They Paved the Way For Generations*

Briding the GapThe Golden Age of detective fiction is usually thought to have come to an end during the 1940s, although people do disagree on exactly how long the era lasted. And we can all think of authors who represent that era and novels that reflect it.

Of course, the Golden Age didn’t end all of a sudden, and there are still highly-regarded novels being written today that maintain some of the Golden Age traditions. And, beginning in about the middle of the 20th Century, there was a group of authors who took some of those traditions and brought them into the modern age. There are several authors whose work falls into this category; I’ll just mention a few.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series is one example. As fans will know, these novels are mainly ‘whodunits’ in the Golden Age tradition. There’s a primary sleuth and his sidekick, and there’s a set of suspects. These are in many ways intellectual mysteries too. That said though, these really aren’t ‘pure’ Golden Age novels. For one thing, Dexter used more modern police procedure and the novels acknowledge then-contemporary social attitudes. So they have a more modern ‘feel’ to them. What’s more, there’s more character depth in this series than there is in some Golden Age series. To put it another way, one could argue that this series bridged the gap between the Golden Age and modern crime fiction.

So did Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. Beginning in 1965 with Roseanna, the ten-novel series offered intellectual puzzles and ‘whodunits,’ just as Goden Age series did. So in that sense, the novels preserve a bit of the Golden Age tradition. At the same time, the authors arguably bridged several gaps between Golden Age crime fiction and modern crime fiction. For example, the Martin Beck series includes story arcs that depict the police officers’ private lives as well as the cases they investigate. So instead of seeing just the ‘cop side’ of a detective (e.g. Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp), readers get a more complete perspective on the investigators as people. There’s also the fact that the authors use the series in part to discuss their own political agenda. Certainly one can spot political points of view in Golden Age crime fiction, but it’s made much clearer in this series.

Ruth Rendell’s work also bridges the gap between Golden Age crime fiction and contemporary crime fiction. Like Golden Age novels, the stories in her Inspector Wexford series focus a lot on the ‘whodunit’ of crime. And in other ways too, the mysteries have some aspects of the traditional sort of crime novel. And yet, this series also has the hallmarks of more modern crime fiction as well. There’s a great deal of emphasis on character development, and an interest in psychological as well as other kinds of motives for murder. There’s also a rich set of story arcs involving Wexford’s private life as well as his life as a detective. This series arguably has elements of both Golden Age crime fiction and contemporary crime fiction.

So does Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. In one sense, this police procedural series reflects the Golden Age ‘hardboiled’ novel. The endings of the stories aren’t always happy, and there is some blunt violence. Some of them do have a real ‘hardboiled noir‘ feel about them. But this series also reflects more contemporary crime fiction as well. We see more modern-style story arcs and attention paid to the personal lives of the members of the 87th. There are also more contemporary themes and underlying motives, which makes sense when you consider that the series continued into the early 21st Century. Among other things, this series arguably moved ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction into the modern age and more importantly, helped carve out the role that the police procedural would play in it.

These are of course just a few examples of series that bridged the gap between Golden Age crime novels and modern crime novels. I know you’ll have at hand many others. They’ve been responsible for a lot of innovation in the genre.


One name that belongs on that list is P.D. James. She wrote many novels; I’ll just focus on her Adam Dalgliesh series. In one sense, we see Golden Age crime fiction reflected in her work. Dalgliesh for instance has sometimes been called ‘the last of the gentleman detectives.’ Beginning with Cover Her Face, this series has included many ‘whodunits,’ and a few mysteries that are reminiscent of the ‘impossible-but-not-really’ sort of crime. In other ways too we see the impact of the Golden Age. But James also helped give the crime novel a modern identity as well. We see that in the character development, the story arcs, the use of more modern police procedure and technology, the exploration of social issues and other factors.

Along with her Dalgliesh novels and other crime fiction, James was a strong force ‘behind the scenes’ as well. And her non-fiction book Talking About Detective Fiction is just one sample of her wealth of knowledge and experience. James passed away yesterday, 27 November 2014. Her loss is deeply felt. Her impact on crime fiction has been enormous, and her influence on other crime writers considerable. She will be sorely missed. This post is dedicated to her memory.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chaka Khan, Arif Mardin, Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli’s And the Melody Still Lingers On (Night in Tunisia).


Filed under Colin Dexter, Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, Maj Sjöwall, P.D. James, Per Wahlöö, Ruth Rendell

28 responses to “They Paved the Way For Generations*

  1. So long Phyllis. Only met her the once, October last year in Dublin. A very charming, intelligent, funny, down-to-earth 93-year-old. She was very good about poisons. And Austen.

  2. Great post, Margot. I saw P.D. James in interview at the Harrogate Crime Festival a few years ago. She was charming, erudite and sharp as a tack.

  3. PD James was one of the first mystery writers I read when I was younger. She has been a real influence on my writing. What a nice post.

  4. Excellent post,Margot. P.D. James retained her sharpness to the last days of her life, and that’s rather wonderful. One of the greats.

  5. She certainly became a dominant force among modern mystery writers, Margot. Personally, I prefer her early Dalgliesh books to her later work, but that’s purely my own taste, and she certainly championed today’s mysteries which are dominated and driven by character and psychology rather than puzzle. Her non-fiction look at detective fiction, Talking About Detective Fiction is an interesting look at the genre, and if I disagree with some of her conclusions (which I do), her arguments are lively, honest and engaging. It is wonderful that she remained sharp and alert right to her last days. And, as you and all here have noted, she will be missed.

    • Les – She certainly was an important influence. As you say, one doesn’t have to have agreed with her on all points to respect her talent and her perspective. And I always appreciated that she understood that some of today’s mysteries may not be like GA stories, but have their own very high value. It is a good thing indeed that she contributed to the world in general and crime fiction in particular right up to the end. The genre is better for it.

  6. Great tribute post Margot. I liked that she took her place in the world without either false modesty or pushiness. She put a proper value on herself. I didn’t agree with her opinions on various subjects, but would always respect her.

    • Thank you, Moira. You put that very well, too: she understood her own value as a writer and as a contributor to the genre without arrogance or false modesty. One doesn’t have to have taken her point of view on everything to respect her talent and her knowledge.

  7. Wonderful post, Margot, and a beautiful tribute to a lovely author. She will be missed greatly.

  8. Col

    Great post Margot. I’ve not read her and in all honesty probably won’t but she’s been enjoyed by many.

    • Col – Thanks. I don’t know that her work would really be up your street, to be honest. But you can’t really deny her influence or her appeal to a lot of people.

  9. These new age writers are the ones I love most. I can relate to the society they speak of more than the post-Edwardian society of the thirties

  10. Lovely tribute, Margot. I’ve always had a tendency to think of PD James as one the Golden Age authors, but more because I read them all at the same time in my youth. She, of course, was at the beginning of her long career then, and quickly became one of the authors whose books I waited for and read as soon as they came out. She lived to see her permanent place in the canon of the greats assured, and that must have been a source of pleasure and pride to her.

    • FictionFan – I think it probably was. She certainly established a permanent place for herself among crime fiction’s best-regarded authors, and I’m glad she got the credit while she was still alive. And thanks for the kind words.

  11. Good point about the so-called ‘Golden Age’ because so many of the practitioners from the 20s and 30s like Christie, Carr, Marsh and Stout were of course still publishing in the 70s and 80s after all. Dexter is a glorious example of the puzzle story brought in line with the police procedural and i think Robert Barnard is another author who, like James and Rendell, was not afraid to experiment but who understood and appreciated the rules of the classic whodunit – thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – I think you’re quite right about Barnard. I actually don’t think he always gets the attention he ought to get. His work really is a nice example of the conventions of the whodunit with enough innovation to make it interesting. I’m glad you filled in that gap. And you’re right; Dexter fused the ‘puzzle’ with the police procedural expertly.

  12. Wonderful post, Margot and a great tribute to P.D. James.

  13. Reblogged this on sweatingthewriting and commented:
    Brilliant topic!

  14. Great topic, Margot, sorry I missed it earlier. You listed a group of authors I love to read and re-read. I am just getting acquainted with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Ed McBain. And I think Robert Barnard is a great example too, as suggested by Sergio.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I’m glad you’ve started to get acquainted with the Martin Beck series. In my opinion, that series is required reading for crime fiction fans. And I think Sergio is right about Barnard, too.

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