Detective Fiction Flourishing In The Golden Age

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Literature has always been adaptive to change; new eras meant new circumstances; and new circumstances meant new genres. Each and every literary movement started as a reaction to a one before, like the Romantic Movement that was a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the Modern era was a reaction to the Victorian age, and so forth. The twentieth century witnessed the birth of a new genre that is concerned with criminology and psychology, a genre that existed before, but was not recognised by readership or critics. There were so many psychological as well as societal factors that helped in the shaping and rising of detective fiction and its prominence amongst other genres. Some of these factors are to be examined and looked upon in this paper in order to provide a clearer understanding of the era and the genre. Detective fiction’s dependence on logic and reason, the psychological, individualistic approach to the genre, and the readership’s response to the flourishing of the genre are subject to be discussed in this paper.

This research will also examine external resources like ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories’, ‘What Makes Great Detective Fiction According to T.S Eliot?’ commenting on the phenomena and some books like Guilty but Insane: Mind and Law in Golden Age Detective Fiction. The paper also focuses on how relatable were detective narratives in the twentieth century to people’s lives taking into account the circumstances people underwent due to the wars and catastrophes that had a great impact on the genre.

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My sources are going to consist mostly of literary texts by Doyle and Christie for they are widely recognised authors and perfect theoretical texts of detective fiction, by examining clear and straightforward quotes from both writers, I am going to illustrate more on the concept of detective fiction and its flourishing reasons.

The issue of a case standing in the court was of big importance in the twentieth century fiction, observations and logical interpretations had to be offered to the readership for people now are more aware of logic and reasoning, and their analysis of any situation depended more on reason rather than the extraordinary or the superstitious. Doyle explains this act of observation and differentiates it from seeing. His famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, explains to his companion, Doctor Watson, how these two acts are different. When asked how many stairs they have, Watson fails to provide an answer and Holmes states that “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” (Doyle 4)

Holmes’s observations show how adequate and logical the explanations had to be, the common readership could not expect something less from an extraordinary, smart detective. Detectives in the twentieth century had to be extraordinarily smart for they had the duty of outsmarting the criminal, alongside with providing a logical plot that could “stand in court.” “The issue of whether a case will be able to stand up in court is essential in golden age fiction, especially in those numerous novels in which outré, complex, and highly unlikely crimes take place.” (Walton 7) This essentiality was due to people’s increased level of awareness and the tendency towards scientific method explanation, people’s interaction with technology and the Industrial Revolution led to a better observing skill, and to critical thinking skills being enhanced.

Details are important in detective fiction for the detective must have a high sense of them. In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, detective Poirot manages to reveal the lieutenant is the actual thief after being requested to find out who stole the valuable piece from the church. His attention to details enables him to detect the real criminal easily, although such crimes usually seem perfect, yet paying attention to the details along with logical observations lead to solving them. Detective Poirot notices the traces of a military shoe affecting the wall of the crime scene: the suspects being a priest, an Imam, and a Rabbi would not wear such shoes for they are living in asceticism, so the only logical suspect left for the detective is the lieutenant. These features of a case were necessary in twentieth-century detective fiction for it required reasoning and intelligence to solve the crimes.

Doyle’s Holmes is also an extraordinarily smart detective for he interprets signs and details logically. In The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, Holmes manages to detect the secret of Lady Simon’s sudden disappearance by questioning her husband, Lord Simon, and interpreting the signs and hints like the note she received, her mood swing, and the strange man at the wedding. Such remarks were tolerable and relevant in everyday life in England and the readership could easily relate to them. Another example can be seen in Holmes’s plan to reveal the place of the portrait in A Scandal in Bohemia where the king of Bohemia assigns Holmes to reveal the place of the portrait Irene Adler has and was threatening him with. Holmes came up with a simple yet brilliant plan where he has Lady Irene reveal the place herself by a false fire alarm. Holmes tells his plan to Doctor Watson by the end to satisfy the readership and offer a logical illustration. Holmes states that;

It was all important. When a woman thinks her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing she values the most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it. A married woman grabs her baby, an unmarried one reaches for her jewel box. Now it was clear to me that our lady of to-day had nothing in the house more precious to her than what we are in quest of. (Doyle 11)

Holmes, besides being a clever detective, is also an expert in psychology. Reverse psychology is a tool he uses to reveal the crimes, analysing traumas and problems of the criminals to reach a conclusion. Studying the potential motives and exploit them as pressure tools to solve a crime is what Holmes employes cleverly in his quests.

Detective fiction relied heavily on psychology, the tendency to analyse and study the human mind prevailed in the twentieth century; due to the emergence and rise of psychoanalysis, its focus on the individual, and the mysterious way in which the mind works, detective fiction was widely welcomed by readership for its novel approach of examining the human condition, and for the sense of suspense it provided. Detectives in texts used psychological interpretations to understand the possible motives of the crime, the body language to try to interpret the criminal and the other characters, and trace the characters’ background that might help revealing facts.

In his “Why do people read detective stories (Wilson)”, Edmund Wilson argues that, “So I have read also the new Agatha Christie, “Death Comes as the End” (Dodd, Mead), and I confess that I have been had by Mrs. Christie. I did not guess who the murderer was, I was incited to keep on and find out, and when I did finally find out, I was surprised’’ (Wilson) This incitement comes as a result of the human mind’s aptness to understand mysteries, to reveal facts, to despise suspense, and to appeal to solutions rather than mysticism. Wilson also comments in his article on the creation of characters and their relevance to everyday life stating that;

In this new novel she has to provide herself with puppets who will be good for three stages of suspense: you must first wonder who is going to be murdered, you must then wonder who is committing the murders, and you must finally be unable to foresee which of two men the heroine will marry. It is all like a sleight-of-hand trick, in which the magician diverts your attention from the awkward or irrelevant movements that conceal the manipulation of the cards, and it may mildly amuse and amaze you, as such a sleight-of-hand performance may.

Which also shows how psychologically grounded and dependent was detective fiction.

Material evidence was a powerful tool to reveal the truth, yet, the act of plunging into the criminal’s psyche is, in fact, what plays the major role of the case. Poe’s Dupin is a clear example of how crucial it is to understand the psyche of the criminal: Dupin comments on the way he tries to find the letter in The Purloined Letter saying;

When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is anyone, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression. (Poe, 8)

Dupin’s clever method of putting himself in the criminal’s shoe to know his way of thinking and understand it comes from a psychological attempt of putting on the criminal’s expressions, the attempt fails. However, it is still a clever attempt in an age when psychoanalysis was still a mystery, an experimental philosophical leap that proves no good, but paves the way for other experiments. Peter Hūhn in his The Detective as Reader states that;

The analogy of the detective’s activities to sign-interpretation, meaning-formation, and story-telling may provide new clues not only to reasons for the popularity of the genre with particular groups of readers but also to the social and psychological function of narrative in certain sections of our culture. (Hühn, 453)

This analogy constitutes an image in the reader’s mind, links the dots, and functions as a virtual reality that the reader can experience.

Another psychological approach to detective fiction is the detailed description of the setting, influenced by the Realism Movement, detective fiction provides a detailed, realistic imagery that the reader can relate to easily. Holmes’s description of Lady Adler’s place in A Scandal in Bohemia is so detailed that any British person would identify with the place. Holmes says:

I soon found Briony Lodge. It is bijou villa, with a garden at the back, but built out in front right up to the road, two stories. Chubb lock to the door. Large sitting room to the right side, well furnished, with long windows almost to the floor, and those preposterous English window fasteners which a child could open. Behind there was nothing remarkable, save that the passage window could be reached from the top of the coach house.

This description made the genre more acceptable to people as they could relate to it.

Descriptions were not only exclusive to the settings; characters as well had their share of fair description in order to create an image of them. Doctor Watson’s description of the King of Bohemia suggests that the person who has just entered is a king;

A man entered who could hardly have been less than six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules. His dress was rich with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as a kin to bad taste. Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with flame coloured silk and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended half way up his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence which was suggested by his whole appearance. He carried abroad-brimmed hat in his hand, while he wore across the upper part of his face, extending down past the cheek bones, a black vizard mask, which he had apparently adjusted that very moment, for his hand was still raised to it as he entered. From the lower part of the face he appeared to be a man of strong character, with a thick, hanging lip, and a long, straight chin suggestive of resolution pushed to the length of obstinacy. (Doyle 5)

These detailed descriptions made detective fiction a successful genre and widely recognised among the readership, which will take me eventually to my final point about the readership’s response to the genre.

Detective fiction was widely welcomed among the audience, who would refuse a thrilling piece eventually? This sense of thrill was established because of the role play the reader had to do. Detective fiction was demanding of an engaging reader who would role play the detective and try to solve the crime before the end of the story. Readers’ role plays and engagement with the text had to be played fair: “A key tenet of Golden Age detection was ‘fair play’—the idea that an attentive reader must in theory have as good a shot at solving the mystery as the story’s detective” (Grimstad). Grimstad here relates the success of the detective narrative to its simplicity, its logic, and its endurance of the readers’ attempts to solve the crime. However, this concept of logic, simplicity, and endurance might not apply to all pieces, for some of the narratives contain unexpected turn of events like Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” that involves a murder carried out by a venomous snake trained to go through a heating pipe that reaches the victim’s bed through a bell rope. Such narratives are very unlikely to predict, yet very unlikely to be written.

One of the themes of the present study is that, particularly in detective fiction, the realisation of any text is directed by the syn-thesis of reading experience, which Husserl calls ‘retentions’ (memories, recollections), with present perceptions and expectations, Husserl’s ‘protentions’. The reader moving through the text develops a store not only of isolated recollections of events and impressions but of rules, structures, conventions, ethics, and the like (retentions), which become the reader’s perception of the genre and which intervene in future expectations of texts (protentions). This influence is especially strong in the reading of a genre like detective fiction, with its conventional usages and its constant reiterations of narrative material like variations on a familiar theme. Instead of being bored by these almost endless repetitions, the reader feels comfort and security within a framework of familiar expectations. (Dove, 51)

The feeling of security detective narrative provides stems from the reader’s assurance that the case will be solved by the end, even if the reader was unable to solve it, yet they continue reading to fill their feeling of loss, to direct their energy in a direction that simulates their minds, and to enhance their critical skills.

Well apart from being a cracking good read, in crime fiction we know that generally speaking justice will be done and the case will be resolved and that doesn’t always happen in real life. In crime fiction the villain either gets caught or gets his/her come uppance but in real life the evil and manipulative, the guilty can get away with it as in the case of the unsolved murder in my own family in 1959 that of my great aunt, Martha Giles.’’

The catastrophes people suffered through the wars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created endless traumas, they have lost their faith in justice, and their belief in humanity; so detective fiction came as a relief to remind people that justice can still be achieved, that no bad deed is perfectly done, and that everyone shall get justice sooner or later. The feeling of security detective fiction provided gave people motivation to read it, and popularised it through the world. Not only were the English fascinated by detective fiction, but also other nations like Arabs with examples like “Death on the Nile” and “They Came to Baghdad,” but these novels were only recognised in the region for linguistic reasons.

I come to conclude that the twentieth century marked a turning point in the history of literature, the twentieth century was a new, changing era and brought into existence new form and genres of literary texts. So many factors took a major part in establishing and popularising detective fiction like the emergence of psychoanalysis, the catastrophes and crimes people witnessed, and their relevance to everyday life. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a character we can all relate to his reasoning and logic, and Christie’s Poirot is also a detective that teaches us the foundations of reasoning. The places mentioned in these texts are also relatable for the common readership, and the justice fulfilment they saw there satisfied their thirst for justice and demand on equity


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