Most of my reading is a futile attempt to keep up with everything going on today, so I don't always get to go back into the archives as much as I'd like to. And yet, every time I do go back to the Golden Age, I find the reason that I have been attracted to this genre my entire life. (Well, post-grammar school, at least, but even back then I was reading about Boy Detectives and feeling sure I could handle their cases better than they could.)
Late least year I found myself in one of those wonderful old New England bookstores, where musty old books sit alongside the recently published. What I love about that experience is the complete lack of dustjackets on those books. Without a dustjacket, one cannot judge a book by its cover; one must flip through, read the first few pages, and so forth - though, of course, one could often find the plot summary on the first leaf.
I chose a very nicely preserved 1934 work by Henry Holt titled THE SINISTER SHADOW (originally titled CALLING ALL CARS in England; I much prefer the U.S. title), having no idea what I was in for, but quite liking the first page, which begins "Goggle-eyed tourists may safely pass along the Rue Bistre, in the heights of Montmartre, during the day-time, but if they will go into such places after dark many things may happen."
Our heroine, Margot, is down in the depths of Montmartre at a seedy bar called The Brown Rat (not exactly inviting, is it?), trying to find the lowlife who framed her brother for murder. She saves an English visitor who's flashing too much money around from getting mugged and maybe killed, and before we know it, the two have teamed up to get to the bottom of things. In the meantime, a sinister villain who calls himself "The Shadow" has accomplished a series of daring heists - including the theft of jewels from a visiting Arabian prince - and somehow, somehow, he fits into all of this.
How do I love this book? Let me count the ways.
First, these are thoroughly likable characters. They are the good guys. Margot's looking for justice, and her new partner, Owen McCloud, is suffering from post-war PTSD; helping her with the case actually helps HIM too. The inspector in charge, Inspector Silver, is competent, clever, confident without being cocky. He has a quite hilarious rivalry with a friend (though he'd never use such a term), the local crime reporter with whom he has a timeless rivalry for dominance. The friendships here feel real and have true warmth; and the burgeoning romance between Owen and Margot is touching. The reader WANTS these two to get together, not because they've been fighting or keeping each other at bay and playing hard to get, but rather because their chemistry and connection is so clear.
And as for The Shadow--I know, it all sounds so 1930s, some supervillain running around pulling heists, while also playing cat-and-mouse with the police. But it's fun, great fun watching the villain square off against the good guys, without torture, or intense violence, or serial killing, or any of the other staples of today's fiction. (This is not a swipe at modern crime fiction, but rather an appreciation for a different aspect of the genre.)
Add to all of these elements some really good suspense - I didn't want to put the book down - as well as a solid mystery and one of those surprise endings that I adore, and you have yourself a book that should not have found itself in the dustbin of history. I can't say that all the Golden Age books that I read hold up to a modern read (for example, I know Elisabeth Sanxay Holding has her adherents, but they always seem to me to be Women in a Time Warp), but Henry Holt does. If your local library has any of them, do give them a try.