One afternoon when I was preparing to give a cruise ship talk on the mystery novel, I took an eyeball survey of the deck chairs to see what the passengers were reading. About half of the visible books were mysteries.
Not surprising. Mysteries have been a favorite for well over 100 years. Edgar Allen Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. I think it’s a klutzy story by contemporary standards (an unfair measure, of course), but it created three narrative ideas that mystery writers have used ever since:
- The crime as a puzzle to be solved by logic. The murder victims in the Rue Morgue were discovered in a room with all the windows and doors locked from the inside.
- A gifted amateur sleuth who solves a crime that baffles the police. The literary descendants of Poe’s sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, include Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
- A slower-witted comrade, such as Dr. Watson and Captain Hastings, who enables the reader to understand the case as the sleuth explains it.
Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician whose languishing practice provided time for him to write, created the detective story series in 1887. His Sherlock Holmes stories became so popular that, after Doyle had become bored with the character and disposed of him in a plunge over Reichenbach Falls, his public insisted on more Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle finally relented and, in 1903, contrived a way for Holmes to have survived and an explanation for his long absence.
In 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced a writer with a breezy, direct voice who became the acknowledged Queen of Mystery: Agatha Christi. She wrote 66 novels that have sold 4 billion copies, more than any author except Shakespeare. “The Mousetrap” is the longest-running play in history, celebrating 60 continuous years of performance in November, 2012. Her stories emphasize character and complex plots with twists and red herrings to distract the reader. The murder usually occurs off stage in a small town or defined neighborhood, which prompted the label “cozy” for this kind of mystery. The eccentric, likeable amateur sleuth discovers evidence that is dismissed by the police but always leads to the solution of the crime.
The former Pinkerton private eye Dashiell Hammett rejected the “cozy” conventions and, according to his successor, Raymond Chandler, “gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” In 1930, Sam Spade set the “hard boiled” ground rules for contemporary mystery writers like Sanford, Connelly and all the others who now create realistic crimes solved by plausible investigators.
And there are so many others: among them, P.D. James, who confronts the sensitive, poet-investigator Dalgleish with brutalities; Josephine Tey, who explores the murder mysteries of history; Scott Turow, who reveals the ironies of the system we call justice, and a personal favorite of mine, Joseph Kanon, who creates mysteries out of the events of our time.
When the mystery became less a puzzle and more murderous, it spawned a couple of descendant literary forms. Ed McBain, Joe Wambaugh and Jonathon Kellerman write police procedurals, in which the reader follows how a cop works the case – and how the case works on the mind of the cop. The thriller — think Ludlum, Forsyth and DeMille – turns the traditional mystery around. Instead of beginning with a crime and backtracking to a solution, the thriller typically begins with a criminal plot and proceeds to its frustration in the last seconds of a ticking plot clock.
All are variations on a theme that endures, perhaps because it speaks to our need to see justice served as well as to recognize our darkest possibilities. It is as old as Cain and Abel, but as new as a Twitter post.
Did I forget to mention? Weyman Jones also has some mysterious things to say.