The Golden Age Detective Stories

This is an abridged version of the article Reading the Golden Age that originally appeared in our Fall 2020 Quarterly.

Who murdered ____?  Is it the estranged relative?  The thwarted lover? The embittered neighbor?  But the more immediate question for you, dear reader: what mystery to read?

Let me introduce you to some of the great authors of the Golden Age, and one of their successors.  But what is the Golden Age?  Reaching from the 1920s – 1930s, the Golden Age was a heyday for the mystery genre, though it’s more of a starting point than a definitive decade.  Some golden age authors continued to write beyond the 1930s, and G. K. Chesteron began a decade earlier.     

G. K. Chesterton sketch

G. K. Chesterton

Unassuming Father Brown solves baffling and grotesque mysteries with cherubic simplicity. I still have vivid memories of reading some of these short stories as an early teen.  Severed heads in gardens were a bit much for me when the rest of the house was asleep!  Father Brown, with his gentle humor and shrewd erudition, followed me to Japan. The short story template of his mysteries and their public domain appealed to my thrifty soul.  I read happily on my small iTouch screen on my daily subway commute, and I still remember the disappointment when I reached the end of the Father Brown stories.  Where to begin?  The Innocence of Father Brown.

G. K. Chesterton might be one of the accepted firsts in the Golden Age, but he wasn’t the only Golden Age writer I met as a teen.  Chesterton’s complex writing was perfect preparation for Dorothy Sayers’ literary style.  

Dorothy Sayers sketch
Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers

Erudite, eccentric and upper class, Lord Peter Wimsey with his faithful manservant Bunter and brilliant love interest Harriet Vane solve mysteries in post WWI England.  Full of literary allusions and French phrases, Sayers’ mysteries sparkle with wit.  Stocked haphazardly by our library book sales, I began with a large print edition of The Unpleasantness at the Belona Club.  Not the best, but by the age of 17, I was listening to an ex-libris copy of Murder Must Advertise (sadly not available currently through Audible), and very in love with Lord Peter Wimsey.  Not only did Sayers write longer detective novels, she also did short stories and even a play featuring Wimsey.  *A note on her short stories, they can be more intense than the longer novels. Speaking of short stories, Montague Egg is a traveling salesman and detective who only appears in her short stories.

Where to begin? There is much merit in reading Peter Wimsey chronologically, Clouds of Witness is a good introduction to the family and background of Lord Peter and features his good friend and stolid police inspector, Parker.  Strong Poison, the novel introducing Harriet Vane.  Gaudy Night is excellent, but one really must know Harriet to appreciate it; the same goes for the short story “Talboys” which should only be appreciated after Gaudy Night.       

Sayers wasn’t the only female Golden Age writer I met as a teen.  Josephine Tey and her detective Allan Grant charmed my history and coffee loving soul.

Josephine Tey sketch
Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey

Like other Golden Age writers, Tey was not first a novelist, but rather a playwright.  Still, her novels were very successful and she wrote regularly until an early death.  Allan Grant, whose weaknesses are coffee and coffee, is a gentleman detective.  Tey’s novels show an interest in the psychological, making them fascinating and also, at times, bleak as they examine crime and human nature.  She also refuses to follow standard mystery protocol; Daughter of Time is a historical mystery, The Francise Affair hardly features Allan Grant at all and is told from a quiet country solicitor’s perspective, and Brat Farrar’s mystery is hardly a mystery at all, yet continues to collect a faithful following including this writer.

margery allingham sketch
Margery Allingham

Chesteron, Sayers, and Tey were my introduction to the Golden Age, and remain some of my absolute favorites, but recent years have introduced two other Golden Age writers. 

Margery Allingham

Whenever I pick up an Allingham, it is not the story in particular that captures me, but the flashing insights into humanity and the stand-alone sparkling sentences that lurk within.  Here is wit laced into detective stories that are dramatic, sinister, and use foreshadowing to an extreme.  Fashion in the Shrouds or Death of a Ghost are good places to start if this description appeals.

Agatha Christie

agatha christie sketch
Agatha Christie

I didn’t understand until a decade too late my late grandfather’s appreciation for Agatha Christie and his shelf of battered paperbacks.  While Christie’s are classic mysteries, like Allingham, she is also interested in people. The story, sometimes told in varying voices, focuses on the other people involved in the mystery.  She also continually captures the humanity of even the most dislikable of murder victims.  At the end of the day, no matter how despicable the person —a life was cut short and this is wrong.  Instead of blithely using murder, Christie recognizes the gravity of murder. This anchors her works, even though her characters sometimes are reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse.  If you want to throw a little bit of murder into Blandings Castle —go to Agatha Christie’s Secret of Chimneys.

While some of Agatha Christie’s stories (*looking at you, Passenger to Frankfurt!) are far FAR too intriguing and thriller-like for a proper mystery, she offers a plethora of possibilities, both series and stand-alones.  (Beyond Poirot, Inspector Battle is a nice place to begin.) 

Now you’ve received an overview, know that the Golden Age is not without flaws.  There are definitely stereotypes, particularly racial, that are reminiscent of the times.  There is also the Bohemian and modern influence on morality.  Yet while there is sin in various forms, it is never explicit —a beauty of the Golden Age lies in its understated yet still old-fashioned sensibilities. 

Do you have any favorite Golden Age authors or detective novels? Comment below!  

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Hayley Morell

Born in a library and raised by books, or rather, raised by a book-loving family, Hayley loves talking and writing about books. She lives in the middle of Wisconsin and works with children as well as with words.

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  1. April Mullen on April 7, 2021 at 7:36 pm

    Have you read any of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries? She wrote more than regency romance stories (I love many of those too!). Her mysteries are witty and fun- set in the 1930’s when she wrote most of them.

    • Hayley Morell on April 8, 2021 at 5:01 am

      Hey April! I tried a Heyer mystery but wasn’t able to get into the one I picked up. I love that era though and have recently been enjoying Ngaio Marsh’s mystery novels, too!

  2. Paula ritchie homeschooling mom now grandmothet on April 8, 2021 at 4:12 pm

    Try Heyer again some better than others and read Ngiao. Marsh.

    • Hayley Morell on April 8, 2021 at 4:54 pm

      Paula, I just started reading Ngaio Marsh, and I am LOVING her! She’ll need her own post here at RR 🙂 Which Heyer mystery would you recommend?

  3. Debbie Brotzge on June 3, 2021 at 4:48 am

    I’m a total Golden Age Mystery addict. 😉 When I finished reading my last Agatha Christie novel some years ago I went into a state of something akin to grief, and when I googled “what do I read now that I am done with Agatha Christie?” — I realized I wasn’t alone: There was an entire population of people like me who felt the same way, haha! Fortunately I was able to find other great Golden Age mystery writers, and I read through Sayers and Tey.

    I am glad you are reading Ngaio Marsh! Her Roderick Alleyn series is absolutely phenomenal!

    Here are some other greats I have been able to find:
    1. Ellery Queen mysteries
    2. Patricia Wentworth (her Miss Silver mysteries are similar to Christie’s Miss Marple, but there are tons more of them)
    3. Mary Roberts Rinehart
    4. Phoebe Atwood Taylor (Asey Mayo Cape Cod mystery series)
    5. Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe series)
    6. John Dickson Carr
    7. Anna Catherine Green (Amelia Butterworth series — sort of like an American Miss Marple, except she’s independently wealthy)

    Thanks for a great article! 🙂

    • Janie Cheaney on June 3, 2021 at 6:39 am

      Thanks for the list, Debbie–we’re always eager to add more space to our bookshelves!

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