When modern mystery readers ponder the genesis of the genre,
Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie come to mind. All-but forgotten are S.
S. Van Dine, Dorothy L. Sayers, J. D. Carr, Earl derr Biggers, Clayton Rawson,
Margery Allingham, Stuart Palmer, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Edmund Crispin, E.
C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, Ronald Knox, and Ngaio Marsh. G. K. Chesterton
might be called a proto-Golden Ager in that many of his short stories featured
puzzle-plots, and because he is known to have inspired many of the Golden Age
It’s difficult for modern readers to appreciate the richness
of the Golden Age of puzzle-plotting that stretched from the 1920s to the late
1930s. Not only have decades passed, but the pre and post-World War I milieus
that inspired the puzzle-plotters and made their stories so popular are long
gone. In that era, readers desired their mysteries served with intellectual
gusto. Some of these authors excelled at the craft of writing, including Sayers, Stout, Van Dine, and
Chesterton. While conceding that many of these Golden Age stories were
formulaic and populated with wooden characters, readers were undeterred because
the puzzle and idiosyncratic investigator were paramount.
Take, for example, the cerebral test these stories posed,
relying on complex plots and torturous logic (“ratiocination”), and often
accompanied by intricate maps or diagrams. Though logic could be stretched, it couldn’t
be violated. Codes of fair play between author and reader were composed in that
era by Carr (as an exposition by Dr. Fell in a chapter entitled “The Locked
Room Lecture” in the novel, “The
Three Coffins”), by Van Dine (in an essay entitled “Twenty rules for writing
detective stories”), and by the Detection Club (summarized by Ronald Knox as “Fair
Play Rules”). The solution to the mystery must be possible and the reader must,
with attention and mental exertion, be able to deduce it. Almost universally, these codices
required a disinterested investigator, someone who exhibited
psychological/emotional independence from suspects. Exceptions to this rule
were Chesterton’s Fr. Brown, who had a keen interest in souls, even criminal
souls, and Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who, along with his analytical mind, was
introspective and spiritual.
Most puzzle-plot mysteries took for granted the necessity of
a moral universe but, with the exception of Chesterton, coherent religious
faith was absent from most of these stories. These authors were more likely to
invoke the ancients or Enlightenment humanists for moral authority. Some of
these stories, indicative of this era and our own, suggested that science had,
or soon would have, the answer to every question about man.
Caricatures of the locales that existed at that time are a
delight to read today: Chesterton’s venues around the world, derr Biggers’
Honolulu and San Francisco, Queen’s upstate New York, Carr’s London/England,
Marsh’s New Zealand, Palmer’s and Queen’s early-days Hollywood, even Van Dine’s
“Gotham” are rich in historical and cultural detail, contemporaneous windows into a world that has vanished.
Fascinating subjects featured prominently in many of these
stories: Egyptology in Van Dine’s “The Scarab Murder Case”, the medical
sciences in Queen’s “The Dutch Shoe Mystery”, change ringing of bells in
Sayers’ “The Nine Tailors”, circus life and magicianry in Rawson’s “The
Headless Lady”, and haute cuisine in Stout’s “Too Many Cooks”. While not
rigorous examinations, readers could acquire a good layman’s understanding of
Humor featured prominently in some of these books,
especially Stout’s Nero Wolfe and some of Carr’s, derr Biggers’, Crispin’s, and
Sayers’ stories. Many passages in the Nero Wolfe stories are gut-splitting
It is a rare modern story that can match the best of that
era for twists, turns, and surprise endings. Carr’s “The Three Coffins” and “The
Judas Window”, Queen’s “The Greek Coffin Mystery”, Van Dine’s “The Bishop
Murder Case”, and Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” are mental feasts.
The authors of these stories were almost as interesting as
their plots. Van Dine was a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright, who
studied in Paris and Munich, and was a literary and art critic. Confined to bed
for two years, he devoured mystery stories and went on to write a dozen
puzzle-plots featuring the cultural aristocrat and bon vivant, Philo Vance
(played by William Powell in several films prior to his Thin Man roles). Carr
was an American who spent most of his adult life in England and whose eccentric
investigators, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, were caricatures of
Chesterton and Churchill. Derr Biggers was a Harvard graduate, humorist, and
playwright who based his detective, Charlie Chan, on a real-life
Chinese-Hawaiian police officer, Chang Apana. Ellery Queen was actually two
cousins, Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee, who were inspired by Van Dine and
his detective Vance. Then there was Sayers, who eventually put her
investigator, Lord Peter Wimsey, aside to focus on serious religious subjects.
Some of these writers “went modern” as years and decades
passed, but rarely did their stories improve, with their best work acknowledged
to be in this Golden Age. Queen’s
eponymous detective exhibited many of Philo Vance’s characteristics in the
early stories (1930s), but became an everyman with a gift for detection by the
1960s. An exception was Allingham, whose “Tiger in the Smoke” (published in
1952), though not a puzzle-plot, may be her best work.
Via the Internet, most of these Golden Age stories can be
readily acquired. There are exotic places to go, historic journeys to take, and
murderers to be revealed. In those books and in those
days, the game was always afoot.