Mystery fiction

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Cover of the pulp mystery-fiction magazine Mystery (January 1934) Mystery January 1934.jpg
Cover of the pulp mystery-fiction magazine Mystery (January 1934)

Mystery is a fiction genre where the nature of an event, usually a murder or other crime, remains mysterious until the end of the story. [1] Often within a closed circle of suspects, each suspect is usually provided with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The central character is often a detective (such as Sherlock Holmes), who eventually solves the mystery by logical deduction from facts presented to the reader. [2] Some mystery books are non-fiction. Mystery fiction can be detective stories in which the emphasis is on the puzzle or suspense element and its logical solution such as a whodunit. Mystery fiction can be contrasted with hardboiled detective stories, which focus on action and gritty realism.


Mystery fiction can involve a supernatural mystery in which the solution does not have to be logical and even in which there is no crime involved. This usage was common in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, whose titles such as Dime Mystery, Thrilling Mystery, and Spicy Mystery offered what were then described as complicated to solve and weird stories: supernatural horror in the vein of Grand Guignol . That contrasted with parallel titles of the same names which contained conventional hardboiled crime fiction. The first use of "mystery" in that sense was by Dime Mystery, which started out as an ordinary crime fiction magazine but switched to "weird menace" during the later part of 1933. [3]


The genre of mystery novels is a young form of literature that has developed since the early 19th century. The rise of literacy began in the years of the English Renaissance and, as people began to read over time, they became more individualistic in their thinking. As people became more individualistic in their thinking, they developed a respect for human reason and the ability to solve problems. [4] [5]

Perhaps a reason that mystery fiction was unheard of before the 19th century was due in part to the lack of true police forces. Before the Industrial Revolution, many towns would have constables and a night watchman at best. Naturally, the constable would be aware of every individual in the town, and crimes were either solved quickly or left unsolved entirely. As people began to crowd into cities, police forces became institutionalized, and the need for detectives was realized – thus the mystery novel arose. [6]

Novels by Agatha Christie Mystery collection (3219160455).jpg
Novels by Agatha Christie

An early work of modern mystery fiction, Das Fräulein von Scuderi by E. T. A. Hoffmann (1819), was an influence on The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841) as may have been Voltaire's Zadig (1747). Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White was published in 1860, while The Moonstone (1868) is often thought to be his masterpiece. In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes, whose mysteries are said to have been singularly responsible for the huge popularity in this genre. In 1901 Maurice Leblanc created gentleman burglar, Arsène Lupin, whose creative imagination rivaled the "deduction" of Sherlock Holmes, who was disparagingly included in some Lupin stories under obvious pseudonyms.

The genre began to expand near the turn of the century with the development of dime novels and pulp magazines. Books were especially helpful to the genre, with many authors writing in the genre in the 1920s. An important contribution to mystery fiction in the 1920s was the development of the juvenile mystery by Edward Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer originally developed and wrote the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries written under the Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene pseudonyms respectively (and were later written by his daughter, Harriet Adams, and other authors). The 1920s also gave rise to one of the most popular mystery authors of all time, Agatha Christie, whose works include Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and the world's best-selling mystery And Then There Were None (1939). [7]

The massive popularity of pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s increased interest in mystery fiction. Pulp magazines decreased in popularity in the 1950s with the rise of television, so much that the numerous titles available then are reduced to two today: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine —both now published by Dell Magazines, a division of Crosstown Publications. The detective fiction author Ellery Queen (pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) is also credited with continuing interest in mystery fiction.

21st century

Interest in mystery fiction continues to this day partly because of various television shows which have used mystery themes and the many juvenile and adult novels which continue to be published. There is some overlap with "thriller" or "suspense" novels and authors in those genres may consider themselves mystery novelists. Comic books and graphic novels have carried on the tradition, and film adaptations or the even-more-recent web-based detective series, have helped to re-popularize the genre in recent times. [8]


Detective fiction

Though the origins of the genre date back to ancient literature and One Thousand and One Nights, the modern detective story as it is konwn today was invented by Edgar Allan Poe in the mid-19th century through his short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", which featured arguably the world's first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. However, detective fiction was popularized only later, in the late 19th century, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, considered milestones in crime fiction.

The detective story shares some similarities with mystery fiction in that it also has a mystery to be solved, clues, red herrings, some plot twists along the way and a detective denouement, but differs on several points. Most of the Sherlock Holmes stories feature no suspects at all, while mystery fiction, in contrast, features a large number of them. As noted, detective stories feature professional and retired detectives, while mystery fiction almost exclusively features amateur detectives. Finally, detective stories focus on the detective and how the crime was solved, while mystery fiction concentrates on the identity of the culprit and how the crime was committed, a distinction that separated And Then There Were None from other works of Agatha Christie.

A common subgenre of detective fiction is the Whodunit. Whodunits experienced an increase in popularity during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction of the 1920s-1940s, when it was the primary style of detective fiction. This subgenre is classified as a detective story where the reader is given clues throughout as to who the culprit is, giving the reader the opportunity to solve the crime before it is revealed. During the Golden Age, whodunits were written primarily by women, however Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone is often recognized as one of the first examples of the genre. [9]

True crime

True crime is a literary genre that recounts real crimes committed by real people, almost half focusing on serial killers. Criticized by many as being insensitive to those personally acquainted with the incidents, it is often categorized as trash culture. Having basis on reality, it shares more similarities with docufiction than the mystery genre. Unlike fiction of the kind, it does not focus much on the identity of the culprit and has no red herrings or clues, but often emphasizes how the culprit was caught and their motivations behind their actions.

Cozy mystery

Cozy mysteries began in the late 20th century as a reinvention of the Golden Age whodunit; these novels generally shy away from violence and suspense and frequently feature female amateur detectives. Modern cozy mysteries are frequently, though not necessarily in either case, humorous and thematic. This genre features minimal violence, sex and social relevance, a solution achieved by intellect or intuition rather than police procedure, with order restored in the end, honorable characters, and a setting in a closed community. The murders are often committed by less violent tools such as poison and the wounds inflicted are rarely if ever used as clues. The writers who innovated and popularized the genre include Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Elizabeth Daly.

The legal thriller or courtroom novel is also related to detective fiction. The system of justice itself is always a major part of these works, at times almost functioning as one of the characters. In this way, the legal system provides the framework for the legal thriller as much as the system of modern police work does for the police procedural. The legal thriller usually starts its business with the court proceedings following the closure of an investigation, often resulting in a new angle on the investigation, so as to bring about a final outcome different from the one originally devised by the investigators. In the legal thriller, court proceedings play a very active, if not to say decisive part in a case reaching its ultimate solution. Erle Stanley Gardner popularized the courtroom novel in the 20th century with his Perry Mason series. Contemporary authors of legal thrillers include Michael Connelly, Linda Fairstein, John Grisham, John Lescroart, Paul Levine, Lisa Scottoline and Scott Turow.

Police procedural

Many detective stories have police officers as the main characters. These stories may take a variety of forms, but many authors try to realistically depict the routine activities of a group of police officers who are frequently working on more than one case simultaneously, providing a stark contrast to the detective-as-superhero archetype of Sherlock Holmes. Some of these stories are whodunits; in others, the criminal is known, and the police must gather enough evidence to charge them with the crime.

In the 1940s the police procedural evolved as a new style of detective fiction. Unlike the heroes of Christie, Chandler, and Spillane, the police detective was subject to error and was constrained by rules and regulations. As Gary Huasladen says in his book Places for Dead Bodies, "not all the clients were insatiable bombshells, and invariably there was life outside the job." The detective in the police procedural does the things police officers do to catch a criminal. Writers of the genre include Ed McBain, P. D. James and Bartholomew Gill.


An inverted detective story, also known as a "howcatchem", is a plot structure of murder mystery fiction in which the commission of the crime is shown or described at the beginning, usually including the identity of the perpetrator. The story then describes the detective's attempt to solve the mystery. There may also be subsidiary puzzles, such as why the crime was committed, and they are explained or resolved during the story. This format is the inversion of the more typical "whodunit", where all of the details of the perpetrator of the crime are not revealed until the story's climax.

Hardboiled fiction

Martin Hewitt, created by British author Arthur Morrison in 1894, is one of the first examples of the modern style of fictional private detective. This character is described as an "'Everyman' detective meant to challenge the detective-as-superman that Holmes represented."

By the late 1920s, Al Capone and the Mob were inspiring not only fear, but piquing mainstream curiosity about the American crime underworld. Popular pulp fiction magazines like Black Mask capitalized on this, as authors such as Carrol John Daly published violent stories that focused on the mayhem and injustice surrounding the criminals, not the circumstances behind the crime. Very often, no actual mystery even existed: the books simply revolved around justice being served to those who deserved harsh treatment, which was described in explicit detail." The overall theme these writers portrayed reflected "the changing face of America itself."

In the 1930s, the private eye genre was adopted wholeheartedly by American writers. One of the primary contributors to this style was Dashiell Hammett with his famous private investigator character, Sam Spade. His style of crime fiction came to be known as "hardboiled", which is described as a genre that "usually deals with criminal activity in a modern urban environment, a world of disconnected signs and anonymous strangers." "Told in stark and sometimes elegant language through the unemotional eyes of new hero-detectives, these stories were an American phenomenon." According to the best-selling author Michael Connelly,"Chandler credited Hammett with taking the mystery out of the drawing-room and putting it out on the street where it belongs." [10]

In the late 1930s, Raymond Chandler updated the form with his private detective Philip Marlowe, who brought a more intimate voice to the detective than the more distanced "operative's report" style of Hammett's Continental Op stories. Despite struggling through the task of plotting a story, his cadenced dialogue and cryptic narrations were musical, evoking the dark alleys and tough thugs, rich women and powerful men about whom he wrote. Several feature and television movies have been made about the Philip Marlowe character. James Hadley Chase wrote a few novels with private eyes as the main heroes, including Blonde's Requiem (1945), Lay Her Among the Lilies (1950), and Figure It Out for Yourself (1950). The heroes of these novels are typical private eyes, very similar to or plagiarizing Raymond Chandler's work.

Ross Macdonald, pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, updated the form again with his detective Lew Archer. Archer, like Hammett's fictional heroes, was a camera eye, with hardly any known past. "Turn Archer sideways, and he disappears," one reviewer wrote. Two of Macdonald's strengths were his use of psychology and his beautiful prose, which was full of imagery. Like other 'hardboiled' writers, Macdonald aimed to give an impression of realism in his work through violence, sex and confrontation. The 1966 movie Harper starring Paul Newman was based on the first Lew Archer story The Moving Target (1949). Newman reprised the role in The Drowning Pool in 1976.

Michael Collins, pseudonym of Dennis Lynds, is generally considered the author who led the form into the Modern Age. His private investigator, Dan Fortune, was consistently involved in the same sort of David-and-Goliath stories that Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald wrote, but Collins took a sociological bent, exploring the meaning of his characters' places in society and the impact society had on people. Full of commentary and clipped prose, his books were more intimate than those of his predecessors, dramatizing that crime can happen in one's own living room.

The PI novel was a male-dominated field in which female authors seldom found publication until Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton were finally published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Each author's detective, also female, was brainy and physical and could hold her own. Their acceptance, and success, caused publishers to seek out other female authors.

Historical mystery

These works are set in a time period considered historical from the author's perspective, and the central plot involves the solving of a mystery or crime (usually murder). Though works combining these genres have existed since at least the early 20th century, many credit Ellis Peters's The Cadfael Chronicles (1977–1994) for popularizing what would become known as the historical mystery.

Locked-room mystery

The locked-room mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction. The crime—almost always murder—is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime and/or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene. The genre was established in the 19th century. Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) is considered the first locked-room mystery; since then, other authors have used the scheme. John Dickson Carr was recognized as a master of the genre and his The Hollow Man was recognized by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers as the best locked-room mystery of all time in 1981. [11] The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, i.e., a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Detective fiction</span> Subgenre of crime and mystery fiction

Detective fiction is a subgenre of crime fiction and mystery fiction in which an investigator or a detective—whether professional, amateur or retired—investigates a crime, often murder. The detective genre began around the same time as speculative fiction and other genre fiction in the mid-nineteenth century and has remained extremely popular, particularly in novels. Some of the most famous heroes of detective fiction include C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot. Juvenile stories featuring The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Boxcar Children have also remained in print for several decades.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Raymond Chandler</span> American novelist and screenwriter (1888–1959)

Raymond Thornton Chandler was an American-British novelist and screenwriter. In 1932, at the age of forty-four, Chandler became a detective fiction writer after losing his job as an oil company executive during the Great Depression. His first short story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot", was published in 1933 in Black Mask, a popular pulp magazine. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. In addition to his short stories, Chandler published seven novels during his lifetime. All but Playback have been made into motion pictures, some more than once. In the year before his death, he was elected president of the Mystery Writers of America.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Whodunit</span> Type of detective story

A whodunit is a complex plot-driven variety of detective fiction in which the puzzle regarding who committed the crime is the main focus. The reader or viewer is provided with the clues to the case, from which the identity of the perpetrator may be deduced before the story provides the revelation itself at its climax. The investigation is usually conducted by an eccentric, amateur, or semi-professional detective.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Crime fiction</span> Genre of fiction focusing on crime

Crime fiction, detective story, murder mystery, mystery novel, and police novel are terms used to describe narratives that centre on criminal acts and especially on the investigation, either by an amateur or a professional detective, of a crime, often a murder. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct. Crime fiction has several subgenres, including detective fiction, courtroom drama, hard-boiled fiction, and legal thrillers. Most crime drama focuses on crime investigation and does not feature the courtroom. Suspense and mystery are key elements that are nearly ubiquitous to the genre.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Historical mystery</span> Literary subgenre

The historical mystery or historical whodunit is a subgenre of two literary genres, historical fiction and mystery fiction. These works are set in a time period considered historical from the author's perspective, and the central plot involves the solving of a mystery or crime. Though works combining these genres have existed since at least the early 20th century, many credit Ellis Peters's Cadfael Chronicles (1977–1994) for popularizing what would become known as the historical mystery. The increasing popularity and prevalence of this type of fiction in subsequent decades has spawned a distinct subgenre recognized by the publishing industry and libraries. Publishers Weekly noted in 2010 of the genre, "The past decade has seen an explosion in both quantity and quality. Never before have so many historical mysteries been published, by so many gifted writers, and covering such a wide range of times and places." Editor Keith Kahla concurs, "From a small group of writers with a very specialized audience, the historical mystery has become a critically acclaimed, award-winning genre with a toehold on the New York Times bestseller list."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ellery Queen</span> Detective fiction writer (joint pseudonym)

Ellery Queen is a pseudonym created in 1928 by the American detective fiction writers Frederic Dannay (1905–1982) and Manfred Bennington Lee (1905–1971). It is also the name of their main fictional detective, a mystery writer in New York City who helps his police inspector father solve baffling murder cases. From 1929 to 1971, Dannay and Lee wrote around forty novels and short story collections in which Ellery Queen appears as a character.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Locked-room mystery</span> Subgenre of detective fiction

The "locked-room" or "impossible crime" mystery is a type of crime seen in crime and detective fiction. The crime in question, typically murder, is committed in circumstances under which it appeared impossible for the perpetrator to enter the crime scene, commit the crime, and leave undetected. The crime in question typically involves a situation whereby an intruder could not have left; for example the original literal "locked room": a murder victim found in a windowless room locked from the inside at the time of discovery. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax.

<i>Black Mask</i> (magazine) Pulp magazine

Black Mask was a pulp magazine first published in April 1920 by the journalist H. L. Mencken and the drama critic George Jean Nathan. It is most well-known today for launching the hardboiled crime subgenre of mystery fiction, publishing now-classic works by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Cornell Woolrich, Paul Cain, Carroll John Daly, and others.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Genre fiction</span> Fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre

Genre fiction, also known as formula fiction or popular fiction, is a term used in the book-trade for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of crime fiction</span>

Crime fiction is a typically 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century genre, dominated by British and American writers. This article explores its historical development as a genre.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mystery film</span> Genre of film

A mystery film is a film that revolves around the solution of a problem or a crime. It focuses on the efforts of the detective, private investigator or amateur sleuth to solve the mysterious circumstances of an issue by means of clues, investigation, and clever deduction. Mystery films include, but are not limited to, films in the genre of detective fiction.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ross Macdonald</span> American writer (1915–1983)

Ross Macdonald was the main pseudonym used by the American-Canadian writer of crime fiction Kenneth Millar. He is best known for his series of hardboiled novels set in Southern California and featuring private detective Lew Archer. Since the 1970s, Macdonald's works have received attention in academic circles for their psychological depth, sense of place, use of language, sophisticated imagery and integration of philosophy into genre fiction. Brought up in the province of Ontario, Canada, Macdonald eventually settled in the state of California, where he died in 1983.

Hardboiled fiction is a literary genre that shares some of its characters and settings with crime fiction. The genre's typical protagonist is a detective who battles the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition (1920–1933) and its aftermath, while dealing with a legal system that has become as corrupt as the organized crime itself. Rendered cynical by this cycle of violence, the detectives of hardboiled fiction are often antiheroes. Notable hardboiled detectives include Dick Tracy, Philip Marlowe, Nick Charles, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, Slam Bradley, and The Continental Op.

<i>The Glass Key</i> 1931 novel by Dashiell Hammett

The Glass Key is a novel by American writer Dashiell Hammett. First published as a serial in Black Mask magazine in 1930, it then was collected in 1931. It tells the story of a gambler and racketeer, Ned Beaumont, whose devotion to Paul Madvig, a crooked political boss, leads him to investigate the murder of a local senator's son as a potential gang war brews. Hammett dedicated the novel to his onetime lover Nell Martin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Golden Age of Detective Fiction</span> Era of murder mystery novels

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction was an era of classic murder mystery novels of similar patterns and styles, predominantly in the 1920s and 1930s. The Golden Age proper is in practice usually taken to refer to a type of fiction which was predominant in the 1920s and 1930s but had been written since at least 1911 and is still being written today. In his history of the detective story, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, the author Julian Symons heads two chapters devoted to the Golden Age as "the Twenties" and "the Thirties". Symons notes that Philip Van Doren Stern's article, "The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley" (1941), "could serve ... as an obituary for the Golden Age." Authors Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh have been collectively called the Queens of Crime.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Joel Townsley Rogers</span> American writer, 1896–1984

Joel Townsley Rogers was an American writer who wrote science fiction, air-adventure, and mystery stories and a handful of mystery novels. He is most well known for his murder mystery The Red Right Hand, which is considered a cult classic of the genre and won the French literary award Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1951.

Carroll John Daly (1889–1958) was a writer of crime fiction. One of the earliest writers of hard-boiled fiction, he is best known for his detective character Race Williams, who appeared in a number of stories for Black Mask magazine in the 1920s.

<i>A Catalogue of Crime</i> Crime fiction guide by Barzun and Taylor

A Catalogue of Crime is a critique of crime fiction by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, first published in 1971. The book was awarded a Special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1972. A revised and enlarged edition was published in 1989. Barzun and Taylor both graduated in the class of 1924 from Harrisburg Technical High School.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Closed circle of suspects</span> Subgenre of detective fiction

The closed circle of suspects is a common element of detective fiction, and the subgenre that employs it can be referred to as the closed circle mystery. Less precisely, this subgenre – works with the closed circle literary device – is simply known as the "classic", "traditional" or "cozy" detective fiction.


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