Mainstream Versus Mystery Fiction Analysis

Mystery Fiction as Mainstream Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

No genre benefited more from this development than mystery fiction, including crime thrillers and detective novels. Certainly there had been important mystery writers before 1950, such as the American writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler during the 1930’s and 1940’s. However, even these writers had always had figurative asterisks placed beside their names indicating that although they might be wonderful writers, they were writers clearly working in a literary subgenre. In his Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (1947), Frank Luther Mott found only eighteen murder mysteries that had attained wide popularity from colonial times to 1945. After 1950, that division between literary and subliterary writers no longer made sense, as established writers who attempted mysteries and writers who produced only mysteries found themselves standing side by side on the best-seller platform.

On one level, all fiction deals with mysteries, and all readers of fiction are literary detectives trying to get to the stories behind the stories, piecing together the evidence the authors give them to come up with solutions to plot complications and character predicaments. Likewise, most fiction is concerned with the same questions that lie at the heart of the mystery genre: the search for truth, the attempt to distinguish between innocence and wrongdoing, questions of right and wrong, the examination of the consequences of...

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Mystery in Mainstream

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One might ask what constitutes the difference between a genre mystery writer and a serious, mainstream writer who uses mystery themes. Fans of the mystery novel might answer that the difference is small; however, in works written by mainstream writers the story lines generally have greater significance than those in mystery writers’ works, and such works typically resonate more deeply for the readers. At the center of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), for example, is the mystery of who the shadowy figure of Jay Gatsby is, along with at least two murders (Myrtle Wilson and later Gatsby himself). As readers sort through the evidence that the novel’s unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway, gives them, and try to solve the questions the novel poses, larger meanings emerge. The mystery of Gatsby, for example, is solved only to reveal the failed American Dream at the heart of his meteoric rise and the degeneration and materialism at the core of American life during the 1920’s. Myrtle Wilson is killed by Daisy Buchanan driving Gatsby’s car, because she thinks her lover, Tom Buchanan, is behind the wheel. People in this Jazz Age world are beginning to define one another by their possessions, particularly by their cars. Indeed, the very reason Myrtle and Gatsby are killed is that people confuse cars with their drivers. Another indication of this moral bankruptcy is that Gatsby is murdered by his lover’s (Daisy) husband’s (Tom) lover’s (Myrtle) husband (Wilson). Put another way, Tom’s lover’s husband kills Tom’s wife’s lover. It is a world in which relationships, like personal character, are marked by moral confusion, corruption, and violence, and Gatsby is both author and victim of this evil. One could even argue that Gatsby in the end commits suicide, that he knows Daisy will not call him (as she had promised) the day after she killed Myrtle with the car, and is only waiting by his swimming pool for Wilson, the inevitable agent of the fate Gatsby knows is finally his. He has climbed to the top of the American social ladder and seen how empty and shallow the world of this decadent aristocracy really is; he kills himself (or, lets himself be killed) rather than let his dream die.

Walter Mosley Bridges the Divide

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

If there is one writer who best represents the successful fusion of mainstream and mystery fiction, it might well be the African American novelist and short-story writer Walter Mosley. His earliest novels, such as Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), were Easy Rollins mysteries. He has produced ten works in that series with the title character as the hard-boiled Los Angeles private investigator, and nearly all of them have authentic social and historical settings. Little Scarlet (2004), for example, has Easy Rawlins trying to solve a murder case several days after the 1965 Watts riot. Cinnamon Kiss (2005) involves the search for papers incriminating a family with a Nazi past. Mosley’s three Fearless Jones mysteries, such as Fear of the Dark (2006), feature a friend of the Los Angeles second-hand bookseller Paris Minton. Mosley inhabits a tradition of African American mystery writers that stretches from Chester Himes, the creator of a series of fast-paced detective novels set in Harlem, to Stephen L. Carter, the author of the well-respected legal thriller The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002).

Mosley would be considered a great crime writer if these mysteries were his total output. However, he has moved into other genres as well. Through 2007, he had written three works of science fiction, a book for young adults titled Forty-seven (2005), and four works of nonfiction, and his nonfiction articles and essays have...

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Hard-Boiled Fiction—Style and Content

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Something that blurs the distinction between modern genre mysteries and mainstream mysteries, making it often difficult to tell one from the other, is the fact that both often employ the same hard-boiled style of writing. This style can be traced back to the founding, in 1919, of Black Mask, the pulp magazine that first published the work of Dashiell Hammett and other early detective writers. The hard-boiled style it fostered combined spare, realistic dialogue with a tough-guy tone and attitude, especially in the voices of detective heroes such as Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. This style merged with the prose that Ernest Hemingway was developing in his early short stories and novels during the 1920’s. During the 1930’s, prose was further influenced by the gritty Depression style of proletarian writers such as James T. Farrell, Nelson Algren, and others. By the time of books such as Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937), a tough-guy novel involving smuggling and murder, and John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939), a depiction of the down-and-out in Los Angeles, the hard-boiled style had become a permanent fixture of the American literary landscape. Readers would later find it in the fiction of any number of mainstream writers, from Charles Bukowski (Post Office, 1971), John Gregory Dunne (True Confessions, 1977), and Norman Mailer (Tough Guys Don’t Dance, 1985), to Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, 1992) and Don de Lillo (Underworld, 1997). All these mainstream writers are the literary descendents of the first hard-boiled detective writers, but of the novels named, only Dunne’s and Mailer’s are true mysteries. Nevertheless, all are linked to their...

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Modern Mainstream Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

It is clear that that distinctions between contemporary mystery writers and mainstream writers are increasingly difficult to find, and authors on both sides of the divide move easily back and forth across it. Many readers rely on reviewers and critics to identify the best mystery writers and the mainstream writers whose works contain mystery themes. The early 1980’s saw a number of first-rate mysteries in the United States, including early works by Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Thomas Harris, and Tony Hillerman, as well as Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981), which Time magazine dubbed the “thriller of the eighties.” That period also saw works by a number of mainstream writers containing mystery themes. Jane Smiley would produce a dozen works of fiction over the next several decades, including A Thousand Acres (1991), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, but one of her first novels was the taut mystery Duplicate Keys (1984), a chilling and suspenseful tale that follows a double-murder among a group of friends in New York City. The qualities that came to be known as Smiley’s trademarks—her range, her intelligence, her instinctive sense for setting and character—are clearly evident in this early literary thriller.

Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983) is an even more telling example of crossover writing. The novel would eventually sell more than fifty million copies worldwide and be made into a popular film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. However, the appearance of the novel during the early 1980’s was something of a shock. Eco was an Italian academic best known for his works of philosophy and history, a writer whose previous publications were thick books of medieval philosophy on subjects such as the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas and literary theory on subjects such as the theory of semiotics. Although there are links to both fields in The Name of the Rose, few readers who knew of Eco’s work could have anticipated his novel—a medieval mystery set in a monastic library in Italy.

The Name of the Rose...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The conclusions to this history are not hard to locate. The tendencies readers have witnessed in books of the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first will undoubtedly last, and mainstream writers will continue to produce fiction with the thematic and formal elements of the mystery genre, just as mystery writers continue to produce critically and commercially successful fiction. Like other literary trends of the late twentieth century—such as the emergence of ethnic voices across a broad literary spectrum, the interchange of forms and devices between fiction and nonfiction—the marriage of mystery and mainstream can only broaden and deepen the reading experience. Since the mid-twentieth century, the literary conventions and moods of mystery fiction have inextricably worked themselves into a number of works of mainstream fiction at the same time many mainstream writers have attempted the mystery genre. That cross-pollination is most readily apparent in a writer such as Walter Mosley, whose mainstream novels have the settings and language of detective fiction, at the same time as his mysteries have the deeper social commentary that readers previously expected to find only in mainstream fiction. This crossover process is expected to be apparent among increasing numbers of writers.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ashley, Mike, comp. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Useful volume for assessing trends in the mystery and detective genre that covers nearly five hundred writers and ten thousand books since World War II (excluding spy or espionage fiction).

Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor, comps. A Catalogue of Crime. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Comprehensive collection of brief annotations on thousands of titles, divided into five parts, from novels to short-story anthologies and magazines, to studies and histories of the genre, true-crime narratives, and “The Literature of Sherlock Holmes.”

Bleiler, Richard J. Reference Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. 2d ed. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 2004. Collection of more than one thousand annotations describing the primary and secondary literatures of mystery and detective fiction: encyclopedias, dictionaries, bibliographies, readers’ guides, handbooks, and so on. Also covers biographical sources for some two hundred individual authors, from Dickens to Mosley.

Herbert, Rosemary, et al., eds. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Massive volume that covers major books and authors in the field, as well as television programs, films, award winners, and magazines and Web sites.

Merivale, Patricia, and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, eds. Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999. Collection of essays using contemporary literary theory to unlock works by Poe, Borges, Eco, Paul Auster, and other writers of metaphysical detective fiction.

Pronzini, Bill, and Marcia Muller, eds. 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. New York: Arbor House, 1986. Page-length annotations (by two dozen contributors) in a reference guide to one thousand and one individual titles by every major mystery writer from Poe to P. D. James, Robert B. Parker, and Donald E. Westlake.