The patriarch of an ancient manor house is found stabbed, face-down in his turtle soup! Luckily, a detective is taking a holiday in the village! Was it the overprotective nurse? The shifty-looking scientist? The debt-ridden daughter with Communist tendencies? No! It was the actress’s friend who is actually the illegitimate son and heir, and incidentally also the leader of a notorious band of jewel thieves!
Golden Age detective fiction (1920-1950) straddled a weird time in English society. Hemlines were up! The stock market was up! Minorities and women…existed! And the genre of the murder mystery was still trying to figure itself out. It was certainly a different flavor of fish from the Victorian detective thriller of 30 years earlier. Read today, many Sherlock Holmes mysteries are actually adventure stories, or even straight-up novels, with solutions that rely on facts hidden from the reader until the big reveal. They are plot-driven, not problem-driven. I mean, the ghost is actually a dog painted in phosphorus? When phosphorus has never been mentioned before? Really? By modern standards it’s all very Scooby Doo.
So Golden Age fiction stories occupied a strange in-between time period. They weren’t quite adventure stories with daring rooftop chases and duels, but they weren’t just sentimental novels where lovers defied all odds for a chaste embrace. And they weren’t supernatural thrillers (although occasionally they became the opposite, morphing into dry mental puzzles with cryptography and word games). Authors like Christie, Sayers, and Allingham tried a mix of everything, and by the mid-20’s a genre had emerged. It wasn’t Noir, it wasn’t Romance, it wasn’t Action Adventure, it wasn’t Horror – it was Mystery.
Golden Age mysteries have a specific, predictable template that allows readers to expect a specific predictable rhythm (this is pulp fiction after all – enjoyable, disposable, repeatable). A group of upper-class people come together. A body is found. The suspects react with horror. One-by-one they’re all discovered to have motives and opportunity. Then the prime suspect is proved to be a red herring (usually when a second body is found). Finally, the detective has a big reveal.
And then…the 50’s happened. The rise of post-WW2 technological advancement and social change made the classic murder mystery impractical. So many of the tropes it relied upon just didn’t make sense anymore – they required an audience steeped in turn-of-the century stereotypes for their ‘gotcha’ moment. It was the end of an age.
Any mention of someone having been an actor in their past automatically means they’re not who they claim.
The Victorian stigma against entertainers made a convenient excuse why someone would keep their past ‘on the stage’ a secret, while still providing a hint that they might successfully impersonate another character. But by the 1950’s, Hollywood glamor had confused the occupation’s class sigma, and this one stopped making sense.
A corpse with the face smashed in means someone is attempting to conceal the victim’s identity
Bad car accident, a fire, a fall where the body just happens to land on its face…An unrecognizable or missing head automatically means an attempt to disguise identity. But with the rise of blood-typing, fingerprinting, and later DNA testing, this just stopped being a thing.
Dentists. Any mention of a dentist means the victim’s identity isn’t what the reader thinks it is
Like ‘corpse with the face smashed in’, it always means that dental records for two people have been switched to conceal the identity of a victim. So…this just is no longer relevant.
Stopped clocks always show an incorrect time of death
A smashed clock is a great way for the plodding local police to incorrectly establish time of death, clearing the way for the detective to point out that the time has been re-set to confuse authorities. The end of hand-wound clocks finished this trope fast enough. Also, as upper-level policing became more white-collar it became less acceptable to portray them as being so dumb.
Foreigners are always red herrings
Golden Age mysteries love to use the reader’s own racism against them. One common plot is to make a German or Chinese character the prime suspect, with exotic political or religious motivations, and then prove that they were actually set up by some blue-blood Englishman doing it for the sordid cash payout. The rise of a more global community ended this one when people started realizing it was just as racist to believe that only the British were capable of crimes.
Cliche: Communists are silly
As characters, Golden Age Communists are usually spiteful, pimply young men, under-educated and eaten up with sour grapes, using their racy politics in an attempt to impress the daughter of the manor. Then the Cold War kicked in, and suddenly everyone started taking Communists a lot more seriously.
Fingerprints don’t exist
It’s not that Golden Age detectives don’t know about fingerprinting – by the 20’s it was a standard part of police procedure – it’s just that there never are any. “It was wiped clean” is the refrain in every single novel ever. Or the weapon was dropped in a pool. Or the fingerprints were added afterwords to make it look like suicide. Or the texture was wrong. Or…but you get the idea. I suspect by the 1950’s the public may have realized it was unlikely that not a single useful fingerprint had ever been found, anywhere, ever, and gave this one up.
Moral murderers all have lethal diseases that will kill them in a matter of months
Was the murder a revenge for the horrible crime that the victim themselves committed twenty years earlier? Was the murder done to stop the victim from ruining the life of an innocent young beauty through their dastardly blackmail? Well then, you can bet that the murderer just happens to have been given only a few months left to live in any case, thus relieving the detective of the responsibility of exposing them. But the simple morality of the 20’s didn’t last into the more complicated world of the 50’s and 60’s. Good and bad suddenly became less clear-cut.
Media of today could learn a valuable lesson from Golden Age detective fiction: holding on to the tropes and stereotypes from an earlier age always hamstrings the story. At the very least it makes the writers seem out of touch with their readership. That doesn’t mean it’s necessary to turn every piece of literature into a whirlwind tour of the latest inventions and moral philosophy, but it does mean staying true to what the characters might actually be feeling and doing. Tropes are helpful building blocks for fitting a piece of media into a specific genre, but too often they turn into a lazy writer’s shorthand. Might I suggest reconsidering the following common tropes in media.
Answering machines that record incoming messages out loud
Yes, it’s a great way for the wrong person to overhear a private message, but who actually owns an answering machine? Is it likely your hip young 20-something characters would? Really? The kind that records on tape, out loud to an empty house? While it’s true that about half of US homes still have old-fashioned landlines, that number is very heavily skewed towards the elderly. Unless your screenplay is about geriatric patients whose kids set up their answering system in the late 80’s, ditch it.
No one has a cellphone.
They left it at home. It’s out of battery. It’s out of minutes. It’s out of range. They refuse to buy one. They dropped it in a toilet. Or in extreme cases, the monster just happens to emit a cellphone signal-dampening field (funny how that happens). If you’re writing about characters who would probably have a working cellphone, give them a bloody working cellphone. If its existence messes up your modern-day plot, there’s something wrong with the plot.
Cliche: Teenagers watching a TV news broadcast
In days gone by this was a great method of exposition – the TV in the background would just happen to run a piece about the escaped criminal who would attack our hero in the next scene. A majority of Americans do still get some news from the TV, but who are they? Probably not anyone under 35. In fact, do they even watch broadcast TV? If they have a Netflix account, chances are no. If your hero is a teenager, reconsider.
Finding an incriminating scrapbook of newspaper articles related to a crime
First of all, did anyone ever do this? Save every scrap of information about something horrible they’re trying desperately to forget? Probably not, but at least up until the year 2000 it was technically conceivable as a plot device. This isn’t a thing anymore. Someone stumbling across an incriminating Google News search history, maybe. Paper news, nope.
Scientists must be punished for their hubris
In the 80’s, science or technology was shorthand for the soulless progress that would soon destroy our souls. In fact, ‘spirituality beats science’ was a real favorite for a solid decade there. In this trope, a scientist tries to attempt something new and cool, then is is immediately killed by their creation. Usually in an ironic way, after saying something like “I have become an invincible god!!!11!”. It’s true that anti-intellectualism is still a thing, but in today’s STEM-desperate academia, it’s hard to imagine those poor scientists with any power at all. Between the politics of tenure and bloody battles for a dwindling funding supply, there just isn’t time to take over the world. Our stereotype of a power-mad megalomaniac would be much better embodied through a mad banker or crazy start-up dude.
When a genre times out, there’s nothing to do but update it and move on. In time the more thrilling Golden Age mystery works turned into spy fiction, and the more cerebral became police procedurals. Both are totally legit forms of literature, and both will probably give way in turn as their own tropes become irrelevant.
Already we can see some of it happening. It would be great to think that the police give 200% like the Detectives of CSI, sacrificing their personal lives, challenging their superiors and putting their reputations on the line against an uncaring bureaucracy for what they know is right every time…but that’s just not the way the system is set up. Nor would it really be realistic for them to do so. The medical procedural, a literary offshoot of the police procedural, suffers from the same problem: Modern medical law and insurance policy just can’t realistically reward, or often even allow, the type of above-and-beyond compassion and medical largess we see on shows like House.
These tropes haven’t timed out just yet, but they will given time. And when they do, we have to be willing to leave them and move on. The murderer can’t always be the debonaire heir to the family fortune. We must admit, at least to ourselves, that sometimes the guilty party really is a Communist German sympathizer with an accidentally smashed watch. And a working cellphone.
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