Well, hasn’t this been a nerve-wracking week? The protracted election drama, coupled with record-setting coronavirus cases, put us all on edge. I remarked to a friend that thinking about murdering imaginary people has been remarkably cathartic…
I am far from the first mystery author (or reader!) to have that thought. In fact, the Golden Age of British Mysteries—the era that brought us the works of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, and more—can be directly tied to the effects of the Great War (1914-1918) on the English psyche.
As English people tried to make sense of the violence and destruction wrought during the war, they turned to a surprising source of comfort: murder mysteries.
We’ve talked about the evolution of the mystery genre here before. As the world changes, mysteries change with it. The sensation and violence of the mid-19th century penny dreadful gave way to the meticulous investigation of professional Victorian detectives and police investigators. The years between the world wars saw the reign of the amateur detective and the cozy mystery: one where all the violence occurs offstage, and the fascination is in the solving of a cleverly-devised puzzle.
A war like the Great War had never been seen before, and Britons struggled to make sense of the incomprehensible carnage—countless senseless, random deaths on both sides. In contrast, the deaths in mystery novels make sense: murderers have clear motives, clues add up to a tidy explanation, and justice prevails. It resets the natural order of things.
And the order of things had been thoroughly overset by the Great War. It was the violent end to the Victorian-Edwardian era, and much of its familiar social order was blown away as well. Gender roles, social classes, economics, and politics were all upended in one fell swoop. Mysteries helped readers navigate this new world, while reassuring them that somewhere—in fiction, at least—everything worked out exactly as it should.
So the next time someone in your household needs to recover from four straight days of CNN with a few hours of “Forensic Files,” have no fear. She’s not morbid—it’s a perfectly natural reaction to unsettling times!