It was between the wars that the whodunit murder mystery reached its greatest popularity. We call them cozies today, because they contain a minimum of violence –although the murder can be gruesome –and there is no sex whatsoever; even romance is kept firmly under control. The most well known writers of this time were Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh all known as the Queens of Crime, John Knox and G.K. Chesterton, .
Most Golden Age mysteries were set in a contained environment such as an English country house or a London Gentleman’s Club, on board a luxury ocean liner or the exotic Orient Express, or temporarily marooned on a lonely island. They had one thing in common: more often than not, suspects were isolated until the denouement. Anywhere that the rich and the privileged gathered to be exclusive was a perfect setting for murder.
Sleuths were usually amateur and ranged from the eccentric: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, a fastidious Belgian with tiny feet, waxed moustaches and a sweet tooth, to the staid, dowdy and inoffensive spinster, such as Miss Marple, living quietly in her picture-book English village.
Quite often the amateur sleuth was an aristocrat who used the assistance of either a sympathetic member of Scotland Yard, or the unswerving loyalty of his manservant. One always suspected that Dorothy L. Sayers might have been a little in love with her urbane and sophisticated protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey.
Sometimes there is an aura of mystery about the sleuth himself. It might be suggested that he comes from an aristocratic family, is educated and well-connected, but he is a mild mannered, inoffensive character who displays none of the arrogant self-assurance of the aristocracy and is so affable and bland that he is welcome everywhere and privy to all secrets, as in Marjory Allingham’s Albert Campion.
Most of the suspects are rich, famous or from the aristocracy or the upper classes, even if the characters are not British – they follow the societal manners and behavior of British society – Ngaio Marsh and Inspector Alleyn’s suspects are usually from the ‘toff’ class even though the writer was from New Zealand. Suspects like the world they lived in were usually people who enjoyed lives that most of us dream of!
Writing a murder mystery was considered to be a game for both author and reader. The elements of the mystery must be clearly presented but in such a way as to arouse curiosity, to entice the reader to try and guess the outcome and if they were as clever as the author, to guess it before the denouement. To achieve this fair play was essential.
Today cozy mysteries cross genres to include historical settings, women sleuths and sometimes more than just a dash of romance. Nevertheless most of them, if they are any good, observe the rules.
Here are John Knox’s Ten Commandments or rules for achieving a murder mystery that contained all the elements of fair play a la the Golden Age.
The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
No Chinaman must figure in the story*.
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The detective himself must not commit the crime.
The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
*For those of us with 21st century sensibilities the ‘Chinamen’ was excluded from the Ten Commandments because at the time there were scores of novels, written hastily and badly that usually contained a Chinamen or an opium den – this was determined by the Queens of Crime to be a serious cop-out and therefore a no-no.