Genre in Depth: Mystery
Genre in Depth is a new series on Fictionally Sam where we delve into different genre and see how they began, their characteristics, and books within that genre, etc. New genre every first and last Wednesday of the month!
I spy with my little brown eyes a very late post. I know what you are going to say, “aren’t these suppose to be posted on Wednesdays?” and yes Karen, yes they are supposed to be up on Wednesday– but who would have thought that mystery had so…much? I wanted to do this genre justice, and as I got deeper into my research I realized that this one was going to take more time than I originally planned and allotted for. So here we are.
Today’s installment we are going to look at the genre of mystery and all that it holds (which is a whole of a lot). As I probably have only read two series and a standalone that could be considered part of the mystery genre (thank you Nancy Drew and the Sammy Keyes series!) I found that I too learned so much about this genre, and now I am honestly really intrigued to pick up a few books in the Mystery spectrum and delve into their stories! With that said, I would like to point out that I took to my lovely friends for recommendations for books specifically for this post as I haven’t read much in the genre to be able to fully give you a recommendation. I trust their judgement 100% and if they rec it than I rec it too!
So grab your chair, get comfy, and let’s evaluate the clues!
Many believe that Mystery fiction began with the 1794 classic The Adventures of Caleb William by William Godwin, a story of a man who suspects his master of killing his neighbor and pinning the crime on a tenant with planting incriminating evidence at the murder scene. However, the predecessors of Mystery fiction actually date back to before Godwin’s novel; with roots that can be traced back to the advent of movable type it was during the 16th century that the genre took up speed and caught popularity as readers had begun to get a taste of crime solving fiction through pamphlets, chapbooks, and broadsides.
During the sixteenth century time period it was common for newspapers and other publishers to print brief and highly sensationalized accounts of criminal confessions and crimes that were going on in the city and surrounding areas of the country, which more often than not would be dispersed during the accused’s execution. These papers were usually printed eight times a year by the City of London and the County of Middlesex Sessions; The Ordinary (the chaplain) would also publish his own findings and accounts of the crimes committed, however, the Ordinary’s papers usually had a focus on the accused’s last days as well as the state of their souls.
Bending the Truth
As the years progressed, mystery fiction became something for the middle class to enjoy as the upper class turned away from the genre claiming it to be too gory and unsuitable for refined and respectable readers. In the 18th century, Daniel Defoe brought a breath of new life the genre. As a professional journalist, Defoe had a peculiar eye for spotting and writing viral stories. He recognized there was indeed a market and a people who yearned for “truth” and decided to begin defining what exactly that meant. Taking advantage of the time’s current popularity with pirates and piracy, Defoe published his 1719 novel King of Pirates, which tells the story of the real pirate Captain Avery. To give himself more logos and superiority over other biographies about Avery, Defoe included in his work two letters claimed to be written by Avery himself that spoke out on the inaccuracies of other published biographies. Defoe continued writing about the life of pirates as he began to blend in reality with fiction.
Defoe used that same technique with the Biography of Jack Sheppard–a criminal turned hero after his escape from death-cells in both New Prison and Newgate–as the piece gives a blood pumping account of certain events in his escape that was allegedly written by Sheppard himself before his final capture. The pamphlet, which can be now said is almost certainly written by Defoe, is hardly rooted in true reality. Defoe’s journalistic style and use of toying the line between truth and fiction would become a technique heavily used in the mystery fiction genre for centuries to come.
During and before Defoe’s career, readers were intrigued by the story of the criminal making him in their minds a sort of anti-hero. Everyone wanted to know his side of the story, what pushed him towards the brink of sanity and his perspective on the events that took place. However, this all began to shift towards the end of the 18th century when people’s interest switched to that of the detectives POV. According to writer, Kristen Masters, “The last significant work with a criminal as hero perfectly embodies this shift. French criminal Francois Eugene Vidocq published Memories(1828-1829), a memoir about his own exploits. Vidocq recounts how he repented and became a police informant, eventually coming to hold the post of Chef de la Surete. The book would influence authors like Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. It would also mark a new era for the crime novel, one where the protagonist is not a criminal, but a detective or other agent of the law.”
Mystery comes to America and the Golden Age
However, throughout all of this shifting, the first true detective novel would not come from neither France nor England–but rather America. Known to all as the Father of Horror, Edgar Allen Poe created in 1841 the detective, Auguste C Dupin in The Murders on the Rue Morgue. In this story, Poe introduced a new trait to mystery fiction dubbed “the locked room” where a crime is committed in an apparently sealed or locked enclosure. Rue Morgue was such a phenomenon, that Poe continued his venture in mystery fiction with The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) and The Purloined Letter (1845). With these three novels under his belt, Poe became the first author to solely focus on the workings of the criminal mind.
By the roaring twenties, mystery fiction had attained global popularity. Most set in small villages, with heroes from slightly aristocratic backgrounds and upbringings, murder weapons that reached from exotic poisons to letter openers, and red herrings that temporarily misled the detectives investigation. Even with all of the standard structures of a mystery at play with each novel that’s published, readers swarmed in drones to them, soon creating the golden age of Mystery Fiction.
The Golden age of the mystery genre not only refers to the time period but also to a prescribed formula that gives little room for variation. Stories from this genre are typically called the “apex of the [mystery] genre, embodying all of the important elements that make the form so appealing.”1 The Golden age introduced the concept of “fair play” on the author’s part, though it isn’t uncommon for the writer to withhold a vital clue until the very last possible moment. One author that has become synonymous with the Golden Age is the mystery queen herself–Agatha Christie. Bringing the legendary detective Hercule Poirot to life in her piece The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), Christie is considered the master of suspense, plotting and characterization.
As Christie gained traction and popularity in shaping the adult mystery world, mystery fiction made more headway in America as it took a new turn with the creation of the police procedural and hard-boiled subgenre as it gained traction through the television medium. Mystery novels also began to venture into children’s fiction as series like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were “often written by corporate authors and followed variations on the formula so successfully used by the English country house murder school–though the crimes were generally much less shocking than murder.”2
Today, these series remain a classic as the genre continues to be a globally thriving one. Though the genre has changed and evolved throughout time, it is one that has kept readers throughout time searching for more.
“Nothing whets the intelligence more than a passionate suspicion, nothing develops all the faculties of an immature mind more than a trail running away into the dark.” ―
The definition of the mystery genre is “a type of fiction in which a detective, or other professional, solves a crime or series of crimes. It can take the form of a novel or short story. This genre may also be called detective or crime novels. The purpose of a mystery novel is to solve a puzzle and to create a feeling of resolution with the audience.”
The main goal/focus in mystery is to solve the case and/or puzzle. The protagonist or main character is typically entrusted the position of detective and the rest of the cast are their suspects. Typically a mystery genre plot will begin with the inciting action (ex. the murder) and will heavily lean on the use of suspense to further the plot and story along and to draw the reader in further into the story. Typically time is taken within the storyline to focus on each of the supporting characters (suspects) to garner new clues and find out the motive/background story.
More often than not, Mystery genre is heavy-handed with foreshadowing (literary device that hints at events to come) as a means to raise the bar of dramatic tension. According to author David Corbett, “The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.”
Mystery novels tend to have a thematic emphasis on the question of “how can we know the truth?”
Structural Distinctions of the Mystery Genre:
- The Crime
- The Motivated investigator (typically our MC)
- The Hidden Killer
- The Cover-up (this is usually more important than the actual crime within the novel, and is what authors really are trying to solve as it is what is hiding our hidden killer)
- Inference Gaps – gaps in knowledge that forces the reader to make assumptions and be apart of the investigation
- Discovery and elimination of suspects (red herrings galore here folks)
- Evaluating clues
- Revealing and capturing the killer
Subgenres within Mystery:
- Traditional Mystery – Usually take place in a confined setting like a village or country side home. Typically identified with Agatha Christie’s work. Focuses more on the investigation of the case rather than the case itself.
- Legal Thriller/Mystery – Crime/investigation is seen through the eyes of the lawyers on the case.
- Medical Thriller/Mystery – Almost like Police Procedural (defined below), except it follows the investigation from the stand point of the doctor, medical examiner, forensic pathologists or other medical experts. Use of intelligence and knowledge instead of violence is favored as they are heavy descriptors of unusual evidence.
- Cozy Mystery – Violence and sex are downplayed and the crime takes place in a confined setting like a village or country side home like Traditional Mystery. Think Hallmark mysteries for this one.
- Police procedural – follows cops in their case investigations
- Hard-boiled (I know it sounds like the egg) – similar to crime fiction. This subgenre typically has a detective who witnesses the crime and has to work to solve it while dealing with a corrupt legal system (more often than not, the legal system is just as bad as the crime being committed). The MC’s in this tend to appear bitter because of the circumstances with those who work in law enforcement. Violence and Sex are more explicit
Themes explored within Mystery:
- Human Condition
- The Protagonist/Hero – Usually or more often than not, you will find the hero to be either a cop (present or former), a reporter of some level (present or former), or an amateur sleuth. The hero tends to possess a passion and drive to see justice through to the very end as well as an interest in human nature. The hero will always have an acute sense of empathy.
- The Antagonist/Villain – Commits crime either by accident or planned. Typically under the nose of the Hero. Uses the cover up as a unifier to the act of the violence. Great deceiver and manipulator of emotions and settings.
- Sadie by Courtney Summers (Recommended by Kal @ Reader Voracious)
- The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel (Recommended by Destiny @ Howling Libraries)
- Charlotte Holmes series by Brittany Cavallaro (Recommended by Bex @ Becca leighanne)
What do you love about Mystery Fiction? Any Recommendations?