Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Golden Age...and feminism

Ann Cleeves has been a guest of honour at a literary festival in Dubai (sponsored by Emirates Airways, who no doubt find it a less stressful form of marketing than backing Arsenal!) and I was delighted to see that she's been talking about the implications of the renaissance in Golden Age fiction and the mega-success of the British Library Crime Classics in particular. The Sunday Telegraph picked up on her comments in a very intriguing article.

We can debate endlessly whether the renewed popularity of Golden Age mysteries strikes a blow for feminism. Obviously it can be said that many of the social attitudes evinced in the books are wholly out of date, and as inappropriate today as some of our attitudes would have been back then. And it's certainly true that not all Golden Age books are masterpieces. Ann is, as she says, by no means a total fan of them, although she has also pointed out that there are GA influences in some of her books, not least The Glass Room, a very good Vera Stanhope novel.

What is, to me, most striking,is the fact that the renewed interest in Golden Age fiction is giving rise to debate, not just in the UK and US but further afield. It's reasonable for views about the merits of the books to diverge. One (very generous) review of The Golden Age of Murder which said I'd never read a GA book I didn't like was, to be honest, well wide of the mark in that respect. It never bothers me if people tell me they don't like Christie or Sayers, or both of them, even though I'm a big fan. I do, though, wince when critics who have never, or rarely, read the books dismiss them and their authors out of hand.

Ann's suggestion that enthusiasm for GA books is in part a reaction to gory serial killer novels is especially thought-provoking. I think there's something in it,even though I'm one of those people who likes all kinds of crime fiction, ranging from fairly cosy (I draw the line at cats as detectives, I'm afraid) to noir; grisly novels certainly aren't always exploitative, even if some are. What is really gratifying is that those readers who do want to escape into the Golden Age now have a very wide range of titles to choose from. And I can promise that there are some quite excellent Crime Classics in the pipeline....


Clothes In Books said...

Very interesting, I'm going to give this some thought. I so agree with your point about the people who think they know what GA books are like ('snobbery - racism - stately homes - completely unreal' etc etc)without apparently having read any. There is so much more nuance and variation than that.
Re-reading Ngaio Marsh, btw, I am struck by how gruesome and callous she can be - I'm not sure how that fits in with my thesis!

John said...

Interestingly, I tend to overlook the aspects of vintage books like chauvinism and racism that are the primary criticisms of the books being "out of date" and instead find in them far more social aspects that have not dated at all. It's so easy to disparage older books for reflecting the negative aspects of "unenlightened times" Yet for every so-called anti-feminist book by one writer there is a writer who celebrated independence, autonomy in women and castigated chauvinistic thought. The social history and world history I have been amassing in my reading of the past few years is often much more enriching and fascinating to me than the plots which seem to be the primary draw for most fans of the Golden Age mystery novels.

Perfect example of contemporary parallels are found in the book I'm reading now (review on Friday) published in 1912 and written by an Edinburgh physician. (NO, not the one everyone knows!) Ostensibly an occult thriller about the search for an elixir of immortality there are sections in which the narrator points out how harmful the patent medicine charlatans are and how the pursuit of wellness has been nearly eradicated from the field of medicine in favor of looking for disease in order that drug manufacturers can hawk their wares. His condemnation of the medical advertisements in particular takes up two pages in the novel.It's no different than life in the US now where you cannot escape TV and magazine ads that tell you there is something wrong with you and you need to ask your doctor about the latest treatment method or drug for that illness, syndrome or disease rather than educating people on how to prevent illness and disease.

Pauline Rowson said...

Love them, Martin and have been enjoying the re-release of John Bude's novels. They are well written, provide a snapshot of the era, and have a great puzzle to solve.

dfordoom said...

I think there’s been a tendency for people to go trawling through golden age detective stories looking for something to be offended by. What they usually do is overlook the many ways in which the attitudes of the past were superior to our own. For example characters in GA fiction are generally polite and courteous. And far more tolerant of opposing viewpoints.

A good example is provided by Christopher Bush’s mysteries. You have two detectives, one of whom is a card-carrying communist and one of whom is a card-carrying Tory. And yet they get along very well. I simply cannot imagine that in a modern crime novel.

dfordoom said...

"Ann's suggestion that enthusiasm for GA books is in part a reaction to gory serial killer novels"

It certainly is in my case. It's also a reaction against the unremitting misery of so much modern crime fiction.