In Classical mythology, variously resumed by writers of the Renaissance, the earliest period of humanity, imagined as one of uncomplicated harmony and happiness, particularly in pastoral writing (for which sense, further consult Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance, 1969). In Spanish, the term refers to the greatest period of literature in that language, usually taken to be from about 1500 to the death of Calderón in 1681.
In the context of the detective story, however, the term denotes (not without some ironic exaggeration) a period of uncomplicated happiness for devotees of such fiction, usually associated with the period 1920–39 in England, although some date it back to 1913. This was the period in which appeared such major new talents as Agatha Christie (from 1920 with her series detective Hercule Poirot and from 1930 with Miss Marple), Dorothy L. Sayers (from 1923 with Lord Peter Wimsey), Margery Allingham (from 1929 with Albert Campion), Gladys Mitchell (from 1929 with Mrs Lestrange Bradley), and Nicholas Blake (from 1935 with Nigel Strangeways). The distinctive new feature of detective fiction in the Golden Age was the cultivation of the murder-mystery narrative as a light-hearted intellectual puzzle, no longer as a sensational treatment of bloody outrages. A new kind of detective figure also appears in this period, noted for a self-mocking strain of humour and for aesthetic connoisseurship of criminal enigmas, by contrast with the earnest dedication to battling crime shown by Sherlock Holmes. These detectives delight in exposing violent hatreds behind the apparently orderly and harmless appearances of an English village or country house, and Golden-Age fiction is especially associated with clichés of English social hierarchy, although in fact there were also some significant American contributors to this phase, including S. S. Van Dine (from 1926 with Philo Vance) and ‘Ellery Queen’ (from 1929). For a fuller account, consult Lee Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (2005).