Mystery is a literary genre that centers around the solving of a puzzle. The puzzle is usually a question or riddle to be answered or a crime to be solved. The protagonist, along with the reader, is provided clues to the puzzle, but must also use the tools of deduction, logic, observation, and sheer luck in order to completely solve the puzzle.
Mystery fiction is very popular due to the excitement and sense of challenge aroused in the reader to solve the mystery.
A story must contain certain elements in order to be categorized as a mystery fiction. The story usually revolves around a crime. Most novels are about trying to solve a murder, but the crime isn’t always murder. The crime must function as a means to provide the question of whodunit . Detectives are also an essential element and are the main characters . The detective usually works alone, with a sidekick, or with a group of sidekicks. The detective must then conduct an investigation by searching for clues and interviewing suspects in order to solve the crime. The story usually ends when the culprit has been identified and the crime has been solved.
The origins of mystery fiction can be traced back to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murder in Rue Morge written in 1841. This story featured the first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Poe was greatly influenced by Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Dickens’ work contained many elements of mystery, however, it was Poe who shifted the focus of mystery from atmosphere to a study of the criminal mind. Wilkie Collins continued Poe’s device of the detective, but added more emphasis on characterization. Collins wrote the first full length mystery novels such as The Woman in White (1868) and The Moonstone (1868). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the next major writer of the genre to emerge with his story A Study in Scarlet (1887). This story was the first to feature the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Through his character, Doyle turned the solving of crimes into a science. Sherlock Holmes solved crimes by careful study and interpretation of evidence as well as his own powers of perceptive recognition.
The 1920’s is referred to as the golden age of mystery fiction. This period ushered in the work of some of the most famous writers of the genre such as Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett. Agatha Christie created the “Cozy” with her novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). A Cozy is a mystery in which a crime is committed in an English country house involving a closed group of people. They all become suspects in a clean murder that is solved by a great detective. Dashiell Hammett further revolutionized the mystery genre by creating the “Hardboiled.” This type of mystery focused more on realism and life on the streets. Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), introduced the character of Sam Spade and popularized the tough private eye.
The popularity of mystery fiction has created many sub genres including thriller, suspense, and true crime. It has also transcended other media such as television and film. Television shows such as CSI, Monk, and Law and Order follow the framework of mystery fiction New writers of the genre include Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, J.D. Robb, Dan Brown, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, and Patricia Cornwell. Their works are very diverse and wide in scope. As the popularity of the genre continues to grow it will continue to branch out and adapt to new innovations. The future of mystery fiction remains open and as exciting as ever.