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The Golden Age Mystery Era

What is the Golden Age Mystery Genre?

The era between World War I and World War II is frequently known as the Golden Age of Mystery. Some of the biggest names in mystery wrote some of their best works then and created many of the settings and characters that we still recognize today. While this is not specifically a subgenre of Mystery, it is a highly distinct period in the development of the Mystery Genre. As such, we've listed it as a distinct category or subgenre because of this.

The Golden Age was known for its focus on plots, coming up some of the most difficult to solve mysteries ever written. The emphasis was on playing fair with the reader while making sure that the reader did not solve the murder mystery until the final pages. Sadly many of these authors are out of print these days as few current readers have heard of more than a few of the bigger names in mystery fiction. There is a current push to get more of these authors back in print with the advent of eBooks and a new reprints of Golden Age mysteries by the British Library.

Golden Age Mystery Characteristics

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  • Level of Characterization

    The main characters were given some level of characterization, but the minor characters and suspects were not given much beyond a few defining traits. This allowed the authors to move the characters to fit the difficult plotline without worry of being out-of-character or unlikely to do such a thing.

  • Level of Plot

    The plot was the foremost element in these books. These authors wrote books where all the suspects died, where all the suspects committed the crime, where the narrator committed the crime, and where the detective committed the crime. These plots could be quirky in where the corpse was discovered, including department store windows, trains, planes, hanging out on the beach without any clothes.

  • Level of Mystery

    The mystery is the main object of the story. Who committed the crime? In many cases, the last part of the book is consumed with the witnesses gathering and being accused by the sleuth of committing the murder. For the reader who solves the crime early, the book becomes about seeing if the reader tease out the clues that indicate the murderer's guilt.

  • Level of Suspense

    There can be suspense, especially in the standalones. The series characters and their friends were typically safe, so there was no question that they would live to solve another day. The main suspense came in solving the crime before something else happened or chasing the criminal to bring him/her to justice in the last few pages.

  • Level of Thriller

    Some of the books can have thriller elements. Many of the cases are crimes that just involve private citizens, meaning that the family and friends are the only targets. However, some of the books do involve prime ministers, Senators, and other politicians, so the level of thriller can be reached in these books.

  • Level of Strangeness

    Golden Age Mysteries can be quite strange. The detectives are often quirky, such as Hercule Poirot and his mustaches, or Nero Wolfe who grows orchids and refuses to leave his home on business. The crimes can also be quirky in that they are atypical for the genre. Murderers can disappear and crimes can seem impossible.

  • Level of Violence

    While many of the books have a low level of violence, there are some exceptions where the murder is shown on the page. In Death on the Nile, an author is shot and the scene described by Christie. In The American Gun Mystery, a horse rider is killed as part of a rodeo.

  • Level of Action

    The action is usually limited. There can be a chase at the end of the story to apprehend the criminal, but most of the investigation is performed by talking to the various suspects.

  • Degree of Thriller, Suspense, Crime, or Myster Genre

    The Golden Age mystery is mainly in the mystery category, with its emphasis on whodunit. The main part of the story is trying to match wits with the detective as he/she tries to solve the mystery. There can be some suspense especially if the stakes are high for the detective. In Strong Poison, Lord Peter has to solve the mystery in order to save Harriett, his love interest, from the gallows before it's too late. The books can involve world governments or problems that affect the world, but the mystery will still involve finding out who killed the prime minister or the MP. The books can be written with a focus on style and language that involve a crime. Gaudy Night, which technically does not have a murder, is written with a stylish prose and lots of Latin quotations.

Related MYSTERY Subgenres

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  • Amateur Sleuth, Detective Puzzle Mysteries, Locked Room Mysteries.

Golden Age Mystery isn't for you IF...

You don't like classics in the genre

Popular Golden Age Mystery Books