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Summary Article: mystery
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

or mystery story, literary genre in which the cause (or causes) of a mysterious happening, often a crime, is gradually revealed by the hero or heroine; this is accomplished through a mixture of intelligence, ingenuity, the logical interpretation of evidence, and sometimes sheer luck.

History

Although some critics trace the origins of the genre to such disparate works as Aesop's fables, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the Apocrypha, most agree that the Western mystery, complete with all its conventions, emerged in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." This and all of Poe's "tales of ratiocination" feature the chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, a brilliant amateur detective, who, by a keen analysis of motives and clues, solves crimes that are baffling to the police.

The first full-length mystery novels were probably Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which continued Poe's concept of the brilliant detective—although Collins's rose-growing Sergeant Cuff is a policeman—and added an emphasis on the sleuth's idiosyncrasies. Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) is a detective novel that is both intriguing and frustrating because, since the novel is unfinished, its crime is never solved. In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle published "A Study in Scarlet," which introduced Sherlock Holmes, destined to become the most famous of all literary detectives. This vain and aloof amateur sleuth, with a fondness for pipes, violins, and cocaine, solves crimes through extraordinarily perceptive recognition and interpretation of evidence.

Like Conan Doyle, subsequent mystery writers often featured the same detective in several works. Especially popular have been G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, E. D. Biggers's Charlie Chan, S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret, Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, Leslie Charteris's "The Saint," Robert van Gulick's Magistrate Dee, Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small, Emma Lathan's John Putnam Thatcher, Ellery Queen in the works of Frederic Dannay and M. B. Lee, P. D. James's Adam Dalgleish, Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, and the various Washington, D.C. private eyes (private investigators) in the novels of George Pelecanos.

Types of Mysteries

Many authors incorporate the conventions of the mystery into the novel, producing works that are warm, witty, often erudite, and filled with interesting characters and atmosphere. Such authors include Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, Josephine Tey, Nicholas Blake, Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh, Philip McDonald, Anna K. Green, Carolyn Wells, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Elizabeth Daly, Peter Dickinson, and Hilda Lawrence. Some detective novels focus on the actions of the police in solving a crime; notable police-procedural novelists are Freeman Wills Crofts, George Bagby, Ed McBain, and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Dashiell Hammett initiated the hard-boiled detective genre, featuring tough, brash, yet honorable private eyes living on the seedy criminal fringe and involved in violent and incredibly complex crimes. Other writers in this genre are Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Ross Macdonald, and Elmore Leonard and, adding lurid sex and brutality, James Hadley Chase and Mickey Spillane. There has been a resurgence of interest in hard-boiled stories, such as those by Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

An extension of the detective novel is the espionage tale, which became very popular in the 1960s. Usually convoluted in plot, these novels emphasize action, sex, and innovative cruelty and sometimes stress the moral ambiguity of the spy's world. Noted authors of espionage novels are Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, John le Carré, Alan Furst, and Tom Clancy.

In the subtle and perceptive works of writers such as Georges Simenon and Nicholas Freeling the psychological reasons behind a crime are often emphasized more than the crime's solution. Other writers, notably Julian Symons, have extended this emphasis, maintaining that early mysteries, with their country-house settings and aristocratic characters, are snobbish and escapist. Attempting to be contemporary and meaningful, these authors probe the psychological and sociological aspects of a crime, often producing grim and uncomfortable conclusions. The courtroom drama has also been popular, as seen in the success of Erle Stanley Gardner's many Perry Mason books, Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent (1987), The Pelican Brief (1992) and other thrillers by John Grisham, and other tales of legal suspense.

Despite its conventions, good writers can make the mystery novel their own. For example, Agatha Christie is noted for her clever plots, John Dickson Carr for his ingenious "locked room" mysteries, Dick Francis for his depiction of the horse-racing world, Ruth Rendell for her novels combining character and atmosphere with absorbing police procedure, perceptive sociological and psychological analysis, and a sense of life's tragedy, and Sweden's Stieg Larsson for a dark, wintry world of violence, sex, and international skulduggery. Other popular detective novelists include Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Amanda Cross (all of whom feature heroines) and the often humorous Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and Gregory Mcdonald.

See also Gothic romance.

Bibliography
  • H. Haycroft, The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1984), J. Barzun and W. H. Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime (rev. ed. 1985) J. Symons, Bloody Murder (1986), B. A. Rader and H. G. Zettler, ed., The Sleuth and the Scholar (1988), T. J. Binyon, Murder Will Out (1989), S. Oleksiw, A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1989), T. Hillerman, ed., The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (2000), and O. Penzler, ed., The Great Detectives (1978) and The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives (2009).
  • Albert, W., Detective and Mystery Fiction: An International Bibliography of Secondary Sources (1985).
  • James, P. D., Talking about Detective Fiction (2009).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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