That distinguished critic and crime writer the late Julian Symons defined the Golden Age of the detective short story as beginning with Sherlock Holmes and ending with the Second World War: a period of about half a century. During that time, society developed, reading habits changed and the popularity of the short form waxed and waned. Holmes made his short story debut in a July 1891 issue of ‘The Strand Magazine’, which first appeared in January of that year. The enormous public enthusiasm for Holmes soon caused ‘The Strand’ and its competitors to encourage other writers to develop series detectives in the hope of emulating Conan Doyle’s success. The rivals of Sherlock Holmes included Arthur Morrison’s Martin Hewitt, a “plain man” who represented a reaction against Holmesian eccentricities, but more effective and memorable was G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Brown was equally unflamboyant in appearance, but more subtly conceived as an agent of social justice whose moral theology helped him to explain how miraculous murders could have been committed by men who were merely mortal.
The personality of the detective was crucial to the tone and, often, the quality of short stories until near the end of the Golden Age. As much ingenuity was devoted to the creation of distinctive heroes (there were few heroines and those who did emerge were, like Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, distinctly second rate) as to the construction of complicated puzzles. Among the more memorable were the vegetarian hypochondriac Thorpe Hazell, a specialist in railway detection created by Canon Victor L. Whitechurch and Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados, whose blindness was compensated by the acuity of his intelligence and other senses. Orczy’s most interesting sleuth, the Old Man in the Corner, was the ultimate armchair detective; sitting in the corner of a tea shop consuming milk and cheesecake and tying and untying knots in string, he was able to solve cases which had the police baffled.
Across the Atlantic, Jacques Futrelle wrote stories about Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, “The Thinking Machine” which have long been acknowledged as ingenious classics, although they do not have the atmospheric depth or moral force of the stories which Melville Davisson Post wrote about Uncle Abner, a Virginian squire of the Jeffersonian era. Later, C. Daly King’s Trevis Tarrant appeared in a number of “episodes” which Ellery Queen considered “the most imaginative detective short stories of our time”, but in comparison to Queen himself one of the few Golden Age detectives who appeared to equal advantage in both the short and long form Tarrant nowadays seems a minor figure.
Although his writing lacked sparkle, R. Austin Freeman was an innovator of the first rank. The “inverted” tales in The Singing Bone (1912) showed that a reader could from the outset be furnished with all the facts of the crime and yet still be fascinated to learn how the detective would solve the mystery. More generally, in his stories about Dr. John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, Freeman used his technical knowledge to show how science could assist in the detection of crime. More ambitious were H. C. Bailey’s stories about Reggie Fortune; the strength of Fortune’s passion for justice gave the best of Bailey’s stories a depth which Freeman could never match. Other writers found that a successful fictional sleuth need not always be on the side of law and order. Morrison’s crooked investigator Dorrington, although less celebrated than Martin Hewitt, is a more interesting character and in A. J. Raffles, the amateur cracksman, E. W. Hornung created a likeable anti hero who has stood the test of time.
The best Golden Age stories, such as Anthony Berkeley’s much-anthologised classic “The Avenging Chance” and “The Tea Leaf” by Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace, dazzled readers with their twists and turns. Yet harsh economic realities began to threaten the form. Magazine markets slowly dried up as authors such as Christie and Sayers found it made commercial sense to develop their better ideas at novel length while readers started to obtain their fiction more regularly from lending libraries than from railway bookstalls. Many notable stories which appeared in the 1930s were one offs with not a Great Detective in sight, written by writers who are now largely forgotten. Yet as the Golden Age drew to its close, in stories like Thomas Burke’s chilling “The Hands Of Mr.Ottermole”, Hylton Cleaver’s ironic “By Kind Permission Of The Murdered Man” and Loel Yeo’s witty “Inquest”, the seeds were sown for the development of the short form in the post war age.
(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing)