Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

May 22, 2008

Declining puzzles and rising characterization

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

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