The 1920’s and 1930’s were the golden age of the detective story. Many of the authors were British and it was a genre in which women excelled: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh were some of the most famous ones. Their detectives were Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Roderic Allen and others. Because of the affinity of the British for clever dilletantes, they tended to create amateur sleuths
whose skills were: knowledge of human nature, psychological insight and shrewd observation. The authors also loved to use misdirection, distraction, and legerdemain to impede the reader’s progress to the solution.
Because detective story writing is such a huge topic I have imposed restrictions and limits to the areas I am going to cover. Excluded from this presentation will be the many professional police crime solvers. Also absent will be the hard-boiled gum shoes created by American authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Those private eyes dealt with professional crime occurring in the streets of big cities.
So I am left with the “cozy” aspect of the genre which features certain settings such as the country manor, local hotel, and the rural village, and characters such as the village spinster, country vicar or local doctor. A favorite ploy of this kind of story telling is the “locked room mystery.” You are supposed to figure how a seemingly impossible murder did in fact occur. Since these were constructed as games or puzzles, the reader was actively encouraged to participate and the authors were supposed to facilitate his/her way by observing certain rules.
These were the 10 rules (slightly simplified here) which the London-based Detective Club came up with in 1930. Some will seem bizarre or dated:
1. The criminal must be mentioned early but cannot be someone whose thoughts we have been allowed to follow.
2. No supernatural agencies.
3. No more than one secret room or passage.
4. No esoteric poison or complicated appliance.
5. No Chinaman.(?)
Did they mean: no deus ex machina?
6. No accident must help the detective.
7. The detective cannot be the criminal.
8. The detective cannot hide clues from the reader.
9. The slightly-below-average-intelligence side kick (Captain Hastings?) must not hide his thoughts.
10. No twins or doubles.
Almost from the beginning some rules were transgressed, and much else has evolved too. There has been a shift towards merging the detective story with the mainstream novel and the detective tale has become a “crime story.” Authors like Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and George Simenon, though still dealing with murders, have inched closer to the psychological drama of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As they have done so, the stories have gotten longer.
The who, when and how have become incidental and the “why” took central stage. Often we know who committed the crime but go on reading because we need to discover what set him/her off, we need to understand the passion , terror, humiliation which resulted in this final action,. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret practically crawls into the skin of the murderer to feel what he felt. Ruth Rendell plunges into the family history, fears, insecurities and delusions of her characters and P.D.James probes deeply into the passions and unhappiness of her heroes. Their stories become deeper psychological studies.
The lines are now truly blurred and and that is probably a good development.