by Teresa Kopec

#66, 17 April 2006

Mystery 101: Part I

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Having written about romance, I am now going to turn my attention to what some might call the flip side of the coin: murder. Since the 1960s, mystery fiction has been second only to romance in total sales, and last year over sixty million mysteries were sold worldwide. If any one doubts their popularity, I need only point out that, next to Shakespeare, Agatha Christie is the most widely published writer of any time and in any language. Her books have sold over two billion copies in English and another billion in over 103 foreign languages. This three-part series will examine the origins of the mystery novel, the great modern masters, and, finally, opportunities for profiting from murder - completely legally of course! This month we will review the history of the genre through the Golden Age of the 1940s.

Edgar Allen Poe is often credited with publishing the first mystery story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in Graham's Magazine in 1841. (Find a copy of that, and you'll have a real treasure on your hands.) Mystery and romance actually have a shared history. Poe and other early mystery writers were heavily influenced by the gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. Clearly, the novels of Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White and The Moonstone) owed much to Ann Radcliffe's "horrid" works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, first published in 1794.

The mystery or detective novel took a huge leap forward both in popularity and style with the arrival of Arthur Conan Doyle and his enormously popular hero, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes appeared in a total of 60 stories published between 1887 and 1927, and four novels and five volumes of short stories now often appear as The Complete Sherlock Holmes. From a book selling perspective, fans of Sherlock Holmes are rivaled only by fans of Tolkien. Anything and everything connected to Holmes, Conan Doyle, etc., is potentially collectable - and this includes items with TV and film tie-ins.

Second only to Sherlock Holmes during this period was G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown.

Father Brown first appeared in the September, 1910 issue of Storyteller magazine in a story titled "The Blue Cross." Five stories followed over the next five months, and they were later collected into book from in The Innocence of Father Brown (Cassell). Father Brown items are also highly sought after by collectors.

The period from 1920-1945 is generally accepted to be the Golden Age of mystery fiction. The writers of this time period are typically broken in to three major schools by genre historians. It is important to look at these schools because much of modern mystery writing can be linked back to them.

The first group, the intuitionists, includes writers whose detectives solved mysteries through pure thinking. Their plots tend to be extremely clever puzzles with tricky and surprising solutions. Agatha Christie's novels featuring Hercule Poirot and the delightful Miss Marple are perhaps the best known examples of this type of mystery. Other writers in this vein include John Dickson Carr, S.S. Van Dine, Ngaio Marsh, and Rex Stout. The concept of fair play was very important to these writers - that is, they presented the reader with the same clues that their fictional detectives had access to. Readers can treat the story as a battle of wits between themselves and the detective. Also, there is a minimum of blood and gore in these stories, and the focus is almost entirely on "who done it" and how.

In contrast to the intuitionists, there is the Realist School of detective fiction which flourished primarily in Great Britain and emphasized careful, realistic detective work. Various social institutions such as universities, clubs, and the police departments themselves are portrayed much as they actually are, and the reader is given an inside look into their day-to-day operations. Realist writers who are collected today include R. Austin Freeman (The Eye of Osiris) and Freeman Wills Croft (The Cask). Many also place the immortal Dorothy Sayers in this school because of the focus on alibis in many of her beloved Peter Wimsey stories (e.g., Whose Body, The Nine Tailors, etc.).

The "Van Dine School" (after S.S. Van Dine) is the third Golden Age grouping. Van Dine's first three mystery stories were plotted out and written in short form, more or less at the same time, after which they were accepted by famed editor Maxwell Perkins and expanded by V an Dine into full length novels. The Benson Murder Case (1926) introduces Van Dine's sleuth, Philo Vance. Vance is a wealthy connoisseur of the arts and amateur detective who assists the district attorney with his investigations. Van Dine's special gift was the construction of interesting, complex, book-length plots that one would more likely encounter in mainstream fiction. While he was adept at constructing good puzzles for his hero to solve, he was more interested in creating a literary work in which the puzzle was secondary to the story.

New Zealander Ngaio Marsh and her glittery stories of the theatre and art world falls into the Van Dine school as well. Two American cousins, Frederick Dannay (1905-1982) and Manfred B. Lee (1905-1971), were inspired by Van Dine to write detective fiction. Their hero (and pseudonym) Ellery Queen was the star detective of a hugely popular series of novels that spanned 42 years - as well as the influentional Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

All three schools shared something in common: The detectives in the stories were either policeman themselves (Marsh's Inspector Roderick Alleyn) or worked harmoniously with the police (Christie's Miss Marple), and it was always easy to distinguish good from evil. Developing along side of these schools was an entirely new strain of detective fiction: the hardboiled detective, a character who had to live on the mean streets of the city where fighting, drinking, swearing, poverty and death were all part of daily life. In these stories, the line between good and evil is blurred. The detective's survival often depended upon a shoot first, ask questions later approach, and the ability to puzzle out a murder is less important than the ability to fight one's way out of a jam.

American author Dashiell Hammett is most often credited for perfecting the hardboiled detective. Although not the first to write in this sub-genre, Hammett perfected the formula. He used his first-hand knowledge of the detective business to create complex and exciting plots and memorable and believable characters. Hammett worked for the famed Pinkerton detective agency until tuburculosis forced him to stop. His most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon, introduced Sam Spade, the archetypal hardboiled detective.

Hammett started his career working for the top pulp fiction magazine of the time: The Black Mask. Founded in 1920 by Henry L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, this magazine came to be associated with a style of writing that profoundly changed the face of detective fiction. Until its demise in 1950, The Black Mask featured many of the works of Hammett, as well as Raymond Chandler, Frederick Nebel, and Carroll John Daly. Be sure to pick up any copies of The Black Mask. They routinely fetch $20 and up per issue on eBay, even in suspect condition. Prices can finish much higher for issues with a Hammett or Chandler story. (Beware of modern reprints.)

Next month we'll look at how mystery novels have changed (and haven't changed) since the 1940's. For online sources on the history of detective and crime fiction, visit the following sites:

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection by Michael E. Grost

Mystery Greats Time Line, a production of

The Thrill of the Chase by Mike Ashley

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