @ 5:37 am | Reply

  4. Curt

    I’m really getting in hot water when I get quoted to support a point someone else is making! Well done, sir!


    Comment by jonjermey — May 23, 2008 @ 5:37 am | Reply

  5. I’ve been trying to get a handle on the approaches of modern literary mystery writers (Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill) vs GA authors (say, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen). Looked at Rankin’s novella “Death Is Not the End” and Hill’s “On Beulah Height”.

    Rankin and Hill are full of elements of characterization not found in Queen, Stout or most other GA authors. In Hill and Rankin, each character gets: a family history, sometimes stretching back for generations; detailed accounts of childhood, especially conflicts with parents; often an account of the difficulties of puberty, growing up and initiation into sexuality; accounts of scars left by childhood and adolescence on adults; painful traumas experienced by adults, such as a loss of a child; in-depth looks at relationships among grown-ups as romances; accounts of characters’ sex lives. This is just absent in GA. The endless account in Rankin about how Inspector Rebus responded to his mother’s death as a kid (he was very very sad) has no parallel in GA: Ellery Queen went through 50 books without ever telling about how his sleuth lost his mother as a child. By contrast, GA authors tend to stress characters’ relationship to work and their professions.

    In Stout’s “Plot It Yourself”, we get a detailed look inside the world of publishing. We see novice writers, successes, new hitmakers and old has beens, plus editors, publishers, agents and literary organizations of every stripe. It is remarkably varied and detailed. By contrast, Ellie’s struggle to become a writer in Hill’s “On Beulah Height” is mainly interpreted as her psychological response to writing, acceptance and rejection. We learn nothing about the publishing world in Hill – instead, the focus is on Ellie’s psychology.

    Similarly, detectives in GA are mainly characterized by their behavior as detectives. We learn a huge amount about how Nero Wolfe and Archie go about solving cases. The same is true about Ellery Queen or Dr. Thorndyke or Father Brown or the Continental Op. We learn nothing about their childhood traumas or their sex lives. We also learn about their second professions if they have one: Ellery as novelist, Father Brown as priest. The solutions of Hill’s and Rankin’s mystery puzzles turns on their characters’ psychology, as revealed in the above approaches. The solutions of Queen and Stout generally do not.

    Characters are more individualized in their relationship to the world in GA than in the moderns. Nero Wolfe’s behavior is genuinely strange; so are many of the characters Queen meets, in those books referred to as “Ellery in Wonderland”. By contrast, all of Hill and Rankin’s characters are relentlessly conventional on the surface. Their behavior can be called “normal”, “typical”, “conformist” or “frighteningly conventional”, depending on your point of view. * Russian Formalists stress how art gets created though “formal systems”. These are organized approaches, that lend structure to art works. The two approaches to characterization, in GA and modern literary crime writers, seem like formal systems.

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — July 6, 2008 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

  6. Interesting point about GA authors. Their stories were largely defined by their methods of detection and, occasionally, by their associates. In 1938, Ellery Queen put together a marvelous anthology called “Challenge to the Reader.” He took generally less familiar stories by very familiar writers and changed the name of the detective and some other key characters, challenging readers to identify the stories by the settings, period, nationality, and – most important – the method of deduction used by the detective to solve the crime. It remains a personal favorite of mine.

    Comment by Les Blatt — July 20, 2008 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

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