The Queens of Crime Agatha Christie (whose books have sold something like a hundred million copies) started writing detective fiction whilst she was working as a nurse during World War I. Her first novel ( The Mysterious Affair at Styles , which introduced Hercule Poirot) was published in 1920 - notable as the 'puzzle story' that ushered in what is generally called the 'Golden Age' of detective fiction. Christie (pictured left) wrote over seventy more novels between then and her death in the 1970s; much that she wrote was adapted for stage and screen. Sharing Christie's 'Queen of Crime' title was another British writer, Dorothy L. Sayers. One of the first women to graduate from Oxford (1915 - as a medievalist), Sayers also started to write detective novels in the early 1920s. Several of her stories featured Montague Egg, but her most famous creation was Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman-scholar who first appeared in Whose Body? (1923). In contrast to the 'First Golden Age', this period (the interwar years of the 20s and 30s) was notable for the huge proliferation of novels and a decline in the popularity of the short story. Julian Symons, in Bloody Murder , relates this to the broad socio-economic changes that took place in the wake of the First World War. He emphasises particularly the creation of a new structure of domestic life, with women more leisured - and increasingly using their leisure to read books: 'Supply... followed their demand for reading that would reinforce their own view of the world and society - long, untroubling 'library novels', light romances, detective novels.' Critics have often called attention to the many aspects of interwar life that were excluded from the 'fairy-tale land' of Golden Age detective fiction: rapidly increasing unemployment, the General Strike of 1926, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rise of European dictatorships. The majority of those who wrote detective fiction during this period are associated with right-wing socio-political views - views summed up in the title of Colin Watson's study, Snobbery with Violence (1971). The usual critical judgement, then, is that the social vision of both Christie and Sayers (pictured left) is very conservative, and this is related to setting and character as well as to choice of subject matter: 'Country houses and/or upper-middle-class village communities may provide the satisfyingly manageable closed societies demanded by the form; they also purvey a typifying vision of British society as a whole strikingly at odds with many insistent realities of the interwar years...' (Martin Priestman, Crime Fiction ). The detective-figures operating within this cloistered environment can be seen as closely identified with the privileged classes: Christie's Miss Marple (see image right), for example, in contrast to the militant detective heroines of more recent crime fiction, is in many respects the embodiment sheltered, upper-middle-class English village life; of Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, Julian Symons says that it 'would be charitable to think that [Wimsey] was conceived as a joke but, unhappily, there is every indication that Sayers regarded him with an adoring eye. Lord Peter, the second son of the Duke of Denver, is a caricature of the English aristocrat conceived with an immensely snobbish, loving seriousness.' Lee Horsley, http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Classic%20Detective%20Fiction.html
The standard view of the uniformly insular and snobbish character of Golden Age detective fiction is challenged by Alison Light in Forever England . The bloodless, detached domestic murder story is, in her interpretation, a 'literature of convalescence,' read 'to forget,' to remove the threat of violence, and acting to reassure a nation ravaged by war. Is it right, Light asks, to see the whole body of this fiction simply as evidence of English middle class arrogance and national complacency? In particular she seeks to counter the critical tendency to patronise Christie, whose views she distinguishes from (for example) Sayers' 'sychophantic' flattery of the upper classes. Christie, she argues, manifests no such romantic conservatism: 'If they are ultimately defensive fictions, looking for an insider on whom to blame the apparent uncertainty of social life, then that same refusal to look beyond the Home Counties and their inhabitants for her psychic swindlers could surely open up for Christie's readers the unsettling implication that "it is the middle classes who are the murdering classes," and their victims are their own selves. The fiction may work in the end to offer "reassurance" but since her communities always thrive on suspicion their insecurities can never be resolved. Perhaps it is this contradiction which makes these fictions for many such compulsive reading...Should we not read the flood of whodunits between the wars not so much as a sign of the fixity of class assumptions but as symptomatic of their instability?' The mysteries of the Golden Age are often called 'cosy,' with reference to their resolved endings, the politeness of the language and conventional lightness of tone, their feminised investigators, and the circumscribed milieu in which they take place. The domestic scale of the action shuts out much that is disquieting in early twentieth- century politics and society. Under the surface, however, it is possible to discern deeper anxieties. Historically speaking, as recent critics have observed, Golden Age fiction can be seen as reacting against the bloodshed of war (Alison Light, Forever England 1991: 74-5): Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey (see image right), for example, is haunted by his experience of war, and the title of Sayers' first novel, Whose Body? (1923), can be seen as evoking 'the ubiquity and anonymity of death between the trenches...' (Charles Rzepka, Detective Fiction 2005: 164-7). As the Dowager Duchess says, 'he was so dreadfully bad in 1918, you know, and I suppose we can't expect to forget all about a great war in a year or two' (Sayers 1923: 135). The feminised detectives of the interwar years - Christie's Hercule Poirot (see poster left), Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey ... - can themselves, in their non-violence and their reliance on intuition and empathy, be seen as a reaction against the heroic male model of wartime endeavour. As Susan Rowland argues, "The detective in golden age fiction is a new hero for the post World War I traumatised landscape" (Rowland 2010: Blackwell Companion to Crime Fiction ). The trauma of a war-torn landscape is a great distance from the secluded confines of an English country house, and the formal closure of the narrative seems a guarantee of security, but there is much that makes the apparent calm illusory. - Lee Horsley, from The Blackwell Companion to Crime Fiction Lee Horsley, http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Classic%20Detective%20Fiction.html
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