Literary Aspects of Mystery Fiction Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Readers of fiction who enter modern bookstores are confronted with a series of choices. Not only are books separated and shelved according to basic categories such as fiction and nonfiction, but fictional works may be subdivided into various genres, such as “classic” fiction, literary fiction, general fiction, mysteries, science fiction, Westerns, and romance fiction. Readers may be even further confounded, however, when works that seem to fit squarely into one genre are shelved in another. For example, the works of Raymond Chandler are obviously mysteries; with the introduction of Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1939) Chandler created one of the most famous and archetypal private eyes of the genre. However, in some stores readers may find some of his novels housed within the general fiction section rather than within the mystery section.

Bookstores organize titles by category to assist readers to find what they want to read. Despite the apparent usefulness of such labeling, however, there is a negative side effect evident in the need of not only booksellers but also the entire literary world to separate titles among different genres. Inevitably, it seems, genre fiction is regarded as less challenging, more poorly written, and generally inferior in quality to so-called literary fiction. Regardless of the merit of drawing such aesthetic distinctions among genres, certain authors blur the lines. Distinctions between mystery and literary fiction become even hazier when one considers not only the mystery authors who write at a highly artistic level, such as Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but also the many authors who work simultaneously within the genre and in literary fiction, such as Graham Greene and Joyce Carol Oates and the authors of literary fiction who have turned to mystery writing, such as James Lee Burke.

Origins of the Genre

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Paradoxically, the battle between genre conventions and aesthetic respectability dates to the origins of the novel in English. During the form’s growth in the eighteenth century, the intellectual elite felt that poetry was for serious literature and the novel for satire and entertainment only. By the middle of the nineteenth century, prejudice against the novel had largely vanished, but as genre publishing flourished, works were still at times judged prematurely by their categories and not by their substance.

Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the modern detective story, did not concern himself with genre bias. An editor, well-known poet, reviewer, critic, and master of the gothic short story, he introduced detective Auguste Dupin and his friend the unnamed narrator of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). He was little appreciated during his lifetime, but during the decades following his death, his reputation rose to prominence, particularly in Europe. The mystery form gained further development in Bleak House (1852-1853) by English writer Charles Dickens. One of its subplots deals with a murder and a police inspector’s investigation. Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins soon wrote what many consider to be the first full mystery novel in The Woman in White (1859), about an art teacher’s quest to solve the mystery of a strange woman he encounters on the road. Collins would also add to the form with The Moonstone (1868), about the theft of a large diamond. Like Dickens and Poe, Collins led an active literary life as both an editor and a writer of works that were not mysteries. During his lifetime, he was not closely associated with the mystery genre. As originators of the form, Poe and Collins cannot be said to be following a formula; however, the same cannot be said of those who came later.

Formula and Pulp

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced, in A Study in Scarlet, the most famous fictional detective ever created, Sherlock Holmes. Influenced by Poe and Collins, Doyle would go on to publish three more novels and more than fifty short stories about Holmes and his friend and narrator Dr. Watson, and a definite formula emerged. The prototype developed by Doyle would provide the basis for the English, or cozy, mystery stories. Later writers in both Great Britain and the United States, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, S. S. Van Dine, and John Dickson Carr would follow in Doyle’s footsteps and further formalize the pattern. A seemingly insolvable crime—such as the notorious “ locked-room mystery”— is perpetrated; the detective, often an amateur sleuth, is engaged; many victims, witnesses, detectives, and murderers are members of the aristocracy; and the crime is often set in an isolated community, such as a pastoral hereditary estate.

Many critics argue that once writing follows formulaic patterns, that the repetition of plots, settings, characters, and overall methods interferes with creativity, originality, and the art of a given story. Doyle, as the refiner of the form, and perhaps due to the idiosyncratic characterization he provided Holmes, has been in some ways exempt from such criticism. However, stories written following Doyle’s method more than fifty or sixty years after Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes stories have...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Evaluating Literary Worth

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Judging the merits and value of works of mystery fiction, as with any kind of art, is complicated. Beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder; taste seems to be almost entirely subjective. Nevertheless, for many mystery writers who have entered the so-called canon of literature, a multitude of critics, writers, and readers have been able to reach an accord on their worth, so there must be some measure of objective standards. In fact, the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers awards the Hammett Prize for Literary Excellence in the Field of Crime Writing.

Furthermore, mystery fiction is being read more seriously now than previously, as many scholars in the academy have embraced the cultural studies approach, which, as a critical movement, is less focused on discerning aesthetic value. This approach considers popular culture to be an essential part of a society and thus worthy of scholarship; its influence in the academy has led writers such as French critic Roland Barthes to write essays on such popular culture interests as diverse as professional wrestling. The Journal of Popular Culture has been in operation since 1968, and a number of treatises and books have been written on the value, meaning, methods, and purpose of various kinds of popular culture.

A useful example of such a scholarly work is Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel’s 1964 study, The Popular Arts, which argues that works of art can be divided...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Dashiell Hammett

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In his 1944 essay on crime writing and the evolution of the hard-boiled school titled “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler wrote, “Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.” This vitality is made clear through the work of Chandler and two other of the most important writers from the era between the world wars that on one hand is referred to as the Golden Age in the English mystery tradition, and on the other witnessed the birth of the hard-boiled tradition.

Among the mystery writers working during the 1920’s, Dashiell Hammett was uniquely qualified to write about detectives because he had worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. More than any other writer, he developed the hard-boiled detective subgenre with the short stories he began publishing about an unnamed investigator whom he simply called the Continental Op in Black Mask. Although some of Hammett’s plots were possibly as convoluted as those of traditional cozy mysteries, he nevertheless brought a verisimilitude to his stories in the criminals who peopled them, their use of street slang, their motivations and methods, and his unaffected and understated depictions of violence. Hammett’s stories were more often about criminals than about aristocrats, and murders were typically committed for prosaic and realistic reasons. Hammett truly hit his stride with The Maltese Falcon in 1930, which introduced...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Dorothy L. Sayers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In contrast to Dashiell Hammett, the British writer Dorothy L. Sayers could not be said to be an innovator within the form. Rather, she makes full and conscious use of the conventions of the English or cozy mystery novel. Her primary detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, whom she introduced in Whose Body? in 1923, is an English aristocrat, not a professional detective. Many of the crimes he investigates take place in isolated settings, such as estates, villages, and colleges. His cases typically boil down to gatherings of all the suspects and denouements in which the suspects are eliminated, one by one, until only the murderers remain.

In Wimsey himself, however, and in his love interest Harriet Vane, Sayers created characters that are more fully rounded than the stock characters of the mystery genre. Wimsey is by turns arrogant and vulnerable; he suffers moments of doubt and worry quite in contrast to the supreme confidence exhibited by detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. A combat veteran of World War I, Wimsey suffers through recurring bouts of shell shock.

Sayers’s craft as a writer is also exemplary. In addition to her fine eye for detail and exact and poetic descriptive writing, her third-person narratives are often suffused with understated and wry humor, reminiscent of the works of Jane Austen and Sayers’s contemporary P. G. Wodehouse and other writers of English novels of manners. Indeed, Sayers stated openly upon more than one occasion that her goal was less to write complicated mysteries and more to comment upon the English class system and society, as writers such as Austen had done. In addition to writing detective novels and short stories, she was a respected playwright and scholar, and she wrote many admired pieces on theology.

Raymond Chandler

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Like Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler received an excellent English education. Although born in Chicago, he attended Dulwich College, a boarding school for boys in a London suburb. A latecomer to writing, he published his first detective story in 1933, when he was forty-five. Like Hammett, Chandler was not a prolific novelist; he published only twenty-five stories, many of which he “cannibalized,” as he put it, for use in his seven novels. He also had some success in Hollywood, where he worked on screenplays of such famous films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Strangers on a Train (1951).

Although Chandler’s genius was evident early on, it was only with the...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

The Next Generation

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Through the mid-twentieth century, all the various kinds of crime novels—from the hard-boiled private eye novel to the cozy mystery to crime fiction centered around criminals, and they continued to flourish in the decades following World War II. From that era, two names of particular importance appear: Ross Macdonald and Patricia Highsmith.

A native Californian, Ross Macdonald began writing literary fiction while in graduate study at the University of Michigan. After service during World War II interrupted his studies, he wrote and published his first private eye novel, The Moving Target, in 1949. He subsequently completed his doctorate in literature. Macdonald has admitted his debt to Raymond Chandler, and...

(The entire section is 348 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Any discussion of mystery fiction acclaimed for literary merit must also consider authors made famous for literary fiction who also have written mysteries. Often, writers who succeed in other genres find that crossing over into mystery fiction, or another subgenre, is not as easy as it looks, and their genre offerings are less successful than their literary works. There are, however, some notable successes, such as Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner. As a number of critics have noted, Faulkner’s works were often influenced in various subtle ways by detective fiction, and Faulkner himself admired writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Rex Stout. Moreover, during his years in Hollywood Faulkner helped adapt Chandler’s The Big...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Later Writers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The trend in marketing some genre works in the larger and more expensive trade paperback editions to give them cross-genre appeal has continued, although many novels marketed in such ways are not necessarily worthy of notice. However, one such writer whose career has received wide attention is James Crumley. A far cry from the stoic Philip Marlowe and taciturn Lew Archer, Crumley’s Milo Milodragovitch, of The Wrong Case (1975), and C. W. Sughrue, of The Last Good Kiss (1978), make their way through cocaine and alcohol addictions, willing women, and corrupt corporations. Although Crumley’s later novels, such as The Right Madness (2005), have become almost parodies of his earlier books in their slippery...

(The entire section is 392 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Cawelti, John G. Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Collection of essays by one of the most important critics of genre literature. Includes chapters on aesthetics, formula, and regionalism in mystery fiction.

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Vintage Books, 1988. Collection of some of Chandler’s short fiction that also contains his seminal 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” which discusses the literary merit of the genre.

Hall, Stuart, and Paddy Whannel. The Popular Arts. London: Hutchinson Educational Press, 1964....

(The entire section is 284 words.)