06 December 2021

No Longer the Golden (Age) Standard...

A few days ago, I read the newest issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and realized something I've been aware of for some time but never thought through. 

Few of those stories met the old Golden Age definition of a "mystery." Yes, there was a crime, which Otto Penzler cites as the crucial requirement for a mystery, but few of the stories provided clues to help the reader solve the puzzle. A lot of the "detecting" happened off-stage. and some stories showed the "bad guy" getting away with something in the name of "real" justice.

I've always had trouble writing a mystery puzzle as they existed in the time of Van Dine, Christie, Sayers, Gardner, and the other "Golden Age" writers. I have been told that my right brain is more active than my left, which means that my conscious thought process recognizes patterns or similarities more easily than it does a linear "logical" patter. Clues involve deduction, and I could do it for plane geometry, but not so much in real life. 

That's the major difference between modern mysteries and the Golden age. The older plots were complex as rocket science, but many of the characters were chess pieces moved around a generic landscape in the name of the puzzle. Newer mysteries tend to examine character more deeply. The needs and foibles of people with more depth drive the story.

With that in mind, I looked at my own published work. Only two of my novels involve following clues that appear along the way to lead to the final solution. Both of those were early books, too. None of the Woody Guthrie novels work like that.

Roller Derby Book 1

When I turned to my published short stories, only a dozen fit that "Golden Age" template. Two of those were novellas, and I worked hard planning those out, which I seldom do with a short story now. I used to plan them out carefully, but it felt like overkill, especially with my right-brain running things.

More than twice as many of my short stories show someone getting away with a crime for one reason or another, and some of those are my very favorites. Plots are difficult for me because I care less about them than I do about the characters. 

Originally, I had no idea what The Whammer Jammers would be about except that it would involve roller derby. My daughter captained the Queen City Cherry Bombs in Nashua, New Hampshire, and she helped me develop a questionaire to send out to skaters online. But my main source of information was interviews with local skaters, coaches, referees, announcers, and spectators, usually the women's partners. Those gave me different perspectives that book "research" never would have shown me. I understood the people more deeply.

The interviews constantly resonated with the idea that the women loved the sport because they found it empowering. They gained a sense of self-worth and found supportive comrades. The confidence carried over into their work or personal relationships, and they felt more complete. That idea became the foundation of the book, both the main plot and the subplots.

Roller Derby Book 2

That's still the way I work. I usually start with a character who wants or needs something, and the plot develops around the obstacles he or she faces. This shows me why the person is doing something and, more importantly, it shows me why it matters, which means why I (and readers) should care. 

If I can't figure out why a reader should care, I stop right there.

I'm not sure what to call the Post Golden Age (Bronze? Aluminum? Digital?), but it's how I plot.

Which matters more to you? The story or the people living it?


  1. I plot in a similar fashion. Didn't realize I was writing "character-driven" mysteries when I started until someone pointed it out to me. There are so many ways to do it and I respect them all.

  2. I have been tasked with writing a Golden Age-styled short story... and your thoughts here remind me that Golden Age is almost diametrically opposed to what I usually write. Needless to say, challenges ahead. Thanks for the post!

  3. I'm in awe of those who can write puzzle mysteries, especially ones involving locked rooms. It will be interesting to see how Art finds the experience. In the meantime, I think I'll add it to my bucket list in pencil but with a big fat pink eraser close at hand.

  4. I'd say all of my stories are character-driven; if I can't hear the characters talking to me, I can't write it. That's not to say that there aren't red herrings and clues studded in here and there but (dirty little secret) a lot of the time, I add them AFTER I've written the main story.

  5. Wendy! I laughed at that pencil and big fat eraser comment. :-)

  6. Writing whodunits is challenging. I do it more often these days than when I started writing, but it's still not my go-to story structure. My stories are quite character driven, even if they are whodunits. To me, a story starts with conflict. Characters react to it, and the story evolves from there. Since every character is different, or should be, what happens depends on who it happens to. This would be true whether you're writing a puzzle mystery or a crime story.

  7. Steve, most of my so called Golden Age or puzzle stories were my earlier short stories, but even then I tried to make the reader feel for the character and his or her problem. My mini-mysteries in Woman's World went from who-dunits to how-dunits, which at 700 words were difficult to get much reader feeling for the protagonist, but even then I tried.

  8. Interesting how literature, & culture in general, have become more character-driven since WW2. Golden Age authors like Christie & Marsh relied on roughly the same stock characters as theatrical productions of the day (Marsh lists them in 1 of her theater mysteries), a convenience so touring plays could alternate shows with the same cast. Many cozies emulate this nowadays. Whereas Tey & Allingham were gifted enough writers to engage readers in both action & human interaction. That's my Gold[en Age] Standard -- puzzle whodunnits that balance Aristotle's top 2 criteria for a successful story: plot & people.

  9. Character driven, always, both what I write and what I read. That's why I disagree with those who think short stories are "too short" for character development and probably why I sometimes describe them as "little novels." Golden Age author Christianna Brand once described her mystery structure by saying she provides evidence that each character in turn could have done it and then one reason that he (as they said in the Golden Age) couldn't have. Today, that painstaking process wouldn't impress an editor. It would take, hmm, ambiance and style to sell a neo-Golden Age manuscript. I don't think the puzzle would necessarily have to be quite that perfect as long as it appeared to use clever deduction and had a smattering of clues.

  10. I grew up devouring Agatha Christie and other "Golden Age" writers. My novels are whodunits in the sense of clues, red herrings, and the unmasking of the killer/killers toward the end. Yet character remains critical for me. I like to put my protagonists in uncomfortable situations and let that drive the story. They are, I hope, more than cyphers solving the puzzle. They have deeply personal motives for finding the killer, which can cloud their judgement or make their decisions/actions personally painful or costly. I've never understood the plot v. character debate. It should always be both. One without the other is flat. Some of my ideas start with characters, some with plot, but both are deeply intertwined in the story. I don't write many short stories, but there I've done a mix of whodunits and more crime/character pieces.

  11. I didn't mean to respond above as "unknown."


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