Roots of Mystery and Detective Fiction Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Any consideration of the history of mystery and detective fiction must start by separating the traditional meaning of the word “mystery” from the genre that bears the name. Even the earliest-known writings of humankind contain elements of mystery. Mystery, as the is word now commonly understood, is the unknown, the unanswered. This is a very different meaning from that used in mystery novels, in which mystery goes from being only one of the elements in a story to being the central purpose of a story. Gothic romance novels, which predate the modern mystery, utilized mysterious elements in their plots, often using the supernatural in combination with dark, long-hidden family secrets that were revealed to readers slowly throughout their pages.

The American author Edgar Allan Poe extracted the mystery element from gothic romance novels and made it the core of three short stories, beginning with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. With that short story. Poe established a pattern that is still used today. At the center of the story is the crime: two mutilated women in a locked room on an upper floor of a Parisian apartment building. One of the women has been nearly beheaded, the other is stuffed halfway up the chimney. After shocking readers with the brutality of the crime that has already been committed, Poe introduced his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. An amateur detective, Dupin relates his theories to the story’s unnamed narrator, who marvels...

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Nineteenth Century British and French Mystery Novels

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

After Poe’s three stories, the genre lay dormant for a decade or two. Eventually, three writers in Europe, one in France and two in England, began to fulfill the promise of Poe’s legacy. Émile Gaboriau’s L’Affaire Lerouge (1866) was the first work in the tradition of Poe to be published in Europe. Monsieur Lecoq became the main character in Gaboriau’s later novels, Le Crime d’Orcival (1867), Le Dossier no. 113 (1867), and Monsieur Lecoq (1868). Gaboriau was the first author to write book-length crime novels, and he also is credited with creating the roman policier, the crime novel form featuring police procedures.

Even before Gaboriau, however, Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House (1852-1853), a novel that featured Inspector Bucket as one of the main characters. In this lengthy novel, Bucket attempts to untangle a complicated case of questionable maternity and comes to the aid of the heroine Esther Summerson. Detective Bucket marked one of the first appearances of a detective in British fiction. However, while Bleak House may have included a detective among its large cast of characters, Dickens’s earlier novels Barnaby Rudge (1841) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) also contained substantial mystery elements. However, Dickens’s greatest contribution to the mystery novel is doubtless his fifteenth and last book, the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Drood...

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Two Early American Women Mystery Writers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The first detective novel in the United States was written by a woman, Metta Victoria (Fuller) Victor, who lived from 1831 until 1885. Married to Orville Victor, a publisher of dime novels, she wrote under the pseudonym Seeley Regester. Her best-known work is The Dead Letter (1866). Victor wrote many popular novels, and her works encompassed hundreds of titles outside the mystery genre.

A contemporary of Victor was the American writer Anna Katharine Green, who was born in 1846. Green wrote thirty-five novels and four collections of short stories. She was thirty-two years old and a college graduate when she wrote her first novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878). That novel was very successful, and Green was admired for her craft. Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Mary Roberts Rinehart all cited Green as a major influence on their own writing.

Green set most of her novels in the state of New York. Her Victorian-era stories do not stand up well against modern novels, as her writing seems stilted and cumbersome. Nevertheless, Green is sometimes dubbed “The Mother of Detective Fiction.” Her primary detective is an older, rounder man named Ebenezer Gryce. Gryce seldom makes eye contact with people he is questioning; he is more likely to look at their feet if he looks at them at all. Writing between 1878 and 1923, Green created two women detectives, one a spinster and the other a young woman. The spinster, Amelia Butterworth, who made her debut in That Affair Next Door (1897), was a forerunner of Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple. Green’s younger woman, Violet Strange, made her debut in a collection of nine short stories titled The Golden Slipper (1915).

Green also created a fourth detective, Caleb Sweetwater. He first appeared in A Strange Disappearance (1880), but he is much more prominent in Agatha Webb (1899). Sweetwater is a talented violinist who gives up his career to become a detective. Green often has her detectives working in combination, forging relationships. For example, Amelia Butterworth is the lead detective in That Affair Next Door, but Ebenezer Gryce is called in on the case for consultation. Sweetwater often assists Gryce on cases, acting as an operative for the older detective.

Sherlock Holmes

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A brilliant man of many passions, Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Scotland. He entered the medical school at Edinburgh University in 1876 and graduated with a doctor of medicine degree in 1885. Afterward, he wrote anonymously for publications in his spare time and served for a time as a ship’s doctor on long sea voyages. After qualifying as a medical doctor, he married and eventually moved his young family to London in 1891. There he took up the specialty of ophthalmology. If his medical practice had been more demanding, perhaps he would not have continued to pursue writing. As it was, he wrote his first novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), for Beeton’s Christmas Annual. In this way, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson were first introduced to the reading world. The series persisted through 1927, reaching its zenith with the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902.

Doyle was ambivalent about his most famous fictional creation. He thought that his true calling was to be a writer of historical novels and thought that the time he spent writing about his eccentric detective detracted time he should spend writing more serious literature. Nevertheless, he ultimately produced fifty-six short stories and four novels about the genius detective and his amiable chronicler, and few modern readers pay attention to his historical novels. Doyle followed his second Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four (1890), with his first short...

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Mystery at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The French writer Gaston Leroux is best known today as the author of The Phantom of the Opera (1910), but he, too, was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. After years as a journalist, he turned to fiction after 1900 and his best-known mystery story is The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) which features one of his two series detectives, Joseph Josephson, also known as Rouletabille because of his bullet-shaped head. Rouletabille was a young journalist and in The Mystery of the Yellow Room encounters a corpse in a locked room. Rouletabille’s friend, Sinclair, serves as the narrator of the story. Leroux’s stories often featured fast-paced, complicated plots with supernatural elements thrown into the mix. His detective with an odd-shaped head inspired several film treatments during the 1930’s and 1940’s in his native France.

Curiously, the American writer Jacques Futrelle also wrote short stories about an amateur detective with a deformed head. His main character, S. F. X. Van Deusen, was popularly known as the Thinking Machine. His abnormally large head supposedly contained a large brain that allowed him to ascertain the answers to the world’s most perplexing problems. His most famous case is “The Problem of Cell Thirteen” (1907). In this case, the Thinking Machine is locked inside a cell with nothing but the clothes on his back. Nevertheless, he miraculously escapes. Futrelle’s writing career and life ended tragically when he went down with the Titanic in 1912.

The English writer R. Austin Freeman created the intellectual detective Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. No doubt owing to Freeman’s own medical education, Thorndyke is a convincing amateur sleuth who use his vast scientific knowledge to solve crimes in more than forty years’ worth of...

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Great Britain’s Golden Age

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The years between World Wars I and II have been termed the Golden Age of detective fiction because many mystery writers were active during these years and because many of them were of high quality and quite prolific and because of the sheer numbers of mystery novels and short stories in print. The accepted dates of 1920 to 1940 are somewhat arbitrary. Important mystery authors wrote shortly before and after those years. However, it is clear there was a high level of accomplishment in the genre between those designated years in both Great Britain and the United States. In Great Britain, this period was dominated by four women writers: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh.

Discussion of the Golden Age must begin with Agatha Christie, who wrote more than one hundred novels, plays and short-story collections. Her books have sold in the hundreds of millions. Within the Western world, only William Shakespeare and the Bible have had more readers. Moreover, in her two main detective figures, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, Christie created two of the best-known characters in English literature.

Agatha Christie

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Born in Devon, England, in 1890 to a British mother and an American father, Christie was the youngest of three children. Schooled at home, she was shy but imaginative. When she was twenty-six, she accepted a challenge from her sister and began writing her first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which was initially rejected by several publishers. This first novel introduced Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian detective who would go on to appear in thirty-three novels and sixty-five short stories. In Curtain: Hercule Poirot’s Last Case (1975), Poirot finally dies while working his last case. Christie had actually written Curtain during the early years of World War II, afraid that she herself...

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Dorothy L. Sayers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Born in Oxford, England, Dorothy L. Sayers earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oxford University. One of the most intellectual of all mystery authors, Sayers was fascinated by the stage, by religion, and by languages. In her later years she abandoned mystery novels in favor of theological treatises, passion plays, and a notable translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1302). However, Sayers was also a major figure in the history of the mystery genre, not only for her own mystery novels but also for her commentaries on mystery and detective fiction. She wrote a dozen novels and two dozen short stories in fifteen years. Her first mystery novel, Whose Body (1923), introduced Lord Peter Wimsey....

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Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Appearing in seventeen novels and more than twenty short stories, Albert Campion evolved from “a silly ass” to a seasoned sleuth in nearly forty years of Margery Allingham’s writing. Campion first appeared as a minor character in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) but came to be the major and central character in Mystery Mile, Allingham’s next novel. Over the years, Campion gets married, has children, and matures. Central to the Campion series is his manservant, Magersfontein Lugg. Lugg is a former cat burglar, and he and Campion engage in verbal jousts that are as memorable as those of Lord Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Two of the better titles in the Campion series are The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) and...

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America’s Golden Age

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

While Great Britain’s Golden Age centered on a blend of murder, humor, and manners primarily made popular by women, it was men in the United States who wrote about quirky male characters such as Philo Vance, Dr. Gideon Fell, and Nero Wolfe. Five male authors dominated this period: S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Rex Stout.

S. S. Van Dine was the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright. Van Dine’s detective, Philo Vance, like Lord Peter Wimsey, is erudite, elegant, and snobbish. He was introduced in Van Dine’s first mystery novel, The Benson Murder Case, in 1926 and appeared in eleven more novels through 1939. Van Dine himself was well educated and traveled...

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Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Magazines such as Black Mask and True Detective Stories were springboards to American mystery writers of the late 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s. Many of these writers created characters known as hard-boiled detectives—men with personal honor and integrity who lived by their own rules in a corrupt society. Dialogue in their stories tends to be terse, witty, and rapid. Women are vixens, tramps, and dames out to defile the heroes and lead them away from truth. Among the authors who epitomized this new style were Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ross Macdonald, and Mickey Spillane.

Noir fiction was even darker, with stories often told from the viewpoint of killers or characters...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Bianculli, David. Dictionary of Teleliteracy: Television’s Five Hundred Biggest Hits, Misses, and Events. New York: Continuum, 1996. Lively and often incisive discussions of hundreds of television series, including many crime shows, by a veteran television critic.

Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1984. This is one of the definitive works of criticism for mystery and detective fiction, from Edgar Allan Poe in 1841 to hard-boiled fiction in 1941.

Haycraft, Howard, ed. The Art of the Mystery. New York: Carroll...

(The entire section is 422 words.)