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Monday, January 20, 2014

The Golden Age of Sherlock Holmes?

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as John and Sherlock (PHOTO: BBC)

As I watched episodes of BBC's "Sherlock" recently, the program reminded me of the Golden Age of detective fiction. I don't now if anyone else has made this connection but it struck me forcefully.

You may know that the Golden Age is the name given to the period from roughly 1920 to 1940, although many of the great names of the period continued to write into the 1960s or 1970s -- Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout and John Dickson Carr being among my favorites.

In an introduction to the two "Golden Age" volumes of the Masterpieces of Mystery anthology series (Davis Publications, 1977), mystery giant 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."
Cleverness of plot took center-stage in these novels, at the expense of characterization and believability. That's only half-true of "Sherlock." The main characters of the series are well developed. But the ingenious clues and the multiple plot twists, plus the numerous delightful  allusions to the original Sherlock Holmes stories, inspire more admiration than belief. We aren't expected to believe it; we're expected to enjoy it. And we do.

In "The Empty Hearse," for example, both the false and the real explanations of how Sherlock faked his death are as brilliant as they are implausible. The same could be said, with great appreciation, for several other plot elements.

I think that Ellery Queen himself would praise the amazing "exhibition of mental gymnastics" in the "Sherlock" series.


  1. I think this is the Golden Age of fandom. Fortunately that means Sherlock Holmes is getting a lot of visibility as well. Good for all in the long run.
    I view "Sherlock" the BBC series as I, a former New Yorker, view Chicago Pizza;
    Delicious and definitely not to be missed but it is not Pizza. ;-)

  2. Fine comments as always Dan. I think the Golden Age lives on in the sheer diversity of detective fiction from Holmes pastiches to the grittiness of Nordic thrillers. Long may it continue.

  3. What a great analogy, Broadway! Thanks, David.