Entertainment

Golden Age Whodunits Are Back—And a Sign Of Our Times

Knives Out was the last movie I saw in theaters before the pandemic began, and the first movie in 20 years for which I’ve seriously considered hiding in the bathroom and sneaking back to immediately watch it all over again. I didn’t sneak—barely—but am looking forward to Friday’s Netflix debut of Glass Onion, Knives Out’s anthological sequel, with an enthusiasm far exceeding my anticipation of just about everything else this Christmas season.

And that’s not just about this one movie. I’m taking the first movie’s success, enough to justify a sequel, as confirmation of what I’ve been hoping for several years now: The golden age of whodunits is back, and just in time to assuage a cultural moment strikingly like the context of the genre’s creation.

The first golden age of detective fiction arrived a century ago, spanning the 1920s and 1930s. Arthur Conan Doyle was still pumping out Sherlock Holmes stories until 1927, and Agatha Christie’s inaugural Hercule Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, arrived in 1920. The Detection Club assembled in London in 1930, counting British mystery greats including Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton among its members.

Crucially, 1929 saw the publication of Knox’s Commandments, the decalogue of the genre by which all club members agreed to write and which continues to define golden-age mysteries today. “When we say that the detective story has rules, we do not mean rules in the sense in which poetry has rules, but rules in the sense in which cricket has rules,” their author, Robert Knox, explained. “The man who writes a detective story which is ‘unfair’ is not simply pronounced guilty of an error in taste. He has played foul, and the referee orders him off the field.”

Thus: No unmentioned clues or surprise twins. No detection via accident or intuition. No killer sleuths. No supernatural explanations are allowed, nor is resort to racist stereotyping and convenient attribution of the crime to an outgroup character.

Golden-age stories are derided as “cozy” murders because these boundaries push the story into familiar settings populated by ordinary characters with whom readers can sympathize. But it’s not coziness for its own sake. The rules of the game—rather than a predilection for rich and/or British people in comfortable surrounds—are what often produces a village or manor house as the scene of the crime.

“The golden age of whodunits is back, and just in time to assuage a cultural moment strikingly like the context of the genre’s creation.”

Glass Onion by itself wouldn’t be evidence enough that this style of whodunit is coming back. But it’s one of a small flurry of movies and TV shows drawing on this heritage to have debuted in recent years. The trend was predated, appropriately, by a Sherlock Holmes revival: House, premiering in 2004, the Robert Downey Jr. movies in 2009 and 2011, Sherlock, launched in 2010, and Elementary, beginning in 2012. But Holmes is perpetually popular, a character embedded so deeply in British and American pop culture that it’s hard to find a decade without a major adaptation of his tales.

Murder on the Orient Express

Twentieth Century Fox

Fresh attention to Christie, however, was notable after years of relegation to fusty BBC reruns. Kenneth Branagh began his Poirot series with Murder on the Orient Express in 2017, released Death on the Nile this year, and has an adaptation of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, rebranded as A Haunting in Venice, scheduled for 2023.

“The rules of the game—rather than a predilection for rich and/or British people in comfortable surrounds—are what often produces a village or manor house as the scene of the crime.”

The BBC made a limited series of Christie’s And Then There Were None and Partners in Crime series in 2015, The Witness for the Prosecution in 2016, and Ordeal by Innocence and (with John Malkovich appearing as Poirot) The ABC Murders in 2018. Marquee names got involved: Glenn Close and Gillian Anderson led a 2017 film of Crooked House; Rufus Sewell starred in 2020’s The Pale Horse, and Hugh Laurie did Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? earlier this year.

Maybe more intriguing than these, though, are the new properties: Knives Out and Glass Onion, yes, but also See How They Run (2022), Only Murders in the Building (soon to shoot its third season), The Afterparty (2022), and, for kids, the Enola Holmes movies on Netflix. The fifth season of Veronica Mars—tantalizing teased by creator Rob Thomas as “a mystery in a snowed-in manor or on a boat, putting Veronica in a very Agatha Christie-like, though modernized, setting”—would have fit right in had it not been canceled.

Only Murders in the Building

Hulu

They may not explicitly acknowledge their debt to the Detection Club’s ban on “use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God,” but all these titles work well within that tradition.

For those who don’t share my enthusiasm for the genre, the more interesting question may be: Why now? The answer, I suspect, goes back to Knox’s decalogue in two senses.

First, the rules of golden-age detective fiction require that the guilty party is one of “us,” not a nebulous exterior threat, but a sinner in our midst. Our friend, maybe even our family. The crime is not just murder but betrayal, duplicity, loss of trust—and the unmooring it begets. The innocent characters cannot help but be affected even as their names are cleared—indeed, as W.H. Auden argued in 1948, the very “interest in the detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt,” and the typical reader is “a person who suffers from a sense of sin.”

This is why the murder must take place in a “closed society,” as Auden said: “so that the possibility of an outside murderer (and hence of the society being totally innocent) is excluded.” A literally foreign or personally unknown assassin is a fun story for a high-trust, self-confident cultural moment, particularly in a relatively homogenous or at least harmonious society. But in a time of declining institutional and personal trust, deepening negative partisanship, fear of traitors and invaders lurking among us, golden-age mysteries suit better.

And they suit, too, because of the rules’ other big guarantee: The mystery will be solved. The problem has a solution. We don’t have to wonder whether guilt will be exposed and innocence vindicated. Our hope in the advent of trust renewed and order restored will not be in vain. The past can’t be undone, but justice is coming.

This is not a cold justice, necessarily, but always a truthful one. Chesterton’s Father Brown investigates, as Auden wrote, “not for his own sake, nor even for the sake of the innocent, but for the sake of the murderer who can save his soul if he will confess and repent.” The promised resolution can take part in mercy—my sole critique of The Afterparty was its merciless conclusion: When the murderer’s pathetic motive is revealed, the other characters shriek with glee—yet it will inexorably be just and true.

“The phantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law,” Auden concluded. This is a true fantasy, in the way that myth may tell truth—and a fantasy with new resonance in a decade apparently due to rhyme with the confusion and cynicism of the interwar years.

Happily, it is also a fantasy Hollywood seems prepared to fulfill.

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