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Commemorating Forgetting: 1922 and Golden Age Detective Fiction

Detective fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, the genre’s “Golden Age,” is concerned with a desire to mitigate the moral injustices of the war, symbolized by the solution of the crime and the resolution of the narrative. In order to do this, Golden Age detective fiction avoids graphic or explicit depictions of violence and death even as its plots are primarily concerned with murder; as Alison Light puts it, “fleshiness, either figuratively or literally, was … in gross bad taste after the butchery many had witnessed.”[1] It is a genre, we might say, traumatized by its context. One hundred years on from the Golden Age, what does it mean to commemorate in narrative the denial of other memories: what does it mean to commemorate forgetting? Two novels published in 1922, Agatha Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary, and A.A. Milne’s first novel for adults, The Red House Mystery, each insist on reality over fiction, working to keep the secret of the traumas of the First World War. This secret-keeping operates in direct conflict with the readerly epistemophilia critical to the function of the detective novel as well as the contemporary desire to commemorate the past. Ultimately, despite what appears to be the genre’s determination simply to repress its own origins, contemporary commemoration must recognize detective fiction more specifically as a genre traumatized and thus unable to remember or to historicize.

The year 1922 was a watershed moment for modernism, a year which saw the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room; it was the year in which Elizabeth Bowen wrote her first collection of short stories, Encounters (published in 1923), and in which F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to set The Great Gatsby (1925), since for him it was the “definitive moment of the Jazz Age.”[2] It is a year, then, in which we can observe “a larger, more general separation of the avant-garde from the backward,” a profound split between the experiments of modernism and Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new” and the conservatism or shock of the new associated with the long shadow of the Victorian period—“a time of open generational conflict,” and in England, “the first real postwar year” (North, Reading 1922, 3, 4, 5). In other words, 1922 symbolizes more than the coincidental publication of several major works of high modernism: it is a moment in which the military conflict of the past decade was translated as literary and cultural conflict – between generations, between genres, and perhaps most profoundly, even between the past and the present. It is this last with which we are concerned here, as the lived experience of the First World War and its aftermath becomes encoded in cultural memory, national identity, and public narrative.

Like those prominent works of modernism, detective fiction is particularly preoccupied with this project and as a popular narrative form holds perhaps more sway over public thought than the arguably more inaccessible forms exemplified by Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf. Lise Jaillant has observed the publication proximity of modernist and detective fiction, a simultaneity which testifies to an overlap in concerns, rather than an opposition between so-called high and low culture.[3] Ezra Pound’s unfinished detective novel, The Blue Spill (1930), is a case in point.[4] Indeed, Matthew Levay notes that later in the modernist period a writer like Graham Greene would develop “an approach to subjectivity and its representation that blended the modernist critique of a stable, coherent self with the stock characteristics and narrative devices prominent in twentieth-century detective fiction.”[5] Even earlier than Levay has observed in Greene’s work, Christie’s and Milne’s examples of detective fiction published in 1922, the year frequently termed the annus mirabilis of modernism, also demonstrate this kind of self-consciousness about their form.

Indeed, for both Alison Light and Samantha Walton, “Christie’s novels were a form of popular modernism replete with unstable identity constructions, disordered linearity, and an interest in social masks” (Light, Forever England, 88).[6] Such an alignment between the two genres may seem surprising, given the superficial distinction between them in terms of their attitude to innovative or formulaic narrative. But such an alignment reveals that Golden Age detective fiction might be less able to provide resolution and reassurance—indeed, might not be interested in doing so—than is typically thought. That is, as Walton suggests, “the artificiality of closure and reassurance” in detective fiction should actually be seen as something of an in-joke shared by writer and criminal, “at the expense of the over-confident detective and the gullible reader, engaged in their precarious attempts to stave off irrationality and meaninglessness” (Guilty but Insane, 53). “If it is the case that interwar detective fiction is reassuring,” she adds, “it is only so because its authors … consciously excluded irrational elements of myth and psyche which were so influential in modernism’s approach to character and plot” (56). Similarly, Gill Plain adds, the avoidance of explicit violence in Golden Age detective fiction signifies a “transition from fragmentation to wholeness,” in which “the wartime absence of explanation is superseded by detective fiction’s excess of possible solutions. Thus the fragmented, inexplicable and even unattributable corpses of war are replaced by the whole, over-explained, completely known bodies of detection.”[7] For Eric Sandberg, the “disembodied corpse of Golden Age fiction” is not, therefore,

… a sign of the author or audience’s squeamishness, but a marker of a post-war social and psychological need for a representative, unblemished body to mask and compensate for the terrible reality of wartime death. The Golden Age body is a textual Cenotaph, a whole (and wholly explicable) body sacrificed through the detective plot to help heal the damages of war. It is a consolatory response…[8]

Sandberg’s model of the “Golden Age body” as a “textual Cenotaph” evokes the genre’s complex commemorative task, its insistence on emptiness and absence in place of horrific truth. This “conscious,” “compensat[ory],” and “criminal” exclusion of disturbance can be seen to extend to the treatment of war and trauma in The Secret Adversary and The Red House Mystery, novels which commemorate forgetting through the deliberate removal of the irrational element of trauma by turning it to a discourse of reassurance. “Golden age detective fiction celebrates the triumph of the reasonable solution,” Walton asserts—but I suggest that in these novels this “reasonable solution,” an orderly and coherent narrative, comes to function as a disguise for unreason and irrationality (trauma) (Guilty but Insane, 49).

Trauma theory holds that traumatic experience is described precisely by its forgetting, or what Cathy Caruth terms the period of “latency” which means that trauma is not seen or known at the time of its occurrence, but only later:

The experience of trauma, the fact of latency, would thus seem to consist, not in the forgetting of a reality that can hence never be fully known; but in an inherent latency within the experience itself. The historical power of the trauma is not just that the experience is repeated after its forgetting, but that it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all … a history can be grasped only in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence.[9]

In constructing “artificial” narratives of “closure and reassurance,” Christie and Milne encrypt the latency of traumatic experience through a determination to forget, to keep the secret of trauma from the reader. Even as the specter of trauma attempts to return, via the lifeless body of the murder victim, the detective narrative attempts to repress it, to resolve it. In doing so, these novels enact trauma’s “inaccessibility” and “historical power,” at once denying and testifying to its presence in the interwar period.

Man getting out of box
Fig. 1. First edition cover of AA Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922), illustrated by Frank Wright.
Bear removing a human mask
Fig. 2. First edition cover of Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (1922), illustrated by Ernest Akers.

The explicit description of “secret” and “mystery” in both titles, as well as the first edition covers of both The Secret Adversary and The Red House Mystery, immediately suggest the linear movement from hiding to revelation, the narrative logic of epistemophilia which propels the reader through the detective story. At its conclusion, the detective genre assures us, connections will be made, clues will be interpreted, the criminal will be apprehended, the story will be made whole. Yet, it is the very claim that all has been revealed, that nothing remains to be solved, which works to keep the secret of trauma. Nothing to see here, the detective asserts: move along now. Yet even though the criminal is (literally) unmasked at the end of each narrative, the trauma of profound cultural and individual disruption is not.

This is particularly interesting in the case of Christie’s The Secret Adversary, since central to its plot is the sinking of the Lusitania, a British vessel carrying thousands of primarily British and American passengers, sunk by a German U-boat in 1915. The discovery of a missing young woman, Jane Finn, who had been aboard that ship, constitutes the initial task for Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence in their first appearance as amateur detectives. Jane’s inadvertent possession of a cache of secret documents which could instigate another world war has put her in the grasp of a criminal gang; the only way she can protect these documents and her own life is to pretend that she has lost her memory and her identity in the sinking of the Lusitania. Jane’s experience thus describes the way in which the war comes to invade the life of even the most innocent civilian, but perhaps more importantly, how she disguises the truth through the logic of trauma in her masquerade of memory loss. What this means is that when her amnesia is exposed as a performance, the associated trauma becomes only a fiction, a convenient lie presented for the purpose of protection. The narrative’s insistence, then, on Jane’s reality as opposed to the false identity of the French Annette, works to bury the trauma by casting it as fiction.

Ship tipping over and sinking at sea
Fig. 3. Unidentified artist’s rendering of the sinking of the Lusitania. Used under Creative Commons Licence provided by the German Federal Archive.

Just as in The Secret Adversary, The Red House Mystery is also described by acts of performance, secrecy, and disguise central to its plot. Mark Ablett, the wealthy murder victim and owner of the house, unwittingly choreographs his own death by dressing up and behaving as his long-lost, ne’er-do-well brother, just has he had always “arrange[d] things.”[10] Indeed, he had always been an actor—“so long as he had the stage to himself and was playing to an admiring audience”: “[h]is whole life was make-believe, and just now he was pretending to be a philanthropist” (Milne, Red House Mystery, 197, 192). His performance is later matched by his confidant and murderer, Matthew Cayley, who “could hide his feelings very easily beneath that heavy, solid face, and it was not often that the real Cayley peeped out” (88). The criminal of The Secret Adversary, Sir James Peel Edgerton, also works through this very subtle form of disguise, hiding himself and his evil project in plain sight:

If I had chosen to be an actor, I should have been the greatest actor living! No disguises – no grease paint – no false beards! Personality! I put it on like a glove! When I shed it, I was myself, quiet, unobtrusive, a man like every other man. I called myself Mr. Brown. There are hundreds of men called Brown – there are hundreds of men looking just like me.[11]

But as in Christie’s novel, in The Red House Mystery these performances become a way to mask the traumatic disruptive potential of the murder narrative. At the novel’s end, Cayley, the criminal, asserts: “You have found out the secret—that Robert was Mark—and that is all that matters” (Milne, Red House Mystery, 202). His certainty could not be clearer: resolution has been achieved, the fragments of clues in the narrative connected, and the crime solved. We need look no further, dwell on the dead body no longer. The violent irruption has been quelled.

As a function of this interest in artifice, both The Secret Adversary and The Red House Mystery are also explicit in their self-consciousness of form. In Christie’s novel, Tommy imitates the language and style of interview techniques “culled from detective fiction. ‘When did you last see the dece—your cousin, I mean?’”, as well as methods for tailing a suspect, since he is “familiar with the technicalities from a course of novel reading” (Secret Adversary, 53, 65). Similarly, in Milne’s work, Antony Gillingham, the novel’s amateur detective, fancies himself as a Sherlock-figure, and recruits his friend, Bill Beverley, as his Watson:

Are you prepared to be the complete Watson? … Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself—all that kind of thing? Because it all helps. (Milne, Red House Mystery, 69)

More than this, Antony calls on the formula of the detective genre to inform his own investigations, noting, for instance, that “I oughtn’t to explain till the last chapter” (71–72). Even Elsie the housemaid appreciates the logic of the detective narrative, calling on it as she hovers outside a locked door through her understanding that “it was hard to listen in silence when she knew so well from her novelettes just what happened on these occasions,” while Cayley, the villain, similarly defers to these expectations in his observation that, “[f]rom what I’ve read of detective stories, inspectors always do want to drag the pond first” (40, 88). But in contrast to these assertions of the influence or model of fiction as applying to the real, Bill describes the adventure and excitement of their murder investigation as “the real thing. This was life,” and relishes the fact that he now can do “that sort of thing” as people do “in books”: “he had been filled with a hopeless envy of them; well, now he was actually going to do it himself” (81, 120). And in The Secret Adversary, Tuppence’s realization of the danger inherent in their mission is expressed in similar terms: “It had begun like a page of romance. Now, shorn of its glamour, it seemed to be turning to grim reality” (Christie, 121). Bill’s and Tuppence’s recasting of the fictional experience as real underscores each novel’s insistence on the authenticity of its resolution. In other words, both novels work hard to convince the reader that although they, and the characters, thought themselves to be involved in a work of fiction, each story is in fact “real,” and its conclusion is not artificial or imposed, but logical, reasonable, and complete. In every sense, there are no remains.

Kathryn Hendrickson has argued that “[t]he crucial differentiation between a malingering soldier or a sufferer from shell shock relied on the person’s ability to recover, erasing the trauma as though it had never been and embracing a return to the identity of the brave soldier, once more reinforcing the integrity of the nation’s continued identity of domination.”[12] Hendrickson’s point suggests that the strength of individual and collective identity in a time of crisis and its aftermath depends on the erasure or denial of the trauma. It is the task of the detective within the “consolatory response” of the detective novel to “[expunge] the strains of trauma and [relegate] them to the past” (Sandberg, “‘The Body in the Bath’”, 6; Hendrickson, “Whose Trauma?”, 53). Christie’s and Milne’s novels do this through their engagement with models of secrecy and performance, so that exposure of the acts of the crime as such is artificially and superficially aligned with an assertion of resolution, certainty, safety, and the removal of the threat of violence and death. In doing so, they might be seen to commemorate and enshrine the act of forgetting. However, Caruth’s model of the “historical power of trauma” complicates this view of detective fiction’s attitude to trauma. The epigraph to Caruth’s essay, taken from Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), emphasizes trauma’s belatedness, the latency between knowing and seeing:

it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes. (181)

Herr’s point is also foreshadowed by Antony in The Red House Mystery, who possesses an “uncanny” ability to recall what he has observed, even if he did not realize its significance at the time (Milne, Red House Mystery, 70). What this can be seen to suggest is that even as both Christie’s and Milne’s novels seem to smooth away the threat of traumatic experience, they point to the way in which that resolution is only artifice. In other words, detective fiction exists within the period of latency, of not yet recognizing or commemorating the past. What is profound about these Golden Age novels of 1922, however, is their oblique awareness of that latency, a self-consciousness approaching or even aligned with the irrational and fragmentary concerns of modernism.


[1] Alison Light, Forever England: Femininity, literature and conservatism between the wars, (London: Routledge, 1991), 70.

[2] Michael North, Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4.

[3] Lise Jaillant, “Blurring the Boundaries: Fourteen Great Detective Stories and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the Modern Library Series,” James Joyce Quarterly 50, no. 3 (2013): 767–95; see also Matthew Levay, Violent Minds: Modernism and the Criminal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 125.

[4] Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge, The Blue Spill: A Manuscript Critical Edition, ed. Mark Byron and Sophia Barnes (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

[5] Matthew Levay, “The Entertainments of Late Modernism: Graham Greene and the Career Criminal,” Modernist Cultures 5, no. 2 (2010): 317; see also Stephen Knight, ‘The Golden Age’, The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, ed. Martin Priestman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 77-94, 90.

[6] Samantha Walton, Guilty But Insane: Mind and Law in Golden Age Detective Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 53.

[7] Gill Plain, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction: Gender, Sexuality and the Body (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 33, 34.

[8] Eric Sandberg, “‘The Body in the Bath’: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Whose Body? and Embodied Detective Fiction,” Journal of Modern Literature 42, no. 2 (2019): 6.

[9] Cathy Caruth, “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History,” Yale French Studies, 79 (1991): 186, 187.

[10] A.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery (1922; rpt., London: Vintage, 2009), 59.

[11] Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary (1922; rpt., London: Harper Collins, 2015), 317–18.

[12] Kathryn Hendrickson, “Whose Trauma? Dorothy L. Sayers’s Use of Shell Shock and the Role of Memory in Interwar Detective Fiction,” Clues 37, no. 2 (2019): 52–53.