Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction
Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1 Detective fiction and its origins

The origins of detective fiction are complex. A global view of the genre is certainly possible, taking in many languages and cultures, and stretching a long way into the past. There are, for example, ancient Chinese literary traditions with generic features of the ‘whodunnit’, one strand of which was brought to new prominence by Dutch translator Robert Van Gulik in 1949, with Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An).

As the dominant American–European tradition of detective fiction began to take its modern shape in the nineteenth century, it did so by absorbing and distilling many existing genres. The figure most often seen as its key innovator is Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), drawing as he did on both the European and American Gothic, supernatural mysteries and the eighteenth century romance tradition while also foregrounding new developments in science, technology and even logic. A new flaneur-like detective emerged in his creation of Auguste Dupin, a pre-Holmesian observer of urban life and crime, most famously outwitting the great and the good in ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844) with techniques of ‘ratiocination’ (a pre-cursor technique to Sherlock Holmes’s deductive reasoning and Hercule Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’). In an act of playful deception Dupin recovers the letter of the title by switching it with a decoy and leaving it on the filigree card-rack where it had been hiding in plain sight.

The idea of the detective fiction as a game, to be entered into in a spirit of ‘fair play’, is another defining aspect of the modern detective genre. ‘The game’s afoot’ is, of course, famously associated with Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective, Sherlock Holmes, but the presentation of the act of detection as a kind of game – both between the detective and his adversaries and the author and their readers – began with Poe. Will the apparently infallible protagonist be able to solve the apparently insoluble mystery? Do we as readers have a chance of cracking the case ourselves? Can we at least follow the reasoning and, when the solution is presented, feel a sense of satisfaction in the outcome? These questions are fundamental to the form and technique of what would become known as the clue–puzzle narrative. The ‘setter’ of a puzzle of any kind, of course, be it crossword or riddle, must present the ‘solver’ with a taxing but logically achievable goal. Certain ground rules of fair play must be observed for any puzzle to present a challenge with a satisfying outcome. That type of satisfaction is, essentially, the bread and butter of all successful clue–puzzle stories, from Poe onwards. You will delve deeper into this ludic dimension of the genre later in the course.

In the case of the golden age of detective fiction, this informal contract between writer and readers culminated in the foundation of a ‘Detection Club’ of writers led by Ronald Knox who, in 1928, as a prelude to its formation, created a set of rules which were to function as a kind of contract with the readership – the ‘Ten Commandments of Detection’ outlined in Section 5 (see Horsley, 2010, pp. 40–1). With The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), Agatha Christie pushes the spirit of fair play right to its boundaries by playing on readerly expectations derived from the Sherlock Holmes stories, and particularly those relating to the ‘Watson’ archetype of the baffled but loyal narrator (a role here apparently assumed by Dr Sheppard). By making her narrator the killer in this case, Christie might be said to have violated two of the commandments: firstly an element of number one, stating that the criminal ‘must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know’ and certainly most of number eight, which states that ‘the “side-kick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind’. Some critics have argued that Christie ‘threatened’ the entire basis of the genre by compromising the narrator. Dorothy L. Sayers, among others, however, defended Christie and argued for her compliance with these and other rules. There are many other contemporary reactions and a longer legacy of discussion over the decades provoked by this, and you will be invited to uncover and explore these during this course.