Mainstream Versus Mystery Fiction Summary


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mainstream fiction encompasses all fictional works that are not published as genre fiction, which is geared to specific markets. Mystery and detective fiction, Westerns, and science fiction are among the most notable examples of genre fiction. Such labels no longer have anything to do with quality or popularity but with the niche into which publishers feel a particular book might fit. Despite what his legions of fans might say, best-selling author Stephen King writes mostly genre fiction, not mainstream fiction, because his horror novels are published and marketed to a huge but specific audience. In contrast, authors such as Philip Roth and Alice Munro produce mainstream fiction, or literary fiction, as it is often designated by critics and reviewers.

For a long time distinctions between mainstream and genre mattered greatly, and sophisticated readers avoided genre fiction. However, sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, barriers between “highbrow” and “lowbrow”—that is, between critically regarded and popular fiction—began falling. It may have been the end of World War II, which brought so many changes to the United States, as to other Western countries, but whatever the causes, the once-rigid divisions that had existed for more than a century between what critics separated into “literature” and “mass culture” were erased. Then, the subgenres of American literature—not only mysteries but Westerns, science fiction, and...

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History of the Mystery Form

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The American short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the modern mystery genre, in “The Murder in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), stories called “tales of ratiocination” that feature detective C. Auguste Dupin, and novels soon followed. The English novelist Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) is a suspenseful tale of a jewel theft—a crime solved by Sergeant Cuff, possibly the first detective in English fiction. Charles Dickens left The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) unsolved at his death, although many later writers have attempted to find a solution and finish the novel.

The mystery form found its first full-time professional practitioner in Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes. The mystery story flourished during the first decades of the twentieth century in both England and America and proliferated through the twentieth century, and broadened out to encompass spy novels and other variants. By the early twenty-first century, most fiction best-seller lists could be expected to have a third to two-thirds of their titles falling into the general mystery category, including detective novels by authors such as James Lee Burke, spy novels by authors such as John le Carré, legal thrillers by authors such as John Grisham, and other varieties of the genre. A March, 2007, Los Angeles Times Book Review list of best-selling fiction included new crime titles by Robert B. Parker, James Patterson, Joseph Wambaugh, Robert Crais, and J. D. Robb. It might as easily have included—and undoubtedly has in the past—Tony Hillerman, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, and Sara Paretsky, or John Burdett, Robert Ludlum, Thomas Harris, and Elmore Leonard, or dozens of similar writers.