It’s not only selective memory that makes the past seem golden. Selective publishing can play a part, witness British Library’s Crime Classics series. It makes available authors and titles long since out of print and has proved very popular.
Having found an audience receptive to this brand of nostalgia, British Library hosted a Saturday jamboree of Golden Age crime fiction. The programme was planned with care and expertise and executed with charm and enthusiasm. (The coffee was also very good.) I, for one, will buy a ticket for the second round promised for next year.
Judging by the zest of the panelists and the attentiveness of the audience the Golden Age is a period of undated popularity. But why? Why do so many people want to read murder mysteries many decades after they were first published? It can’t be simply as Simon Brett joked in his opening speech; that by its appearance most of the audience had read the Golden Age mysteries when they were first printed. OK, some of us in that auditorium were not young but none of us was hanging outside the village bookshop in 1935, clutching three half crowns in a sweaty fist and hoping to be the first to read The Cornish Coast Murder.
The most often suggested reason for this popularity is escapism; that we find comfort in reading about a time which was simpler (such tends to be our view of the past) than our own, and that we like to know that the wicked will be punished properly – no life sentence with a minimum term for the murderers of the Golden Age, the death penalty was still in force. Conversely, though, a good classic crime novel is clever rather than gruesome, very middle or upper class – and if the characters harboured perversions the authors kept them off the page.
Once the greatest accolade a new crime writer could hope for was to be trumpeted as the “New Agatha Christie”. Some time in latter part of the 20th century that changed; young writers most definitely did not want to be compared to the Golden Age authors whom they considered an irrelevance. Murder had left the village vicarage and was now residing in tenements and crowded cities. But the Agatha Christies and the Dorothy L Sayers remained in print. They didn’t go out of fashion, they just had a smaller share of the market.
Not every book published during the Golden Age was hallmark quality but the best of them have endured because they continue to give pleasure. Good books don’t have a “Use By” or “Best Before” date