Cozy. Edgy. True-Crime. Procedurals. Hard-boiled. The mystery genre keeps changing and diversifying over time, but what is it about Golden Age stories that brings true fans back, over and over?
To start with, they’re just fun.
Waltzing with Lord Peter in a claret-colored frock (“Chateau Margaux 1893 or thereabouts”); narrowly escaping Murder by Horse, aided by a band of Gypsies and a Professor of Archaeology; navigating the swaying corridors of the Orient Express, watching a Harlequin dive from the top of a fountain, or smelling the roses in St. Mary Mead – that’s my idea of a great vacation. The world created by Allingham, Sayers, Marsh and Christie is lush, unpredictable and more than a bit mad.
That world was always removed from ordinary life, but by today’s standards it might as well be Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden. In a society more strict than our own, small differences and transgressions become important “tells” about character. The language of human behavior becomes more expressive by having a complex grammar and vocabulary. Young ladies didn’t need to “twerk” in order to raise eyebrows – all they had to do was wear trousers or pursue an education.
The stories are escapism, even for the authors. Dorothy Sayers wrote that she made Lord Peter so immensely rich as a vicarious thrill:
After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.
Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul.
But there’s more – a story that is all thrill and no substance doesn’t hold up to the multiple re-readings we Golden Age fans often lavish on our favorites. When I look at the patterns of classic mystery, I see themes that resonate.
Evil begets evil- it is never isolated to a single decision or event, but spreads in ripples and takes a toll on everyone it touches.
Justice is limited and imperfect, but vital to restore balance and make life possible for those who must move forward. Ultimately, Justice will prevail.
The difficult things, that don’t seem to fit, are actually keys to a deeper enlightenment. The path to understanding people and events is through observation and contemplation.
Someday, the mysteries of life and other people’s inscrutable motives will all make sense.
The things that are confusing and painful to us now have reasons, and the One who knows the answers will explain it to us at the end.
Suspense is all about tension – the tensions of character and plot, but on another level, these tensions among social convention and transgression; justice and evil; escapism and philosophy, make the whole genre as addictive as chocolate, without the calories.
What do you love about the world of classic mysteries?