The Old Swan hotel in Harrogate has history – Agatha Christie was once found here in the 1920s after an 11-day disappearance that caused a media sensation. So it was apt that I went along to a panel session that sought to explore the legacy of that same ‘golde age’ that Christie herself was a standard bearer of.
The panel was made of up of host Catriona McPherson, and guests Simon Brett, Frances Brody, Ann Granger and, interestingly, one of the hottest current British thriller writers around, Ruth Ware. I say surprising because Ruth writes very modern novels set in the present day, but her techniques and structures are reminiscent of those one-location whodunits from back in the day.
Indeed, Ruth herself said that she didn’t deliberately set out to write an Agatha Christie-style novel, but because she’d read so much from that period it perhaps wasn’t a surprise that certain elements remained burned into her subconscious.
Catriona then went on to talk about snobbery of the genre and, quoting from a recent Jonathan Frantzen op-ed piece in The Telegraph, asked the panel what they about snobbery. Frantzen had said that retaining information and clues to be revealed until the end of a novel was ‘low class’.
Not surprisingly this brought some interesting remarks from the panel. Frances and Ann both agreed that the story is the main thing and they don’t worry about this sort of snobbery (they have better things to do with their time), while Ruth, quite rightly, said that there’s an inherent snobbery of any genre that is dominated by women, whether it’s so-called chick-lit, which gets a torrid time, or crime.
One of the more interesting questions posed by this discussion was whether ‘golden age’ crime fiction still existed. Simon – who was full of stories – suggested that the genre had changed dramatically because of two socio-political events. Before World War II, the mystery novel made popular by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, for instance, were seen as works of escapism. When WWII came along, people suddenly didn’t want to read about death and destruction, especially death and destruction that were so close to home. He also cited the advent of the death penalty as a major reason why crime fiction changed. There was no longer a definitive, black and white outcome to cases; there were suddenly grey areas to explore and more ambiguity to cases.
He also revealed that Stella Duffy is currently writing a ‘new’ Ngaio Marsh novel, inspired by some of the late great’s notes and unfinished ideas.
I felt that Ann summed up best what the legacy of the Golden Age is: it was a backdrop and a reference point from which modern-day writers work, suffusing this historical context with stories that fit into modern tastes and with present-day social mores.
She also said, pointedly, that people haven’t really changed that much since the Golden Age, and people still have the same motivations, good or bad.