Beyond Bestsellers: Golden Age Mysteries

by Jennifer K.

Come Back to the Golden Age

My father is a book collector. He used to take me to used book stores, where we would hunt the stacks for first editions of Golden Age detective stories.

Mysteries of the Golden Age (the 1920s through the 1940s, with a few outliers before and after) vary widely in quality and setting, but they exhibit some common characteristics: the murder takes place in an isolated setting, limiting the number of suspects; the detective is preternaturally brilliant; the clues mislead. Crime in a Golden Age mystery tends to be staged like a play or a puzzle, designed to pique the reader rather than to portray how actual crime happens. You could criticize them for being mannerly and artificial.

To me, Golden Age detective stories are superb comfort reads, and not just because they recall afternoons of discussing books with my dad. They present a fundamentally just world, in which mysteries will always be solved. Murderers, however fiendishly clever, will always get caught. Anarchy is unloosed upon the world, but in the end, the wobbling sphere is set back upon its axis, the center holds, and peace and order are affirmed.

Agatha Christie is the undisputed sovereign of the Golden Age. She perfected the rules and conventions of her genre, and then she demonstrated her mastery by breaking them. If for some reason you haven’t read Christie, you can dip in to her catalog anywhere: all of her 66 mysteries are good and most are brilliant. My favorites include A Murder Is Announced, And Then There Were None, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, and the fiendish The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Dorothy L. Sayers is, in my opinion, not only the greatest Golden Age mystery writer, but the greatest mystery writer of all time, ever, period. Her detective, an effete blond nobleman named Lord Peter Wimsey, solves crime while indulging in Wodehousian banter with his valet, Bunter. I love Murder Must Advertise, in which Lord Peter goes undercover to solve a murder in a London ad agency. Or, if you’re feeling romantic, read the sequence of books, starting with Strong Poison, which chronicle Peter’s rocky relationship with Harriet Vane. But really, you just ought to read them all.

John Dickson Carr is my father’s favorite Golden Age mystery writer, the one we stalked through dusty used book store shelves. Carr was the master of the locked-room mystery, in which the murder seems to be impossible: the crime took place in a room, locked on the inside. You won’t guess how the murderer got in. Unfortunately, Carr is largely forgotten today, but you can find two of his puzzling short stories (one written under his pseudonym, Carter Dickson) in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.

Other authors of the Golden Age include Rex Stout, G.K. Chesterton, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, and Georges Simenon. Enjoy them all, and tell us about your favorites in the comments!

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9 responses to “Beyond Bestsellers: Golden Age Mysteries”

  1. Susan N says:

    I’m such a fan of Golden Age mysteries. My parents also “got me hooked” on Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. I enjoyed all of the authors mentioned except George’s Simenon…never a fan of Maigret.

  2. vickiefinn says:

    I had so much required reading through school that I couldn’t find a genre I actually liked for myself. I read my dads scifi and occasionally my grandpas westerns, didn’t like biographies which mom read. However, when finally allowed to pleasure read, the mysteries and crime fighting got me hooked. Now I read almost everything. I did get to enjoy Ellery Queen magazines many years ago.

  3. Lisa Pingree says:

    I have so enjoyed Ngaio Marsh’s books. She has a wonderful way of creating believable characters, with sly humor. I can actually see the characters she is portraying, their gestures and facial expressions. I’m so glad she’s so prolific. I truly think she’s deserving of a wider audience, she’s that good. My favorite author that few have heard of!!

  4. Liz M. says:

    I agree with your take on Dorothy L. Sayers as being the best. I remember writing about her in a college paper, and also a time when I re-read her novels all at once. I’ve also enjoyed Agatha Christie very much, and just recently spent some time discussing her different books with my son. Now I want to try some others authors that you list!
    Jennifer K., this is a wonderful post; so informative, and you have a wonderful turn of phrase. A joy to read.

  5. Jennifer K. says:

    Liz M., you’re obviously a discerning reader with excellent taste in all things! (Note: I have NO IDEA who Liz M. is.)

  6. Lindsey says:

    After watching the 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None, I really want to dive into Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Thanks for all the great golden age recommendations! I’m fairly new to mysteries so I really appreciate it.

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