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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Sherlock Holmes and the Golden Age

A giant in any age - golden or otherwise

A kind review of my Sherlock Holmes novel House of the Doomed took me aback recently by suggesting the book seemed more like a Golden Age mystery than a Holmes story.

Certainly, the Sebastian McCabe – Jeff Cody mysteries are thoroughly Golden Age in spirit, but I hadn’t thought of my Holmes efforts in that vein. Then my friend Ann Margaret Lewis, herself a talented pasticheur, reminded me that Holmes and what devotees call GA are not antithetical.

In its strictest meaning, the Golden Age is a time-period – basically the years between the two world wars. Arthur Conan Doyle’s final 12 Sherlock Holmes stories collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927) were published during this period. So, as a factual matter, the later-written Holmes adventures are Golden Age. And a few of them are excellent.  

But GA is also an attitude, as well as an era. In an introduction to the two “Golden Age” volumes of the Masterpieces of Mystery anthology series (Davis Publications, 1977), Ellery Queen summed up the characteristics of Golden Age novels as:
·                     ingenuity of plot,
·                     originality of concept, including the locked room, the miracle problem, and the impossible crime,
·                     subtle and legitimate misdirection of clues – poetic license – but always with complete fairness to the reader,
·                     and often a stunning surprise solution,
·                     in a phrase (R. Austin Freeman’s), “an exhibition of mental gymnastics.”

In other words, Golden Age stories often turn on logic, brilliant deductions, and clever plots. So do most of the Holmes tales, several of which are locked room stories. (This is admittedly not true of some of the weaker tales, which are scarcely mysteries at all.) In a nice play on words, an early Ellery Queen novel even called Queen “the logical successor to Sherlock Holmes.”

Like Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy Sayers, and Rex Stout – some of the brightest lights in the Golden Age firmament – all adored Sherlock Holmes and mentioned him and some the more famous Holmesian plot tropes frequently in their own stories. Even Carr’s ornery old Sir Henry Merrivale owes a lot to the Master.

Golden Age or Sherlock Holmes? They are different – but not different as it seems at first thought.

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