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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10 Comments »

  1. I have no basic objection to deregulation, at least when it comes to mystery writing, except that no actual deregulation took place. Publishers admittedly trashed the old rules, but only to replace them with new rules – theirs. Mystery fiction today is just as rule-bounded as it was sixty years ago. Thinking you’re free doesn’t mean that you’re free.

    Xavier

    Comment by jonjermey — October 5, 2008 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

  2. I agree entirely, Xavier. Though I think I understand Mike’s point, I think his assessment of the “deregulation” of the genre is a misleading oversimplification. The “rules” or objective criteria for the genre seems to have had little consistency even in the 1920’s and ’30’s (no two authors seemed to agree on the same set of rules, or for that matter anything except that all necessary data be provided to the reader prior to the denouement — and even then it was impossible to find any unanimous consensus of what constitutes “all necessary data”). And long before 1945, the early hardboiled authors were using a totally different set of criteria to judge the merits of a work of detective fiction (their criteria usually based primarily on how closely a work reflected the experiences of real-life detectives).

    As you mentioned, there seems to be just as rigid a criteria for publication today. Now, it seems (here, I’m generalizing too) that the details of the character of the detective is of primary importance (displacing interest in the puzzle plot), as well as an emphasis on the detective character’s non-crime-related interest (true, this latter trend dates back as far as Nero Wolfe and even Sherlock Holmes, but only in recent years have these hobbies and outside interests sometimes become of greater importance than the central murder plot). The importance of a detective “series” has grown (it was always a benefit, but now it is nearly a necessity for publication; I think it’s almost a miracle that any first novels get published). And of course the emphasis on cats, cooking, etc…

    I myself am nostalgic for the works of the golden age, my own criteria for a great detective story being that it provides a enjoyable rush of “sudden retrospective illumination.” However, even my own nostalgia doesn’t blind me to the fact that greatness has always been judged — even at the height of the Golden Age — by sales. How else to explain the outpouring of acclaim for Van Dine in his prime? Hell, the man couldn’t even follow his *own* rules!

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — October 5, 2008 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

  3. I appreciate and agree with Mike’s insightful (inciteful:-) post. Though comments about publishers imposing “new” rules by others here, do have merit. I’m not sure they are rules developed to achieve well written, detective fiction. I suspect that in too many cases, the new rules are more about style than substance. And there is a goal create a kind of glossy similarity in the detectives/sleuths, that also generates a kind of superficiality. Sales rule. I can’t help but wonder, though, if there isn’t a large, buying public our there that wants something else . . . perhaps a vain hope?

    Pat Harrington

    Pat Harrington

    Comment by Patricia Harrington — October 6, 2008 @ 2:14 am | Reply

  4. Hi Mike,

    See my post in the yahoo group. My analysis is unnecessarily literary, ambitious writers moved away from the Raison d’être of the genre – the need of the reader to feel smart. 🙂

    Comment by alfred — May 26, 2009 @ 4:23 pm | Reply

  5. What are you lot complaining about? The Golden Age novels are largely still available if they’re any good – and now we have a plethora of brilliant new crime/mystery writers of all sorts. Where modern fiction lost the plot (sorry) the crime/mystery novel has gained in subject matter and quality. Sure there’s a huge amount of trash but time will dispose of that as it has of so much published during the Golden Age as it’s called.

    Comment by Anne H — June 11, 2010 @ 5:31 am | Reply

  6. What are you lot complaining about? The Golden Age novels are still available if they’re any good – and there’s a plethora of brilliant new writers. Where the modern novel lost the plot (sorry) the crime/mystery has gained in versatility and quality. Sure there’s rubbish and a lot of nasty stuff, but time will dispose of that as it has of most of what was written in the GA.

    Comment by Anne H — June 11, 2010 @ 5:35 am | Reply

    • “The Golden Age novels are still available if they’re any good…”

      This is not the case. Try getting hold of a few John Rhode novels for anything less than a king’s ransom, for instance.

      Comment by jonjermey — June 12, 2010 @ 12:35 am | Reply

  7. Raymond Chandler described the British as ‘incomparably the best dull writers’. John Rhode is a historical curiosity at best and could well have been on Chandler’s mind. His novels were still around when I was young, many years ago, so of course I tried them. Let’s put him alongside his peers – he was appallingly dull, leaden style, leaden plots. I was discovering Carr et al at the time, all still available so my ‘if’ stands. My point above (sorry about the duplication, new to this, thought I’d lost the first one ) was that we can not only enjoy the best of the Golden Age, but have so many great new writers and novels to enjoy as well we should celebrate the fact. You can’t want JR for enjoyment??? I have come to having my own computer late in life, have been reading crime novels since the 1950’s, and love this forum; can see most of contributors are in the US while I am on the other side of the globe, but tastes can’t differ that much surely.

    Comment by Anne H — June 12, 2010 @ 5:57 am | Reply

    • You are just invoking the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy: “No good book would go out of print: these books have gone out of print: therefore they can’t be any good.” I enjoy John Rhode books immensely, and so do many other members of the list. I find them entertaining. I’m not particularly concerned with their literary quality; I enjoy their plots and the meticulous descriptions of investigation. Let me adapt a platitude and say that no book can bore you unless you give it permission to.

      Please don’t impose your own values on other people.

      Comment by jonjermey — June 12, 2010 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  8. Put in my place. I have spoken out of turn, or, I suspect, we aren’t quite speaking the same language. My only value is readability, which has nothing to do with literary quality, and it seems my opinion on that is not widely shared here. On the other hand, while English paperback publishers such as Penguin issued and reissued so many GA writers, they never as far as I know touched John Rhode. This suggests to me that he was no longer regarded as likely to find a viable readership even among those who were buying GA crime fiction. Of course good books go out of print. It is an abiding worry in my own country that classics and other wonderful books are not being kept in print. Small publishers try for a while, issue two or three and give up. I’m constantly amazed when searching for secondhand titles on the internet how many are available in the US. You are very fortunate. I suppose some books are not loved by enough people. I have my own favourites that are disappearing or have gone forever and I have to accept it.
    Obviously this subject could be debated for ever. Think this is my last comment on it.

    Comment by Anne H — June 13, 2010 @ 2:55 am | Reply


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