The Golden Age of detective fiction

The Golden Age was filled with riddled crimes that used clue-puzzles that were to be solved by an investigating agent (Ascari). In the decades that proceeded the Golden Age, the popularity of sub-genres as diverse as the hard-boiled, the crime novels contained the materiality of the victim’s body, the physical, the emotional and legal vulnerability of the detective and the psychology of the criminal” (Ascari). The characteristics that shaped these sub-genres relied on the nature of truth and the nature of deception, specifically in regards to how these categories were central to relationships in crime fiction novels.

Strangers on a Train (1921) by Patricia Highsmith, Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn and The Dry (2016) by Jane Harper are three novels that use relationships to frame how lies, truth and deception are all interspersed in their respective storylines, are fundamental to crime fiction novels. Concepts used in Highsmith’s hard-boiled novel Stranger on a Train uses the tropes of deception, lies and eventual truth to frame her crime text, and these same tropes have lived on and are still being used in present, 21st century crime fiction novels The Dry and Gone Girl.

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Highsmith, Flynn and Harper achieve this through the theme of appearances, motifs, duality and irony to show how different relationships domestic, close/familiar and distant use deception and truth to frame crime in their texts, making these components essential for crime fiction to be as appealing as it is to readers.

Flynn’s Gone Girl uses theme of marital discord in order for Amy to deceive her husband, Nick, in order for her to frame the crime.

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To the outside world (and readers), Amy’s diary initially depicts herself and Nick to be the quintessential, picture-perfect American couple, and the reason for her the failure of their marriage was a result of stress and strain on their relationship. Generally, diaries are used as objects where people share their thoughts and reveal who they really are it is an honest space. The oxymoron of Amy’s honest diary being used as a ploy to hide the truth is what makes the later revelation of its inauthenticity much stronger. At the beginning of the novel, Nick is oblivious to the web of lies Amy has spun, however he is aware of the strain that their marriage has and his uncertainty of if he really knows who Amy is. This unreliability is present from the beginning of the novel where Nick narrates:

“Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?” (3)

This quote places uncertainty into the readers’ minds, showing how the paradox of their muddled relationship filled with hidden truths, irrespective of their intimacy with one another is placed at the forefront of the novel. The strong imagery of him picking at her brain, trying to know who she really is, foreshadows the impending intensity and violence that takes place later on in the novel. Nick’s uncertainty and unreliability in his and Amy’s marriage is prominent through the multiple questions at the conclusion of the quotation, that intensify through each question. The content of these questions stem from thoughts that Nick cannot receive answers to without Amy directly telling him, to ones that are poignant enough to readers, that they can see how broken their relationship is and how distant they are from one another. As the novel progresses, Amy and Nick’s distance from each other becomes more prominent and they are left unaware of what the other is capable of. When Amy’s diary is revealed to be inauthentic, it gives the reader and Nick a glimpse into how manipulative she can be, also revealing how fictitious her marriage has been, and it is not the picture-perfect image she has painted it to be. Flynn’s choice to use the diary in irony, symbolises that regardless of the authentic connotation something has, anything can be a lie.

Similarly, Strangers on a Train uses the theme of appearances to deceive and manipulate characters in the novel. However, unlike Nick and Amy in Gone Girl who are introduced to readers as an already married couple, Bruno and Haines are introduced as strangers and meet at random. Highsmith emphasises the difference in (apparent) personality and physical appearance between Bruno and Haines, portraying them as opposites. As previously mentioned, Amy in Gone Girl uses her diary as a way of keeping up appearances and disguising who she really is, she uses writing to create a vision of what her life and personality are like. Similarly, Bruno uses his appearance to lure and manipulate Haines into the desirability of his wife being killed. Highsmith emphasises this with the narration a gold penknife flashed out his trousers pocket on a gold chain fine as a string. It pleased Guy aesthetically, as a beautiful piece of jewellery might have (30). This simile, comparing Bruno’s gold chain and penknife to something as appealing as jewellery is whilst discussing the murder on the train symbolises the same appeal Haines has towards Miriam being murdered. Gold and jewellery are often associated with wealth and value, and these same associations are linked to Haines intrigue of the value killing his wife has. Whilst this quote is about Bruno’s physical appearance, Highsmith is also giving readers insight into how prone to deceit Haines is. Like Nick in Gone Girl, Haines uncertainty and illogical thinking is shown to readers from the offset of the novel how hatred has clouded his judgement. This is seen when it is narrated hate had begun to paralyse his thinking, he realised, to make blind little alleys of the roads that logic had pointed out to him in New York (9). Haines is consumed with appeal of divorcing Miriam, the woman he despises due to her infidelity, and marrying the woman he believes he truly does. This is what ultimately makes Haines more susceptible to manipulation from Bruno, and Bruno uses this to his advantage when he offers that he murders Miriam, and Haines murders his father. Bruno achieves this by his use of persuasive language, assuring that criminal acts and killing are acts that are innate – that anyone, universally, can commit crimes to this extent and more. The regular, ordinary lifestyle of the world Highsmith has created in Strangers on a Train is juxtaposed with the eccentric and irrational traits her characters possess. This parallels with Bruno’s aforementioned statement about committing a crime in an ordinary world making the act seem normal. This foreshadows the way Haines reacts to Miriam’s murder. To readers, the seemingly regular world makes it appear as though everything is regular, and the reaction to Miriam’s murder would be regular. However, Highsmith shocks readers with Haines decision to not contact the police after he sees Miriam has been murdered. The irony in this act by Haines is that he is a character who respects logic, though his unexplainable reasoning for not reporting Bruno is an illogical act. Highsmith uses this attention to detail of everyday life and Bruno’s influence to highlight the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that these two characters have, being both opposites and alike. Their relationship, although foreign initially, is built around lies and manipulation, just as Nick and Amy’s relationship is in Gone Girl.

In comparison, The Dry explores the motif of hiding through Falk’s relationship to the town and the unknown that is attached with Kiewarra Hiding is introduced by Harper in the first chapter of the novel when Falk is trying to conceal his identity at the funeral, where it is narrated:

“Pale from birth with close-cropped white-blond hair and invisible eyelashes, he’d often felt during his thirty-six years that the Australian sun was trying to tell him something. It was a message easier to ignore in the tall shadows of Melbourne than in Kiewarra, where shade was a fleeting commodity.” (4)

Harper’s use of adjectives like close-cropped and invisible are symbolic of Falk’s outward, physical appearance emanating the way he feels on the inside. He is desperate to be unseen. The latter part of the quotation emphasises how Falk has been able to hide from Kiewarra and the community associated with it. Falk has adjusted to hiding from his past by living in the city, trying to be a different person. The juxtaposition of the tall shadows and shade against the Australian sun that indicates how in Kiewarra, there is no space to hide, with limited amount of shade to conceal himself from the town. The community of Kiewarra appear to be the quintessential, small-town community where everyone knows of and about each other. This is evident when Falk is at the funeral, five years since he was last in Kiewarra, and takes a glance around:

Falk removed his hat and discreetly fanned himself. He couldn’t help glancing around. Faces that at first had seemed unfamiliar came more sharply into focus. An older man two rows back caught Falk’s eye with a nod and they exchanged a sad smile of recognition. What was his name? Falk tried to remember. He couldn’t focus.

In this quotation, Harper is focusing on how Falk is desperate to conceal himself, with the adjective discreetly, though ironically, Falk is part of and just like the community that he doesn’t want to be a part of, when he can’t help looking to see who is in attendance. This community who wants to know about everyone’s business, he does too. Like both Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train, the initial chapters in these texts foreshadow what these characters are going to go through throughout the text, and it is done so through irony. In particular, Falk’s curiosity and glancing around when he is trying to remain discreet, foreshadows Falk’s impending involvement in the town and how he ends up settling back in. The same way, that Falk recognises the town and the people in it, he is struggling to remember who these people really are, but he can’t remember when he does not focus. This is symbolic of the foreshadowing that is always occurring because of the unknown. It is not until he begins to focus as a policeman and detective that he is able to remember more about the town he once called home, and learn the truth about how he has been deceived by Kiewarra and the community attached to it.

Gone Girl emphasises how Amy’s manipulation of Nick leads to the truth of her disappearance being revealed. In addition, Amy gifts Nick puppets Punch and Judy for their wedding anniversary. What is supposed to be a romantic gesture and symbolise their happy marriage, is actually a way for Amy to reveal to Nick that she is in control of the crime that she has framed him for. The storyline of Punch and Judy centralises around a father, Punch, who kills his child and when his wife, Judy, becomes aware of the murder he has committed, Punch kills her. Amy’s choice to use these particular puppets as a gift is symbolic of how she is framing Nick, as if he has mirrored the actions of Punch in the puppet narrative, and she supposedly plays the role of Judy. However, in Nick and Amy’s narrative, Amy is the puppet master not just by controlling Nick, but everyone who is aware of her disappearance. Amy’s diary entry on June 26, 2012 (229) shows how she has cast herself as the victim, and Nick is dangerous:

“Nick married me when I was a young, rich, beautiful woman, and now I am poor, jobless, closer to forty than thirty; I’m just not pretty anymore, I am pretty for my age. It is the truth: My value has decreased. I can tell by the way Nick looks at me. But it’s not the look of a guy who took a tumble on an honest bet . . . it may be the look of a man who is trapped. He might have been able to divorce me before the baby. But he would never do that now, not Good Guy Nick. . . He’d rather stay and suffer with me. Suffer and resent and rage. “(230)

This diary entry is how Amy frames her manipulation to the readers (both of the novel and the people in the text). She makes herself seem like the victim, that it is her fault because she is aging, allowing readers to pity her. Amy’s cynical tone of Nick and how he is Good Guy Nick, trapped in this relationship, perceives Nick as being unsympathetic. Amy continues on to show how dangerous he is, escalating in how she believes he would harm her and her baby the same end result Judy receives from Punch:

“I won’t get an abortion and I won’t divorce Nick . . . this is my husband, this man will be the father of my children. We’ll all be so happy. But I may be wrong, I may be very wrong. Because sometimes, the way he looks at me? That sweet boy from the beach, man of my dreams, the father of my child? I catch him looking at me with those watchful eyes, the eyes of an insect, pure calculation, and I think: This man might kill me.” (231)

She starts to paint her ideal picture of Nick and then immediately reveals that he is not who he seems to be he is murderous. However, she actually is the one who takes the role of Punch, but chooses to kill Nick by having to be her puppet and have their picture-perfect relationship seem as it is in the end. It is after he is aware that she has framed him, that there is a doubling between their personalities. Nick also wants to have the opportunity to torment Amy, and he uses the media to do so, making her go back to him. Ironically, the relationship between Nick and Amy is the most honest it has been since before her disappearance, and his knowing of what she has done framing him they now have something authentically in common. The conclusion of their story is not left happy, but rather they must both live in a twisted, marriage stuck with one another, living the lie that they have both created his is how their crimes are solved.

Furthermore, Highsmith’s idea that anyone is capable of murder strengthens with Bruno’s confidence in himself that he can persuade Guy to commit the murder he wants him to commit, but it is the response to the killing that differs from the other texts. In Strangers on a Train, Highsmith has painted as being good and Bruno as evil. However, the duality between the two characters shows that they both have evil and good inherent within them, regardless of the character they are perceived to be. Because of Bruno’s lonely life, when he kills Miriam, he does not necessarily feel any guilt, but he feels rather fulfilled giving some meaning to his life. Because Bruno is depicted to be the evil one, it is not a surprise that commits this crime. However, it is when Guy kills Bruno’s father that the narrative takes a shocking turn, and Highsmith’s notion is affirmed. Unlike Bruno, though, Guy does feel guilty:

“And who knew? Perhaps it was Bruno who kept him from getting jobs now. The creation of a building was a spiritual act. So long as he harboured his knowledge of Bruno’s guilt, he corrupted himself in a sense (131) . . . In the past month, he had washed and repainted all his bookshelves, had his carpet and curtains cleans, and had scrubbed his kitchenette until its porcelain and aluminium gleamed” (177).

In the first part of the quotation, it shows how tainted his soul has become after learning that Miriam has been killed by Bruno, and as an architect, Guy can’t continue working in his profession, as the guilt consumes him more and more. In the second half of the quotation, the obsessive cleaning that he does is a way for him to physically clean as an attempt to cleanse his soul. The guilt builds up. This dualism between Bruno and Guy regardless of the level of their guilt shows that regardless of being inherently good or evil, they both had the ability to kill, commit murder, commit a crime. Similarly, in Gone Girl, Nick chooses to manipulate Amy and Haines commits murder the same way Bruno did. In contrast, The Dry’s motive to kill and the response from Falk after learning the truth, does not follow this same idea, however, Ellie’s father’s reason for killing Ellie was due to a form of revenge.

In conclusion, Strangers on a Train, Gone Girl and The Dry all contain aspects of truth, deceit and lies to frame their narratives. Through initial foreshadowing in each text and the ways key characters manipulate and omit the truth in their relationships, Highsmith, Flynn and Harper show the lengths people will go to in order to gain revenge. Although these texts focus on different kinds of relationships The Dry, community-based relationships, Strangers on a Train, strangers becoming acquaintances and Gone Girl, marriage they use the themes of manipulation and deceit, through motifs, symbolism and irony to commit a crime and/or solve it. It is through the variance of these relationships that readers can see how fundamental truth and deception are to crime fiction. It is because of the reader’s close connection and familiarity with these relationships, along with the realistic aspects of crime fiction make it as compelling as it is there is your recipe for detective fiction: the art of framing lies (Dorothy Sayers).

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The Golden Age of detective fiction. (2019, Dec 19). Retrieved from

The Golden Age of detective fiction

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