Puzzle-Plot Mysteries and Their Golden Age

Locked rooms…impossible crimes…whodunit?

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 writers.

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 these subjects.

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 funny.

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.

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About Thomas M. Doran 78 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.