Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

October 5, 2008

‘Deregulation’ of detective stories

Filed under: General GAD,modern trends — Jon @ 8:20 pm

As world credit markets teeter on the abyss, the financial press is full of exposes about how business institutions were deregulated in the 00’s.

We have our own experiences with the deregulation of mystery fiction in the 1950’s and 1960’s. How did this turn out? Time for a look back.

Golden Age mystery fiction was written based on Rules. These Rules were ridiculed and junked by the English language publishing industry around 1960, and the Golden Age came to an end.

Rules first emerged in the 1890’s. Israel Zangwill’s locked room masterpiece “The Big Bow Mystery” first appeared serialized in 1891. In his the introduction to the 1895 book version, Zangwill seems to be the first person to set forth the idea of “fair play”: the rule that everything in the solution must be logically based on clues that have been set forth to the reader. Zangwill did not use the words “fair play”: but the concept is fully there. Zangwill’s book, as Mary Reed highlighted in her recent review, also contains a compendium of locked room concepts. By the 1920’s, such theoreticians as S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox set forth explicit sets of Rules for writing detective fiction. In 1928, Van Dine wrote the pioneering survey of mystery fiction history, on which all later ones are based. And in 1935, John Dickson Carr’s Locked Room Lecture in “The Three Coffins” systematized the study of impossible crime fiction. Mystery fiction flourished under the Rules. The Rules gave a common language, for readers, writers and critics to understand and evaluate mystery fiction. Critics like Dorothy L. Sayers used the same criteria to evaluate a mystery as your aunt in Glasgow or your brother-in-law in Peoria. Much of Great Britain was able to have a National Conversation about Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” in 1926 based on the Rules.

However, the English language book publishing industry junked the Rules after 1945. There is evidence that the publishing industry itself was in charge of this. Writers who followed the Rules and who were not best sellers, such as Hake Talbot, C. Daly King, Milton M. Propper and Joseph Commings, found themselves unable to publish novels. The most outspoken opponent of the Rules, Joan Kahn, was a leading editor in the US publishing industry. This was not something that came from writers or the public. This came from the publishing industry itself.

How good are English language mystery novels published after 1960? IMHO we have seen a huge decline in quality. It is a major cultural collapse. Deregulation – which means getting rid of rules – was supposed to lead to an outpouring of literary creativity. Instead, we have a mountain of junk.

Deregulation has been especially cruel to authors – above all, to new writers of detective fiction. Rules used to form objective criteria for measuring a mystery’s quality. They applied with equal fairness to little known and famous authors. Since deregulation, there is no longer any objective way to tell a book’s quality. Whether an author is famous or a best-seller is the only way to judge an author. Publicity and marketing campaigns rule. This is horrendous for new writers who try to produce a quality product. Paul Halter produces quality books – according to the Rules. But in the new system, he is simply a writer without publicity, and hence, human garbage. Editors, readers, reviewers: all turn a blind eye to his achievements under the Rules. Under our Rule-less publishing system, these achievements simply do not exist: at least Officially. You can’t talk about them. It is not allowed. What we have is an official system that depends on lying on a huge scale. People pretending that something that is real and valuable, simply is Not There.

Mike Grost

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