- Definition of the Mystery Story Form
- Did Edgar Allen Poe create the modern detective story?
- The First Murder Mystery & the Deep Historical Origins of Mystery Stories
- The Ability to Read and the Fascination with Crime, Murder & Sensational Executions
- The First Serialized Mystery Stories & the Advent of the Mystery Magazine
- The First Works of the Modern Mystery Story Form
- The Mothers of the Detective Novel: Significant Contributions to the Mystery Story Form by Women
- The Locked Room & the Beginnings of the Golden Age
- Pulps, Hardboiled PIs & Noir – the Gritty, Realism of America: 1920 to WWII
- Post WWII Patriotism & the Rise of Competent Cops
- Television, Movies & the Continued Mystery of the Mystery
- A History of Murder, & the Public’s Love of a Thrilling Story
Ah, the mystery. Does any other form of the story captivate the reader quite like a whodunit, with the intrepid detective facing off with a dastardly killer?
Arguably the most popular form of fiction, it can be seen across the myriad of entertainment today, ranging from shelves of books at your local bookstore or online book retailer to the lists of television programs and movies.
But what exactly is the mystery story and where did the modern form come from?
Definition of the Mystery Story Form
Simply defined, the mystery story is a genre of fiction that sets up a puzzle and challenges the reader to unearth the clues to solve the crime or other upset in the status quo. It proposes a question, such as: Who committed the crime? How was it done? What was done and why?
It is up to the reader to follow along with the hero of the story, often a detective—whether someone who claims the title as part of a job or just an interested amateur— to find the clues that will answer the question posed.
Most readers, when they think of a mystery story, think of the murder mystery story popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie, and Dashiell Hammett, among others. These stories center around the crime of murder and the quest to bring justice by unmasking the killer. The classic whodunit.
However, the mystery story can also be written from the perspective of the crook; some mystery stories pit ‘good-guy’ crooks against ‘bad-guy’ cops. The caper subgenre typically follows the crooks as they plan and execute their crime, usually stealing some valuable diamond or art work. These fall under the heading of the inverted mystery, or the howdunit.
Mystery stories sometimes present a supposedly supernatural terror like a haunted house that may or may not have a hidden but natural cause; think of the classic Scooby Doo mysteries where a scary monster keeps the good citizens away from a house, part of town, etc., but is really just some crook who’s trying to counterfeit cash or run folks off so he can capitalize on a hidden oil reserve. Answers the questions of what and why.
Subgenres within the mystery story main genre include: the cozy, locked room, police procedural, amateur or professional sleuth, inverted or howdunit, historical, Golden Age, legal, paranormal, hardboiled, noir, Holmesian, woman/child in peril, caper/heist, espionage/spy…the list goes on.
And while many purists might not include capers or crook-centered stories, yarns about things that go bump in the night, or spy thrillers as mysteries, because they revolve around the themes of crime, theft, or violent death and carry with them a sense of suspense with a puzzle—will the daring thief outwit the bumbling cops; will the kids discover the truth behind the swamp monster mask; will the daring spy escape the evil regime to return with the dangerous information?—they fit the broad definition of the mystery form—a story with a puzzle that challenges the detective, and the reader, to answer the question: whodunit, howdunit, or whydunit?
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Did Edgar Allen Poe create the modern detective story?
Most experts, or at least most websites, claim that the modern mystery story originated with Edgar Allen Poe. He is called the “Father of the Detective Story”1 and MysteryNet.com, a leading site “for online mysteries and mystery games” that also discusses the history and origins of the literary form says that the general mystery story form “… as we know [it] today did not emerge until the mid-nineteenth century when Edgar Allen Poe introduced mystery fiction’s first fictional detective, Auguste C. Dupin, in his 1841 story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’”2
But a deeper look at the works of Poe and the mystery form of fiction shows that while Poe took the form to a new level and may have introduced readers to the concept of a detective, stories revolving around crime and its aftermath have existed almost since time began.
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The First Murder Mystery & the Deep Historical Origins of Mystery Stories
9 “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel, your brother?’ And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ 10 He said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.” Genesis 4:9‑10
Taken from the Bible’s first book, originating from the very beginnings of creation itself, this story tells of Cain murdering his brother Abel out of jealousy and God, cast as a sort of detective, seeking out the killer. Generally accepted to have been written by Moses during the Israelite wandering in the wilderness (1450 – 1410 B.C.E.), this short vignette could easily be the first murder mystery put in written form.
Many of the plays of Ancient Greece, like those of Sophocles and Euripides, included elements of mystery and certainly murder in their dramas. Roman mythology also included elements of the mystery story. Indeed, Hercules fought Cacus3, a fire-breathing giant and son of Vulcan, who stole eight of Hercules’ cattle by walking them backwards into a cave, perhaps the first instance of a crook using subterfuge to try to outwit the detective in pursuit.
Other examples of ancient mysteries include “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles (430 B.C.E.), a story of patricide; “The Three Apples” from the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (800-1300), about a dismembered body found in a heavy locked chest and the vizier’s task of solving the murder in three days; and the Gong’an, or crime-case fiction of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) involving government magistrates who solve criminal cases.4
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The Ability to Read and the Fascination with Crime, Murder & Sensational Executions
A direct result of the Renaissance and Johannes Gutenberg’s (1398 – 1468) creation of the moveable type press, the general populace of England and Europe began to learn to read. With this new found skill came the desire to read more than just the Bible and other official texts. The insatiable human thirst for drama and intrigue drew people to written accounts of executions and murder trials as recorded by local magistrates and shire sheriffs.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Newgate Calendar, subtitled The Malefactor’s Bloody Register5, a monthly bulletin of executions produced by the Keeper of the Newgate Prison in London, was a popular form of story for the general reader. Highly sensational and often embellished, these stories were biographies of notorious criminals and took a high-handed approach to preaching against crimes like murder, theft, and prostitution. They began as compilations of broadsheets and fed on the public fascination with crimes, trials and punishment. The original issue was published in 17736.
The subsequent development of professional police forces, the Bow Street Runners in London (1749) and the Sûreté in France (1812) spawned a number of supposedly carefully collected recollections of actual cases. The Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner by Henry Goddard is a prime example. Their complete genuineness and accuracy are debated.
Thomas De Quincy published a seminal work called “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” in “Blackwood’s Magazine” in 1827. It is a fictional account of a speech to a gentleman’s club on the aesthetics of murder. It had a significant influence on future mystery and crime authors and was even cited by G. K. Chesterton. It is also the inspiration for David Morrell’s (father of “Rambo”) 2014 novel Murder as a Fine Art, which puts De Quincy in the role of murder suspect in a series of ferocious mass murders in London.
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The First Serialized Mystery Stories & the Advent of the Mystery Magazine
As the demand for more stories increased from the poor and middle class readers, publishers began to print what became known as the penny dreadfuls, or penny bloods.
These cheaply produced periodicals included serialized novels and short stories ranging from Pierce Egan the Elder’s Life in London (1821 – 1824)7 to Charles Dicken’s many works including The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. Typically sold for a shilling, these works were lavishly illustrated and came out as monthly serials8.
Cheap serialized stories appeared in the late 1820s and were sold in weekly editions for a penny each. Subject matter ranged from Gothic thrillers about vampires and ghouls to sensationalized exploits of detectives and criminals. Innovations during the Victorian Era in Britain such as improvements to mass printing, the increased capacity for travel, and an increasingly literate public created a mass market for cheap, popular literature and were priced to be affordable to the working-class9.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, a new form of cheap novel gained a foothold. Called a yellowback for its distinct yellow cast covers, created using a technique called chromoxylography, which is a color woodblock printing process, these books were designed to compete with the penny dreadfuls, these book length works were often sordid and sensational, sold cheaply to satisfy the working-class tastes for torrid entertainment.
Not to be outdone by the Brits, the American mystery writers produced their own versions of the yellowback novels, soon called dime novels, story papers, and thick books. These were the early versions of what later became the popular pulp mystery magazines. Like their British cousins, the dime novels were written quickly, with sensationalist plots and lurid detail. The earliest dime novels were not mysteries, per se, but dealt with general life of the time, such as western adventures featuring real-life characters like Wild Bill Hickok.
Popular mystery characters included “Old Sleuth”, “Nick Carter” and a publication called “The New York Detective Library”, created by Frank Tousey. “The New York Detective Library”, like “The Old Cap Collier Library”, featured a single character that carried through numerous adventures and written by numerous authors.
Originally running 32 pages with a black-and-white illustration on the cover, these dime novels and related early pulp magazines evolved quickly, adding pages (up to 200 pages per issue) and Tousey introduced color covers in 1896 as a way to compete with the numerous other publishers vying for the public’s eye.
By the late nineteenth century, however, new high-speed printing techniques enabled Frank Munsey, who created the juvenile magazine “The Argosy”, to grow his title into an adult fiction magazine that became the first pulp magazine10.
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The First Works of the Modern Mystery Story Form
Cited by crime fiction historians as the predecessor of the classic crime novel, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1749) by William Godwin tells the story of Williams who suspects his master has murdered a neighbor and framed a tenant by planting evidence. Godwin is credited with doing the detective legwork himself to develop the plot, starting with the desired conclusion and working backwards to the beginning in order to spin a well formed mystery story. It is a technique still common in mystery writing11.
E. T. A. Hoffman published a novella in 1819 called Mademoiselle de Scudéri, A Tale from the Times of Louis XIV [Das Fräulein von Scuderi.Erzählung aus dem Zeitalter Ludwig des Vierzehnten]. The novella gained immediate critical and commercial success and is heralded for its exciting, suspenseful plot. Set in Paris, France during the reign of King Louis XIV, it tells of a city under siege by a band of thieves who murder citizens with a deliberate dagger thrust to the heart to steal jewels intended for illicit lovers.
Mademoiselle de Scudéri, an elderly poet soon finds herself in the midst of the crime investigation when a succession of events puts her face to face with the supposed killer. Although she herself does not solve the crime, her involvement with the young man accused makes this a fine example of a murder mystery story.
Poe, himself, is said to have been influenced by Hoffman’s thriller, as well as by Voltaire’s Zadig (1747), also a novel of crime, murder, and betrayal, when he wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morge” (1841), which introduces the first recognized detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is the archetype of the literary detective, displaying the characteristics we have come to expect, including a considerable intellect, creative imagination, and the ability to put himself into the mind of the killer. All traits made more famous by perhaps the single-most famous literary detective of them all, Sherlock Holmes.
Not long after Poe’s creation of Dupin, Wilke Collins(1824 – 1889) published what is alternatively regarded as the first true detective novel, The Woman in White (1860). The novel was so popular that “…every possible commodity was labeled ‘Woman in White’”, including cloaks and bonnets, perfume, and even music.”
The story is based on an eighteenth century case of abduction and wrongful imprisonment. The hero, Walter Hartright, was the first to use techniques later popularized by private detective stories. Collins went on to write more than 30 novels, classified today as “sensation novels”, which are seen as the precursor to detective and suspense fiction.
In 1887, Irish-Scots physician Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930) published the first in a series of short stories in “The Strand” magazine called “A Study in Scarlet”, featuring the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. Eventually appearing in four novels, 56 short stories, and countless films and television series—even called by the Guinness World Records “the most portrayed movie character” in history—Holmes perhaps exemplifies best the image of a literary detective.
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The Mothers of the Detective Novel: Significant Contributions to the Mystery Story Form by Women
The first woman to write detective and mystery fiction, American Anna Katherine Green, published The Leavenworth Case in 1878, and sold a quarter of a million copies. It earned her the title of “The Mother of the Detective Novel” because of the skilled detective work of uncovering hidden fact, often historical, that led to the resolution of the crime. Her techniques are still in use today.
Green’s success spawned a number of other successful and significant female mystery authors including Mary Roberts Rinehart (known as the American Agatha Christie, although she preceeded the famous British author by 14 years) and Dorothy Cameron Disney.
Rinehart’s style is said to have a lot in common with the later hardboiled school of detective fiction, and is part of the American school of scientific detection. She is credited with the phrase, “The butler did it.”, which appeared in her novel The Door (1930) and invented the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing with The Circular Staircase (1908). She, herself, was influential on other mystery writers including Helen Reilly and Theodora Du Bois.
Only publishing nine novels, Dorothy Cameron Disney is nonetheless seen as one of Rinehart’s most gifted followers. Death in the Back Seat (1939) and The Strawstack Murders (1938-39) were classically plotted mystery novels. Other works were more social commentary and puzzle plot stories. Her mystery stories bring her closest to the major Golden Age period and style of mystery fiction.
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The Locked Room & the Beginnings of the Golden Age
By the mid-teens, a new form of the mystery gained popularity, the so-called “locked room” mysteries. An early puzzle-style mystery, the locked room presented the detective with a seemingly impossible situation, where the victim is murdered without any way for the killer to enter or exit the room. It is simply locked from inside. The reader is presented with all of the clues and is challenged to figure out how the murderer was able to kill and then vanish into thin air.
By the mid-teens, the earliest examples of what became known as the Golden Age of mystery and detective fiction began to appear. These mysteries were part of the flourishing British detective novel movement and set the standard for the British mystery. They grew out of the puzzle stories like the locked room and were seen as pure entertainment, as games where the reader matched wits with the author. The murders themselves usually took place off stage and the stories centered around the bucolic settings of English villages and small towns.
The Golden Age stories is called the “apex of the [mystery] genre, embodying all of the important elements that make the form so appealing.”12 It is the genre of mystery and detective fiction that introduced the concept of ‘fair play’ on the part of the author, although it was not uncommon for authors to hold back a vital clue that the detective would reveal on the last page. In the late 1920s, Monsignor Ronald A. Knox (1888 – 1957) wrote “The Ten Rules of Detective Fiction”.
Specifically, Knox said that a detective story, “must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.”13
The Golden Age of mystery and detective fiction ran from the earliest examples in about 1913 through the beginning of World War II. Some of the best known British mystery writers today were of this style, including Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957), Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) and Philip MacDonald (1900 – 1980). Not to be outdone, American writers also tackled this popular form and significant contributors include John Dickson Carr (1906 - 1977), Ellery Queen (pseudonym of cousins Frederik Dannay (1905 - 1982) and Manfred Bennington Lee (1905 – 1971)), and S. S. Van Dine (1888 – 1939).
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Pulps, Hardboiled PIs & Noir – the Gritty, Realism of America: 1920 to WWII
While the British authors were creating gentile murders, the American authors of the 1920s began to write in a more “realistic” style. When Black Mask magazine was launched in April 192014 by literary journalist H. L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan, it launched a new style of mystery short story and took off where the yellowbacks and dime magazines of the nineteenth century left off. Although best known for its mystery short stories, “Black Mask” was presented “the best stories available of adventure, the best mystery and detective stories, the best romances, the best love stories, and the best stories of the occult.”
The first pulp detective magazine ushered in the era of the hardboiled detective, an anti-hero type who was often hard drinking, hard womanizing, and often at odds with the law himself. Dashiell Hammett, known for The Maltese Falcon (1930); Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep (1939); Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, and other pulp masters got their start writing for “Black Mask”. Other significant writers of the hardboiled style include George Harmon Coxe (1901 – 1984), W. R. Burnett (1899 – 1982), and Ellery Queen.
In stark contrast to the cozy style of the Golden Age mysteries in England, this American style of writing emphasized the raw edge of life. Violence was frequent and vivid. Sex played a key role, as did alcohol. The detectives were neck deep in the corruption of their day, from the mistrust of the police and authorities to the organized crime that grew out of the 1930s prohibition movement.
The hardboiled style grew in popularity as the public trust in the police and their ability to uphold the law or even follow it themselves diminished during the excesses of the Roaring ‘20’s.
A similar genre, one often confused with hardboiled, that rose during this era is the noir story. Taken from the French word for ‘black’, the term referenced the dark, harsh realities of life. But unlike a hardboiled mystery that centered around a private eye or other crime solver, the noir story focused on the average man or woman caught up in some dark situation. Often framed for murder, running for his life, the noir protagonist must evade the cops, the bad guys trying to kill or frame him and find the clues that will prove his innocence.
Or not. A major convention of the noir plot was that the innocent do not always win. Justice does not always prevail.
Significant contributors to the noir style include Hammett, as well as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1935)15.
Both hardboiled and noir styles of mystery fiction dominated the American scene through the 1930s and into the beginnings of World War II.
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Post WWII Patriotism & the Rise of Competent Cops
World War II saw a shift in the attitude of the American people towards authority figures and a similar shift in what the public wanted in their mystery fiction. As patriotism, in both America and Britain, grew out of the effects of the war, a new form of detective fiction took shape. Instead of featuring a loner private eye, it featured the intelligent, crafty and honest police detective.
Most of the police detectives portrayed in mystery fiction up until this point in history were either comic relief or mere window dressing for the crafty private detective. Ranging from Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade who frequently sought Sherlock Holmes’ help in anything but the simplest cases to the corrupt officials often portrayed in the pulp stories, police detectives were shown little respect by mystery writers, reflecting the public’s opinion of the authorities as less than helpful at best, corrupt and incompetent at worst.
With the rise in patriotism came a new found respect for government forces and authority, and along with it, the desire in the public and by the writers themselves to show the police detectives in a better light. Many of the stories centered around single police detectives like Inspector Morse of Colin Dextor’s (b. 1930) imagination to Ed McBain’s (1926 – 2005) Detective Steve Carella, featured in the 87th Precinct stories.
In addition to stories centered on a single police detective, the police procedural story found root, featuring more than just detectives. The police procedural depicts the full cadre of police teams, from detectives to forensics teams. Popularized in much of the television programs starting in the 1950s and continuing to today, the police procedural turns the classic whodunit plot on its head by revealing the murderer right away; in fact, often showing the murder as it is being committed. The thrill for the reader is the chase by the police to apprehend and bring the criminal to justice.
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Television, Movies & the Continued Mystery of the Mystery
As television and film grew in popularity and more households had access to easy entertainment just a click of a button away, the mass popularity of magazines like “Black Mask” and “Detective Fiction Weekly”, among others began to die off. So, too, did the mass market paperback novel. They didn’t die completely, as demonstrated by the continued publication of “Ellery Queen” magazine and a few others.
With the introduction of the World Wide Web, a few publications attempted to revitalize the pulp magazine style but few managed to find strong enough audiences to make a real go of it.
However, the love of the mystery still lives on, as strong as ever. According to book publishing statistics, mystery fiction constitutes between 25–28 percent of all fiction sold in the United States each year. The styles and subgenres haven’t changed and current authors regularly move between Golden Age and cozy styles to modern takes on the noir or hardboiled PI story. And even a casual look at any television listing shows many, if not most of the shows airing are some kind of mystery story, proof that the form is far from dead.
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A History of Murder, & the Public’s Love of a Thrilling Story
From the earliest gossip between tribesmen on some prehistoric plain about a murder committed out of jealousy or greed through the various incarnations of detectives, both amateur and professional, from bumbling accidental discovery of clues to organized investigation of every facet of a mystery, the fascination with murder, crime, the dark side of life has never been far from the human psyche.
And the desire to tell a lurid story, of demonstrating our greater intellect over that of an author or literary detective or our friends, has brought people together for uncounted centuries. It may be gruesome, but it’s great entertainment.