The Golden Age for crime fiction


10 May 2024
Crime writer Louise Hare writes about the enduring appeal of the genre that will never die

Why are we still so in love with Golden Age crime? For me, it comes down to the pure escapism and the safety that they represent. There are rules to a Golden Age novel, particularly those originally written during that period, quite literally.

In 1929 Ronald Knox produced his ‘Ten Commandments’ outlining what was and wasn’t allowed in a detective story. There are no nasty surprises. The focus is on creating an ingenious plot and an engaging detective, particularly one who the readership will follow on over the course of several books. Murders are clever rather than gruesome, and the motives are rarely anything too sordid.

The modern version is the cosy crime novel. There’s nothing too gritty or unsavoury. Not much swearing. Not much sex. Just a page-turning yarn. Modern takes on this genre are booming sales wise, whether set historically during the period when the original Golden Age novels were being published (great for when you don’t want modern technology to hamper your plot!) or twenty first century takes on these familiar stories.

Locked room mysteries became particularly popular during the Golden Age period, with John Dickson Carr becoming a real master of the genre. His 1935 novel The Hollow Man often appears at the top of lists of the best locked room mysteries.

Following in those large footsteps comes Tom Mead, whose debut Death and the Conjuror was published just last year, with The Murder Wheel coming out later in 2023. Featuring the retired stage magician turned sleuth, Joseph Spector, the series is set in 1930s London, often with multiple locked room mysteries taking place at the same time. As well as capturing the atmosphere of the period, Mead’s plots are ingenious. His novels feel as though they could have been written at the time they were set, with meticulous attention to detail. Anyone who loves this type of story will be hooked immediately, trying to figure out which clues are important and which are red herrings!

Of course, there is also the option of literally treading the same path as those original writers. Sophie Hannah’s Poirot novels, for example. It’s a tricky assignment, taking the mantle on from the Queen of Crime, but with five hugely successful Poirot novels written over the past decade, it seems that Hannah hasn’t buckled under the weight of expectation. As a reader, someone who devoured Christie’s novels from a young age, it is a joy to not only revisit those familiar characters but, not to be overly contentious, to not have to encounter some of those ‘attitudes of the time’ that most of us now find difficult to read.

Taking on one of the greats but from a different angle, I love Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey series. Following that esteemed author, in each mystery Tey turns detective herself. Sometimes set in London, often on trips away as Josephine visits with friends or goes on holidays, these books are perfect escapism. However, they also explore the life of Josephine Tey and her friends. Upson also explores Tey’s sexuality, something that couldn’t have been written about at the time.

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For me, that is one of the reasons that I love reading historical fiction, to be able to talk about issues that were prohibited at the time. Tey’s romantic relationships in the book feel honest and true, based on research that Upson has done, via letters, interviews and by talking to people who knew her. Above all else, the stories are excellent, with engaging plots that satisfy the expectations of the genre.

Modern cosy crime is also all the rage. From the celebrity pens such as Richard Osman and Richard Coles, to those firmly established writers such as Anthony Horowitz and the late great M.C. Beaton, these are books that are flying off the shelves and then being beamed into our living rooms via the ubiquitous TV adaptations.

As a long-time devotee of the Agatha Raisin books, I am well able to suspend my disbelief at the number of murders taking place in one small area of the Cotswolds (still nowhere near the Midsummer death count!). I also love the interactions between the fictional Atticus Pund and literary agent Susan Ryeland in Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and  Moonflower Murders, not to mention his extreme meta series featuring himself investigating murders alongside private detective Daniel Hawthorne.

It’s easy to see that the Golden Age influence is nowhere near dying down. Many genres go in and out of fashion but there’s always a magnetic draw to these cosier crimes. Pure escapism where bad things might happen but even murder will always be reconciled in a satisfactory way. From the super traditional to the more adventurous iterations of the detective novel, I look forward to seeing which sleuths will be grabbing our attention next. 

Harlem After Midnight by Louise Hare is published in paperback by HQ (£9.99)


Read how Amanda Reynolds turns the cosy Cotswolds into crime scenes in her crime novels