Mystery fiction is a term often used as a synonym of detective fiction, a work in which a detective, either professional or amateur, solves a crime (whodunit).
Although normally associated with the crime genre, the term “mystery fiction” may in certain situations refer to a completely different genre, where the focus is on supernatural mystery, even if no crime is involved.
The first true mystery story is considered to be The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841) in America. Auguste Dupin is the detective of these tales The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget (1843), and The Purloined Letter (1844). Poe’s detective stories are described as ratiocinative tales: the primary concern of the plot is ascertaining truth, and the usual means of obtaining the truth is through a complex and mysterious process combining intuitive logic, astute observation, and perspicacious inference. As a consequence, the crime itself sometimes becomes secondary to the efforts taken to solve it.
In England, the early archetype of the whodunit is found as a sub-plot in the vast novel Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens. The manipulative lawyer Tulkinghorn is killed in his office late one night, and the crime is investigated by Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan force. Numerous characters appeared on the staircase leading to Tulkinghorn’s office that night, some of them in disguise, and Inspector Bucket must penetrate these mysteries to identify the culprit.
Dickens’s friend, Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) is considered the grandfather of English detective fiction for his first great mystery novel, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), his masterpiece. This last was described by T. S. Eliot as “the first and greatest of English detective novels” and by Dorothy L. Sayers as “probably the very finest detective story ever written”. Although technically preceded by Charles Felix’s The Notting Hill Mystery (1865), The Moonstone can claim to have established the genre with several classic features of the twentieth-century detective story.
But it is to E. A. Poe’s deductive speculations that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle owes his famous character, Sherlock Holmes. This amateur detective marked the beginning of a series of stories whose common feature is an investigator, unmarried, with some source of income other than a regular job, and who generally has some pleasing eccentricities or striking characteristics. He or she frequently has a less intelligent assistant, or foil, who is asked to make apparently irrelevant inquiries and acts as an audience surrogate for the explanation of the mystery at the end of the story centred on the amateur detective always accompanied by someone who can be considered his alter ego. In the case of Sherlock Holmes this figure is Doctor Watson.
Some magazines magazine of the beginning of the 1900 became specialised in crime stories that took the names of Dime Mystery, Thrilling Mystery and Spicy Mystery. At first they contained conventional hardboiled crime fiction, then they started offering weird menace stories based on supernatural horror (1930s).
The Whodunit became the most widespread subgenre of the detective novel: a crime, usually a homicide, is investigated concealing the identity of the criminal until the end of the book, when the method and criminal are revealed. The style of the analysis, with its attention to forensic detail, makes it a precursor in Sherlock Holmes.
The genre began to expand near the turn of century with the development of dime novels and pulp magazines. 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. But just in the 1920s wrote the most popular mystery author of all time, Agatha Christie.
Pulp magazines only 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. The Detective fiction author Ellery Queen (pseudonym of authors Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) is also credited with the continued interest in mystery fiction thanks to the namesake magazine which began in 1941.
The private eye novel
Private eye Martin Hewitt, created by British author Arthur Morrison, is perhaps the first example of the modern style of fictional private detective. In the 1930s, the private eye genre was adopted wholeheartedly by American writers. The tough, stylish detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Jonathan Latimer, and others explored the “mean streets” and corrupt underbelly of the United States. Their style of crime fiction came to known as “hardboiled,” which encompasses stories with similar attitudes concentrating not on detectives but gangsters, crooks, and other committers or victims of crimes.
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 Hammett’s distant, third-person viewpoint. 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 Phillip Marlowe character. James Hadley Chase wrote a few novels with private eyes as the main hero, including “Blonde’s Requiem” (1945), “Lay Her Among the Lilies” (1950), and “Figure It Out for Yourself” (1950). Heroes of these novels are typical private eyes which are very similar to Philip Marlowe.
Ross Macdonald, pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, created the detective Lew Archer, while still writing in what is considered the PI’s Golden Age of Detective Fiction, begun by Hammett. 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; this is illusory, however, and any real private eye undergoing a typical fictional investigation would soon be dead or incapacitated. The movie Harper starring Paul Newman was based on the Lew Archer character.
Michael Collins, pseudonym of Dennis Lynds, is generally considered the author who led the form into the Modern Age. His PI, Dan Fortune, was consistently involved in the same sort of David-and-Goliath stories that Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald wrote, but he 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 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 was brainy, physical, and could hold her own. Their acceptance, then success caused publishers to seek out other fine female authors.
The PI today is rich in variety. The strongest characteristic that binds them is that the detective now has a past and a life, while solving cases. The premier organization of PI authors is the Private Eye Writers of America.
English Golden Age of detective novels
Between the wars English people generally preferred a type of detective story in which an outsider – a salaried investigator, a police officer or a gifted amateur – investigates a murder committed in a closed environment by one of a limited number of suspects. These have become known as cozies to distinguish them from the hard-boiled type preferred in the USA Cozy mysteries are those which generally shy away from violence and suspense, sometimes, nowadays they are even humorous and thematic (culinary mystery, animal mystery, quilting mystery, etc.). The first most popular writer of cozies, was Agatha Christie, who produced a long series of books featuring her detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. These works usually included a complex puzzle that the reader try to un -knot.
The ‘puzzle’ approach was carried even further into quite impossible plots by John Dickson Carr, or Carter Dickson, the master of the “locked room mystery” and Cecil Street, or John Rhode, whose detective Dr. Priestley is specialised in elaborate technical devices. In the US the ‘cozy’ was adopted and extended by Rex Stout (Nero Wolf) and Erle Stanley Gardner.
The popularity of cosies has slowly declined mainly because people solving crimes more proficiently than professional lawmen and detectives appeared quite unreal.
In America Edward Stratemeyer developed and wrote the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries written under the Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene pseudonyms.
The “Golden Age” also displayed many elements typical of escapist writing and this was attributed to its popularity at the time as many wished to escape the depression of World War I and its aftermath.
Through the years the detective stories have changed according to the periods. Some now have police officers as the main characters. They are called Police procedural and may take a variety of forms, but many authors try to go for a realistic depiction of a police officer’s routine. A good deal are whodunits; in others the criminal is well known, and it is a case of getting enough evidence.
Mickey Spillane’s My Gun Is Quick A beginner to detective fiction would generally be advised
The unresolved problem of plausibility and coincidence
TV heroine Jessica Fletcher is confronted with bodies wherever she goes, but over the years people who have met violent deaths have also piled up in the streets of Cabot Cove, Maine, the cozy little village where she lives. Generally, therefore, it is much more convincing if a policeman, private eye, forensic expert or similar professional is made the hero or heroine of a series of crime novels.
The Effects of Technology
Technological progress has also rendered many of plots implausible and antiquated. For example, the predominance of mobile phones, pagers, and PDAs has significantly altered the previously dangerous situations in which investigators traditionally might have found themselves.
One tactic that avoids the issue of technology altogether is the historical detective genre. Several writers such as Elizabeth Peters, P.C. Doherty, Steven Saylor, and Lindsey Davis have opted to set their characters in some former period. Such a strategy forces the protagonist to rely on more inventive means of investigation, lacking as they do the scientific tools available to modern detectives.
Famous fictional detectives
there are also many television and film detectives, besides those appearing in adaptations of novels in this genre. Fictional detectives generally some domains:
the amateur detective (Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Father Brown, Dupin, );
the private investigator (Holmes, Marlowe, Spade, Poirot);
the police detective (Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch; Inspector Clouseau; James “Sonny” Crockett; Adam Dalgliesh; George Gideon Robert Goren Lt. Theo Kojak Inspector Morse Ellery Queen, Nero Wolf)
the forensic specialists (Scarpetta, Quincy, Cracker, CSI – Gil Grissom).
Governament agents( Jack Bauer ; James Bond ; Fox Mulder)
Fancy: Batman; Karel “Carl” Kolchak and Ben Matlock .
Historical: Cadfael monk ; Sister Fidelma ; Gordianus the Finder(1st Cen.BCERomanRepublic); Li Kao (7th Cen. CE China)
Science-fiction and Fantasy: Elijah Baley ; Dirk Gently; Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody
Interest in mystery fiction continues to this day thanks to various television shows which have used mystery themes over the years and the many juvenile and adult novels which continue to be published and frequent the best seller lists. Also, there is some overlap with “thriller” or “suspense” novels and authors in those genres may consider themselves mystery novelists.